Vanessa Williams needs help with personal branding.

No, not that Vanessa Williams. She’s already famous.

Rather, Vanessa Williams (@prpeep), a PR professional in Pennsylvania. Last week, she tweeted Dan Schawbel and said, “Hey – would LOVE to see a post on personal branding for those of us who share a famous person’s name.” So, here it is.

Sharing of famous and almost-famous names is a problem for anyone. Christopher S. Penn shares a name with Chris Penn, a semi-famous movie actor and brother of Sean Penn. Douglas Karr shares his name with Doug Karr, a writer and director of independent movies. And Eric Decker, a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, has nearly the same name as me.

My name is different enough from the Bronco’s player that it’s not an issue when people search for me, if they spell my name correctly. (There are also three guys in Belgium named Erik Deckers, but I totally own them on Google.)

But Christopher S. Penn and Douglas Karr have solved their own problem by the names they use online. Even though they’re known as Chris and Doug to their friends, they have decided to use their full name professionally, so as to distinguish themselves from their Hollywood counterparts.

Since Vanessa is our Vanessa’s full name, she doesn’t have the same option as Christopher and Douglas, but she does have other options.

The main reason to do any of this is for search purposes. Obviously, if someone searches for Vanessa’s name, they’re going to find the actress and former wife of LA Laker, Rick Fox. But by defining what name people search for, our Vanessa can guarantee that her name appears at the top of the search ranking.

  • Switch to her middle name. Assuming it’s not an awkward name like “Prudence” or “Hortense,” or anything equally eyebrow-raising, maybe her middle name is a little uncommon, which means almost no one else is using it. Our Vanessa actually has two — Brooke and Morgan — so she could use either or even both: Brooke Morgan Williams
  • Switch to a first initial and middle name. While it’s mostly men, especially lawyers, who do this, I know a woman who goes by J. Michelle professionally, and just Michelle in conversation. Or Vanessa can even stick her middle initial in front of her first name: V. Morgan Williams
  • Similarly, she can just use her middle initial like Christopher S. Penn. However, she should only use one of them, rather than both.
  • Go by all three names, first, middle, and last, at least if the middle name is short. This is more important during a job search or if you’re being hired by a consultant. Business cards and resumes should have all three names, because it tells hiring managers what to look for. A hiring manager who does a search for “Vanessa Williams” will realize the results he finds are not the ones he wanted. But a search for “Vanessa Morgan Williams” will turn up the person he was looking for.
  • Use a pen name or nom de plume. Consider it a stage name rather than a real name. One of my artist friends, Wug Laku, uses Wug as a pseudonym, and absolutely refuses to tell anyone what his real name is. The only people who know are the government and the utility companies. Another friend goes by “Heid,” and he also won’t tell anyone his real name. (I happen to know it because his dad accidentally told me.) In both cases, these men have built their personal brands around their pseudonyms, but have their real names in their wallets whenever they need them for legal reasons.
  • Change her name. Chad Johnson (#85 for the New England Patriots) had the third most common last name in the country, so he wanted to be a little distinctive from all the other Johnsons. He changed his name to Chad Ochocinco — Chad Eight-Five (not eighty-five, just eight-five). While this is a terribly drastic and inconvenient step, it can be done. Other people like Penelope Trunk did it, and she has a somewhat unusual name that is unlikely to be repeated by others. She has also created a great personal brand around the name. Besides, Vanessa Ochocinco has a nice ring to it.

Let’s face it, Pennsylvania Vanessa Williams, you’re going to fight a losing battle. Unless you save the world in a dramatic and public fashion a la Captain America, your name will always be confused with the Hollywood actress and singer. You could spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars trying to boost your rankings on the search engines and separate your name from hers, but there’s no guarantee that would even make a difference.

To avoid that whole mess, change the rules of the game, and change how people know you. Even if it’s something as simple as putting Vanessa M Williams, or Vanessa Morgan Williams, on your cards and resume, give people something else to search for. You’ll find that you’ve created your personal brand around that new identity without spending a single dime, or needing to marry Rick Fox.


Erik Deckers is the owner of Professional Blog Service, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself. His new book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing, which he wrote with Jason Falls, will be released in October 2011.