Does Personal Branding Have A Place In Academia? Case Study

29 June, 2016

Josh Felise

In a little over two weeks I’ll be standing in front of a select group of young academics from one of South Africa’s leading educational institutions.

The group is made up of professors, doctors, advocates, senior lecturers and others who are focused on becoming high achievers, not only within their particular institution but nationally and globally. These young academics are on a mission to increase their relevance and influence and in doing so, become South African’s future leaders.

These individuals are ready to build their personal brands.

Yet personal branding is seen as less than scholarly. It’s insignificant. Frivolous. Personal branding invites you to identify the best in yourself and put that identity out into the world. This makes it egocentric. Narcissistic, even.

These common beliefs, plus the fear of having your work and opinions on display for everyone to see (and therefore open to public scrutiny) and concerns about how your life might change, often make the prospect of personal branding daunting.

And so in preparing for this workshop, I asked Dr Lisa Kane, engineer, streets enthusiast, transport planner, writer, mother, lecturer and mentor, who has recently completed her PhD in Science and Technology Studies, (in other words, a woman steeped in academia) to share her pioneering experience of developing her personal brand.

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Dr Lisa Kane

Lisa, what were the frustration points you faced before you started your personal branding journey?

There were two main issues for me. One was that I felt my institutional home at UCT didn’t really fully reflect who I was altogether and so I never felt entirely comfortable with my virtual presence, business cards, letterheads. The other big issue was that as I wore a few hats, I wanted to have a brand which represented all of who I am and not only one part.

How has personal branding specifically addressed those problems?

The branding process gave me the opportunity to really think through who I am, what I want to achieve and what I stand for. I do feel that what Brandheart helped me to develop is much closer to what I am really about.

What tactics did you try before you started developing your personal brand? What were the results?

I had a LinkedIn page, had developed a plain letterhead for myself, had set up a blog and was working quite successfully, but it never felt properly professional. It was all ad hoc.

What was the big a-ha moment when you decided you needed to try personal branding?

I honestly can’t remember! But I do recall a general sense of feeling that I was being left behind, that the world was wanting me to have more of a public presence and that I needed to “get with the programme” or be left behind. I knew this would be challenging and so decided I needed professional help.

What were the top 3 things you loved about the personal branding process? Why?

1.     The support and interest of Robyn in helping me really unearth what mattered to me. I left feeling more focused and empowered.

2.     Learning about social media in all its guises, and what tools are out there. This was a big ‘wake-up’ to how sheltered I had been in academia.

3.     Being more aware of how I am seen outside of academia and the different means of communicating a message.

What factors, in your mind, contribute to a positive personal branding experience? On the flipside, what makes for a negative personal branding experience?

I think you have to feel like the branding person you work with really ‘gets’ you, and has your best at heart. They have to really understand your comfort zone and to be respectful of your boundaries as far as how much you are willing to be in/out of the spotlight. At the end of the day you need to be fully at home in your brand.

I think branding can sometimes feel corporate, about ‘selling’ yourself, and pushing yourself into the limelight. I fell into the trap of thinking I had to Tweet/update LinkedIn/blog regularly but this was not comfortable for me. After becoming a bit obsessive, and then a bit despondent about social media, I now do it in a way, at a rhythm, that suits me best.

Also, the whole logo/visual identity was a bit of a nightmare for me. I really struggled to communicate what I wanted. Next time round I will do more visual research.

What specific problems did personal branding address that other academics might be able to relate to?

As academics we like to think we live or die by our teaching and research work. If, though you have a broader vision for your work, or if your organisation is calling for more engaged scholarship or ‘outreach’ then the personal branding journey can help that specifically. I think, though, the process of defining your ‘essence’ is a valuable one regardless of what you are intending to do with your career.

Have you experienced any ‘big win’ academic results because of personal branding?

I was recently asked to be part of an international TV series on my academic specialism, and at the moment my blogs are being well circulated and used in mainstream media. I’m sure the personal branding has helped that. I was pretty invisible before then.

What’s the single biggest reason you would recommend personal branding to fellow academics?

To help you discern what you are really about.

What do you think? Is there a place for personal branding in academia? Is it for you?

Robyn Young - Personal Leadership Branding for Executives

About the Author

Robyn Young

As a personal leadership branding strategist, Robyn Young helps individuals identify and articulate their unique strengths, values and goals, empowering them to build an authentic personal brand that resonates with their stakeholders.

Robyn has a keen eye for aligning personal attributes with professional aspirations, helping her clients project a powerful and compelling image in their chosen field.