Andy J. Miller: Harness the Power of Personal Brand (Without Selling Your Soul)

We have this natural pushback against the idea of branding and personal branding because we’ve seen it abused—and it left a bad taste in our mouth. But personal brand really doesn’t have to be an icky concept.

I’ve done many interviews with inspiring creatives, and I keep seeing this thing they have in common: personal brand. In fact, I’m convinced that the difference between the average successful creative and the ultra-successful creative is having a personal brand.

So, today, I’m going to try to get to the bottom of what a personal brand is, why you need it and how you can make it work for you.

1. Why Do You Need a Personal Brand?

Business is a relationship. And like any relationship, it’s built on getting to know each other. When people know you, they can trust you. And when people can trust you, they can have a relationship with you.

In the creative world, we get incredibly hung up on the creative offering—the product and service. We think success is about our work being better than everybody else’s and our execution being more reliable, punctual, etc. And we think that should be enough. But when a client is choosing between two creatives who match on product or service, they’re going to choose the person they know, like and trust. This is where personal brand comes into play.

Now, getting out there and hustling, sending unsolicited emails to people you want to work with, saying “here’s my work, you wanna pay for it?” does not build trust. You also need to build a personal brand that lets you be knowable enough to land those gigs. Otherwise you’re a stranger trying to sell God-knows-what, and the client’s default state will be skepticism and doubt.

And, really, this is something we all get and live with, whether we’re hiring a plumber or a dog-walker. We want to know who these people are before we let them in our home. And the business we choose? It’s often personal brand that makes the difference.

2. What Is Personal Branding?

Personal branding is any activity you do to build trust with your audience and to stand out.

a. Why You Need to Build Trust

Here’s why you need trust: You need trust because business is more than a transaction, it’s a relationship. When you enter a business relationship, you need to know that the person will be there for you, not just when the project starts, but when it’s down to the wire.

When that Art Director hires you, when that agent reaches out to you, they are banking on you and risking their own names and reputations—perhaps even their careers, depending on the scale of the investment. So they need to be able to trust that working with you is not going to come back and bite them on the ass.

Some random portfolio might look superslick. But if you’ve never heard of the name and the portfolio itself doesn’t give you a sense of who’s behind the work, odds are you won’t trust it. You’ll ask questions like:

  • Who is this person?
  • Do you need to vet them?
  • Is the work they’re showing even their own?!

When we don’t yet have a personal relationship that fills us with trust, we only have mistrust.

Your personal brand helps people trust you because it answers those questions, provides a biography and narrative about who you are. And then they feel you’re not going to make them look stupid or put their role and reputation at risk.

Now, one reason the idea of sharing yourself hits a nerve is because a lot of people have social anxiety. The internet has been great for those people; they can hide behind their website or portfolio like it’s a comfort blanket. But the internet hasn’t really changed those fundamentals of relationships: Success isn’t just about hard skills. The soft skills of knowing how to relate to people need to be present and demonstrated too. This can be difficult for introverted creatives who want to work alone in their home and studio and just make the stuff.

Here’s one little bit of encouragement though: When you go to conferences and meetings, remember that a large percentage of the people you’re meeting are also nervous. Even the people who go up on stage. In fact, most of them are like you: They like to make work and they like to be known through the work they’re making; that’s how they express themselves. They feel more comfortable expressing themselves through their creative work than in conversation.

But they also know that if you want to take what you’re doing from average to ultra-successful, a big part of that comes with the soft skills of meeting people, building relationships and letting people in. They push past “the fear” and you can too.

b. Personal Branding Helps You Stand Out from Everybody Else

There’s another side to personal brand: Standing out. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean being flashy. But it does mean being different and memorable.

  • How do you stand out?
  • What are your core values and guilty pleasures?
  • What makes you different, both as an individual and as an artist?

The answers don’t really matter, actually. All that matters is that you come across as being a little bit different than everybody else.

Sometimes we get hung up on “standing out,” meaning being super different, special and powerful. But you can simply be different in ways that resonate with you personally—it’s not about “fictioning” something. Standing out is really just being yourself.

One thing that makes us deride personal brand is a mistake many people make: They see somebody who’s successful on social media or in the creative world and instead of thinking “oh it’s working for them because they’re being themselves,” they think “it’s working for them because they’re them and I need to be like them too.” That’s actually the exact opposite of what personal brand is supposed to be.

So think about personal brand not as wearing a mask to make you appear like a different person and more about being yourself. Think of personal branding as less about wearing a mask and more about setting a boundary. Again, there’s no right answer. But where you set that boundary—whether you share your personal life and history, or just your quirky taste in music and movies—also says a lot about who you are.

3. The Non-Icky Way to Think About Personal Brand

This journey of personal brand doesn’t have to be just skin deep. For me personally, my art career got really good when it became much more personal.

One myth that is perpetuated in the creative world is that if you’re a true artist, you’d be making stuff alone on an island, regardless of whether somebody would see it. But I think this ignores 50% of the idea of making creative work, which is about connecting with people. Our creativity and art is a core way that we communicate who we are with the world.

Years ago, I did a project called “NOD.” It was a daily project where I drew a new character every weekday for a year. The purpose was to make my work more personal and original. So I went on this journey of self-discovery and tried to dig really deep into my past, my childhood and into my visceral experience. I started to become a note-taker of myself.

I think that you see this across the board in great creative people. You see it with stand-up comics who are always noticing and observing life, observing their own emotions and how they’re responding to what happens around them—being introspective. So I think that your work and your personal brand is really going to come to life when you have a deep understanding of who you are.

In this way, “personal brand” isn’t just a label you slap on your portfolio and a social media presence, it’s actually deeply symbiotic with your work and with your identity as an artist. And when you stick to your guns on what your “personal brand” is, there will come a point where you’re willing to turn down the wrong customers and when you’re willing to sacrifice the wrong audience. It will be a source of integrity rather than the icky thing it’s often portrayed to be.

So, I really urge you to let go of all your baggage about the concept of personal brand. Stop thinking about personal branding as a superficial (at best), phony (at worst) exercise. Instead, see it as a radical act of self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-confidence.

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about the author

Commercial Artist & Podcaster Andy J. Miller is a commercial artist who breathes life and weirdness into simple shapes. He specializes in brand collaborations, advertising illustration, kids market illustration, editorial illustration, gig posters, album art, hand lettering, mural design, visual development for animation and book design. Listen to his podcast, Creative Pep Talk.