There’s a difference between sales and branding. What job-seekers need is sales. Branding has nothing to do with individuals (unless they’re major public figures, big businesses in themselves).

When I was freelancing in New York City, I did a fair amount of work on branding projects for branding agencies and big ad agencies that offered branding services. I was at Gerstman & Myers for a year and a half or so, as their resident word mechanic and typographic QC person. (G&M was one of the nation’s best-known packaging and branding consultancies, later merged with Interbrand.)

Branding is for businesses, and especially for big businesses that have to set themselves apart from only a small field of competitors—businesses whose products are well known to the general public. Think Coke and Pepsi.

Most typically, the customers of these branded businesses are buyers of consumer goods. (More generally, they could be any seller, usually with a small number of competitors and a very large number of customers who make frequent purchases.) These consumers don’t search out and “interview” sellers every time they make a purchase. Rather, they purchase by habit, and branding is meant to reinforce the habit. The names of the sellers are already known, their names and logos may be kept in constant public view even outside of the stores, and their products are already on the shelves for immediate purchase.

The function of a brand is less to point out differences between the competing companies and their products—there may not be any decisive differences—as it is to keep the company names in the minds of consumers, with positive associations. This is done in the hope that it will influence millions of consumer choices.

Sometimes, a branding program can emphasize some competitive advantage—real or imaginary—that one company’s product may have. But it has to be a very simple point. Branding—logos, slogans, product names, portrayed attitudes, associations with things outside the company, etc.—is too crude a tool to make a distinction that depends on a number of details.

However subtle may be the thinking that goes into creating the concept behind a brand, and the brand’s verbal presentation (if any), the actual delivery of the branding message is a matter of brute force employed on a large scale. (The scale may be smaller when the customers are, for example, thousands of businesses rather than millions of consumers. But it is still a far larger scale than anything one person ever does, unless that one person hires millions of dollars’ worth of help.) Branding, by the companies that rely heavily on it, is carried out through ongoing, often intensive, advertising and publicity campaigns. Branding is conducted for its large-scale effects, not for the sake of a single sale.

Businesses with many competitors, or whose specialized products are not well understood by the public—or sometimes even by the people who buy them—do not invest much in branding, beyond a nice logo and graphic and typographic standards that make for an appearance appropriate to a reliable, up-to-date business. Instead, they rely on skilled, knowledgeable, and active sales forces, often backed up by technical sales specialists.

Job seekers have many, many competitors, and they may have complex skill sets and backgrounds. They are focused on making a single sale. They are not concerned with creating a climate of public opinion. They do not have brute-force image-delivery methods at their disposal.

On the employer’s side, the decision is one that can have serious consequences, and thus one that gets a good deal of attention—much more important and laborious than deciding whether to buy a Coke or a Pepsi. The employer has to consider the whole set of skills, experience, and personal qualities belonging to each applicant. One applicant might be the best fit for one employer, another the best fit for another. Therefore, the employer needs the fullest possible information about each applicant. The more information the decision-makers on the employer side have, the surer they will feel about their judgments.

What could “branding” mean to a job-seeker? A single image or fact or concept that would make that one job-seeker stand out from all others in the applicant pool? But why would an employer base a hiring decision on one single image, fact, or concept? And what if all the applicants have a brand? How will the employer make a decision then? The decision will be made based on the particular facts of the applicant’s background, as shown in the résumé and in interviews.

“Okay,” says the branding advocate, “in the case of a job-seeker, branding should be defined as the sum total of that person’s skills, experience, and personal attributes.” But there’s already a word for the approach and technique and skills that seek to get the sum total across. It’s “sales.” Sales deals in bodies of information that can vary from fairly simple to highly complex, that can’t be packed into a brand but instead have to be combined and presented to each of a small number of prospects. Sales has requirements very different from, and a lot more concrete and specific, than those of “branding.” What’s the point of giving it the name of something different, and thus confusing the issue of what goes into it?

A job-seeker has to do sales, not branding. (It’s always felt like sales, hasn’t it?)

The real key to an effective résumé—a résumé that is a sales tool—is concrete information that answers the employer’s questions, in enough detail to make you stand out from similarly qualified people—often a large number of them, especially at earlier stages of screening.

It also creates a positive general impression of you in the minds of those who read it. And hopefully, they will remember you. They may not even remember your name at this stage, let alone some personal “brand” distinct from what they’ve seen on your résumé and heard from you in interviews and other contacts. It may not even be possible to guess just what they will remember.

But, if you’re reasonably well qualified, a résumé that has shown them lots of relevant information, in a form that they can read easily and later scan at any desired level to refresh their memory, is your best means of giving them something that they will remember. They’ll remember you as “The woman who worked for [insert name of leading competitor, vendor, or customer],” or “The guy who did the [such-and-such] project for [so-and-so],” or “The one who was out in [location] when they had the troubles there.” But they’ll probably remember something that serves as a tag for the general impression made by your skills and experience. A good résumé that makes its points and tells relevant stories clearly will provide a number of candidates for such remembrance.

Putting that information in a résumé also takes care of much of the requirements for keywords (SEO, searchability, etc.). This includes keywords that nobody could have anticipated that the employer would be looking for.

Such a résumé also serves as a resource for the salesperson—you. You review it before an interview to refresh your memory of the sales points and the stories they tell. After I’ve spent two or three hours interviewing you to dig out information you might never have thought to mention, you’ll probably be glad of the chance to review it.

Branding versus Publicity

Apparently, there are also people who think that they are building a “brand” by promoting themselves on LinkedIn or other media. That’s not branding. That’s “publicity.” You are publicizing yourself. That may not sound as nice, but it’s not a bad idea, within reasonable limits. On LinkedIn, it can also be a networking tool.

However, publicity, like sales, is another well-established business specialty, with its own distinct methods and concepts. Calling it “branding” just confuses things.

In particular, recognizing it as publicity might prompt people to think that there is good publicity and bad publicity, effective publicity and ineffective publicity. “Branding” is just a buzzword that is meant to distract people from such considerations—with the intent of selling them something while preventing them from looking too closely at the real-world results of what they’ve bought.

Good, effective publicity, especially for individuals, typically requires quality content that the reader hasn’t seen before. Blasting out posts and articles is not good publicity and not effective publicity. It’s just a nuisance, especially to people who are following you on LinkedIn or other social media.

When it becomes a common practice, it destroys the usefulness of the medium. The medium becomes an echo chamber, with no one listening but the people who think they’re getting somewhere by shouting into it. This seems to be the inevitable fate of all social media—including the social media aspects of LinkedIn.








“To take a liberty with technical language is a crime against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech.”

— Joseph Conrad (famous writer and literary stylist in English, who had previously worked his way up from steward to able seaman to ship’s captain, and moved from writing his native Polish, to French, to English), The Mirror of the Sea, ch. 2, sec. IV