For most people there is one path to recognition, status and authority—slaving away, day in and day out, mastering a craft, drawing attention to achievements, and hoping that one day all that hard work will coalesce into a recognized personal brand. There is, however, the exception: the Accidental Personal Brand. This is the person who emerges from the ether, gains the attention of the masses, and benefits from the opportunities that inevitably come with an attentive audience.
To most of us, these lucky few are supremely unworthy. If, for example, you’re a struggling (but talented!) writer, who hunches over your computer for several hours a day working endlessly to entertain your audience and build your platform, you likely cringe whenever you hear that the Internet phenomenon du jour has secured a book deal with an unheard-of advance, based on a blog started on a whim.
And I can’t help but agree that to the untrained eye, most Accidental Personal Brands (APBs) seem to have nothing more than dumb luck on their side, but—stick with me here—not all accidental personal brands are untalented or undeserving. And either way, what’s important here is that we can learn quite a bit from the paths they take—from the very non-deliberate way in which their personal brands emerge to the very deliberate ways in which they capitalize on the opportunities that follow.
But first, a look at some of the most compelling recent APBs:
Joe the Plumber rocketed from a random commenter on Obama’s small-business tax policy to the mascot for middle-class America. He’s since released a book, signed a record deal, made more than a few paid personal appearances, and the list goes on. Jared Fogle lost nearly 100 pounds on his Subway sandwich diet, but gained national attention, a 10-year stint as the Subway spokesperson and a slew of speaking gigs. After Ken Jennings won 74 games of Jeopardy!, he was added to the Guinness Book of World Records, he wrote two books, secured a regular column with Mental Floss, and continues to entertain several media opportunities.
Jon and Kate Gosselin managed to transform their sextuplets into a media empire, including a reality show, books and speaking engagements; a ton of cash, and a high-profile divorce. Octomom secured an upcoming reality show that will feed the country’s obsession with her and her octuplets. Levi Johnston got national recognition for getting a vice presidential candidate’s daughter pregnant and continues to capitalize on his newfound fame—although his long-term success as an APB remains to be seen. Bloggers are plucked out of the blogosphere daily for book deals and other opportunities.
So now for the real question: What are the key elements that distinguish these APBs and how do they compare to the steps you’re taking to build your personal brand?
5 common traits
Subject matter. Whether inane or ingenious, the content or actions that got our favorite APBs noticed are authentic. All too often people over think their messages/content/actions in attempt to cater to the perceived needs of their target audiences, but being formulaic and over-curating your every move are tactics that are at odds with accessibility, transparency and passion—the qualities that generate real audiences.
Audience building. Their audiences came to them, not the other way around. This is not to say that this is the only way, or even the best way, to build your audience, but it’s worth noting that our sample APBs’ audiences congregated around what was offered (whether its value was sheer entertainment, informational or otherwise). Many disproportionately focus on getting more followers, more email addresses or just more attention—essentially spending more time shamelessly promoting themselves—than on offering value to these audiences. Think of the so-called “experts” or “gurus” you find on Twitter. You know the ones—they’ve got 50,000 followers, are following 60,000 people, and don’t have an expert or guru-esque tweet to speak of. So, no matter how big their audience, they don’t own it, and therefore won’t be able to leverage it as a selling point.
Platform agnostic. These APBs transcend platform. None of them are limited to writing, blogging, speaking, singing or any one other thing. Although they might have been discovered for one of these things, their personal brand is versatile and goes beyond the competency responsible for their rise to notoriety. Essentially, they are the brand and revenue streams flow outward from what they’ve established.
Continual brand reinforcement. In other words, don’t rest on your laurels waiting for the next opportunity to come to you. This is one piece of advice that APBs tend to bypass, which is why so many of them fade into oblivion after their fast rise to prominence. The key is to have complete ownership over your assets and your audience. Depending on your goals, this could mean the regular production and distribution of thought leadership, publishing your own book (without somebody else’s green light), or creating videos and other online content that allow you to speak directly with your audience, and keep them coming back to YOU for more.
A pivotal moment. For each one of these people there was a pivotal moment when they were confronted with an opportunity, whether related or unrelated to their original platform. And the decisions they made at that moment is what may very well determine their staying (or going) power. When building your personal brand, you might have very specific goals in mind, but the opportunities that result aren’t always in sync with your plans. If your only plan is to make the most money as quickly as possible, then take what you can get. If, however, you want to build a long-lasting empire, well then, you’re better off bypassing the accidental and focusing on the strategic.