Schawbel is the 28-year-old managing partner of Millennial Branding who has, by practicing his own advice, become a bestselling author, syndicated columnist, and nationally sought-after speaker on digital marketing. His target audience is his own Generation Y peers, but his followers, including 127,000 on Twitter, transcend generations. His hero and inspiration is Tom Peters, whose management book In Search of Excellence was published before Schawbel was born.
Peters himself has said that Schawbel "has taken personal branding to a dimension a million miles beyond where I was." Schawbel credits the technologies that have become available since Peters' heyday. Social networking platforms make it affordable for individuals to leverage the same strategies marketers have used for decades to build corporate brands. "Now everyone in the world can have a Facebook or LinkedIn profile or an About.me page or their own website at no cost," Schawbel says.
What is a personal brand anyway? "You and me and Oprah and anyone in the world has a personal brand," he says. "It's what people would say about you when you're not in the room. How they describe you to other people." More and more, those exchanges are taking place in virtual networks. Carefully curating your online presence can influence the conversation.
"Developing your brand is about unearthing what's true and unique about you and communicating that to the right audience through social networks," Schawbel says. "You want a consistent brand. In person you have to be the same as you present yourself online."
He points to Alltop founder and venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, personal finance guru Suze Orman, and "techonomic" expert and journalist David Kirkpatrick as personal branding success stories. Each carved out a specialty within a broader profession.
To be sure, those experts operate on a national scale, but Schawbel argues that personal branding is easier to do on a local level. "If you're just trying to serve the people in your community, start providing valuable resources to them," he suggests. "Hold contests, give discounts, invite them in, host live events, and give free champagne at your opening. Investing a lot in just one community won't cost much and if that works you can expand."
There's no reason for local retailers and mom and pop shops to shy away from this approach. "Store owners should brand themselves as experts relative to what the business sells. If you're an Italian restaurant you want to be branded as a guru about the culture and different dishes," Schawbel advises. "Ask, 'how do I make a niche for myself?' If you try to be everything to everyone, you'll be nothing to anyone."
What does he say to the entrepreneur who is too busy running the business to develop an online presence? "It depends on your business, but you have to make sacrifices. Block off time every day or at least weekly," he says.
After all, a personal brand can make or break an entrepreneur in the service industry, and it can help you recover faster from failure. "People want to work with people they like. If you're a lawyer or dentist or accountant or real estate broker, building relationships with people has to be a primary focus," Schawbel says. "The way I look at it, if your business fails, you're in trouble, but if you've built a brand, you can leverage that to start a new business."