If you’re a follower of this blog or a student of personal branding in general, then you probably know that your image (i.e. your brand) is made up of two things: how you see yourself and how others see you. Recently I wrote about creating a vision board as an exercise in self-discovery but, if you want the full picture, you’re going to have to analyze external opinions as well.

In a former life, I worked for a marketing agency that placed a high value on research. Before we could even think about starting on design schemes for a client, we would conduct personal interviews with employees, managers and customers, followed by online interviews and focus groups with regional business leaders.

It’s a complex process designed to answer a very simple question, i.e. what is the USP, or Unique Selling Proposition, of this company? A USP is the one thing that differentiates a product or service from its competitors. For Volvo cars, it’s safety. For Jimmy John’s sandwiches, it’s speed. For Secret deodorant, it’s strength. There are countless others and the best marketers know that, regardless of their talent, they cannot just “invent” a USP. Much like personal brands, a corporate brand – if inauthentic – is nothing more than a stunt, and it will fall apart over time.

So, in an effort to uncover their personal USP, last week I had my MBA students create a Zoomerang survey about themselves. They asked softball questions like “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of me”, ultimately building up to tougher-to-swallow questions about weaknesses and leadership ability.

Overall, I believe they learned a lot from the exercise, but I’ll share with you what I learned about the process should you decide to launch a survey of your own.

What comes to mind when you think of me

Get the right mix of respondents. This could be a blend of family, friends, professors, coaches, coworkers, your boss, and so on. The point is to poll people who know you from different areas of your life so you gain a true composite. Some of my students only polled their friends, which made the survey less valuable than it could have been. Also, you want to make sure you have at least 20-30 respondents, meaning you should probably send the survey to 40-50 individuals.

Ask the right questions on the front end. The students who only asked surface, positive questions didn’t benefit nearly as much as the ones who really dug deep. Some students discovered (much to their surprise) that the image they thought they were sending didn’t come close to the one others were receiving. Which brings me to my next point…

Learn as much from the negative as the positive. Of the students who were brave enough to ask tough questions, a few were disappointed (even upset) with the answers. It’s not easy to discover that you’re not a team player or that others judge you as unreliable. I get that. However, if the point of conducting a survey in the first place is to learn about ourselves, then we should be grateful for all of the information, regardless of how difficult it is to hear. Despite the title of this bullet, I actually think we learn more from constructive criticism in this instance than praise. Think about it: if there were no criticism in the world, how would we ever improve?

As you seek to discover and create your own personal brand, consider this type of external survey. Assuming you follow the rules above you may hone in on your own USP but, like Secret, be strong enough to handle the results.


Emily Bennington is the author of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job. She hosts a popular blog for career newbies at www.professionalstudio365.com and can be found on Twitter @EmilyBennington or via email at ebennington[at]msn[dot]com.