How Much Should Your Identity Influence Your Personal Brand?
Storytelling Communications

How Much Should Your Identity Influence Your Personal Brand?

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I’ve always been fascinating with branding, especially from the perspective of a creative freelancer and small-businesses owner developing my personal brand. And let’s forget about branding in the overall sense of fonts and colors and head shots and social media for a moment. I’m talking about how a self-employed professional’s personal identity sneaks its way into their branding—how just being who you are and sharing glimpses into your personal story creates a public persona for others to know or judge you by.

Take me, for example. If you’ve been reading my writing for the Content Standard, you know that I have two children and ADHD. Just by sharing that with my readers, it becomes a part of who I am as a professional writer. While I tend to lean toward always being vulnerable in my work, I do question how much of myself to make public and how much to keep private. I asked five other writers how sharing major parts of their identity developed their brand, and whether or not doing so helped or hurt them professionally. Here are their stories.

On Diabetes

Kerri Sparling was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just before she started second grade. She says, “I’ve been living with diabetes for over 31 years, and for every moment in my life that I can remember, diabetes was there. From learning to ride a bike to going on my first date to graduating college to giving birth to my children, ‘with diabetes’ is the prepositional phrase that has dangled off it all. The learning curve is life-long, and at times intense.

“Writers are often encouraged to ‘find their niche,’” she says, “but in my case, my niche found me. By sharing my experiences as a person living with type 1 diabetes, I’m able to advocate and educate about the disease I live with every day while simultaneously honing my skills as a writer.”

Sparling continues, “Regarding diabetes as ‘part of my brand’ would mean acknowledging that I have some kind of personal brand. I’m not sure that’s actually true. I do know that diabetes has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I also know that I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Writing about my personal experiences with diabetes as part of my career path has been a healthy and introspective collision of my head and my heart. Or, perhaps more accurately, my head and my pancreas.”

However, she does stress that writing about your life may not be for all writers. Sparling says, “Writing about a personal health issue, or any other kind of topic that makes you feel potentially vulnerable, is a decision that each writer has to make for themselves. As it stands now, I’m not able to apply for a job without my potential employer knowing about my disease once they throw my name into a search engine. But the benefits outweigh the risks, as I’ve found hundreds of people with diabetes to connect with; a stark contrast to spending so many years managing this disease without peer support. My health is better for it.”

personal brand

Image attribution: Sarah Swinton

On Being Single

Cara Strickland writes about food, drink, faith, and being single. But exactly how did she come to write about her relationship status regularly? “As Nora Ephron was known to say, I realized that my life was copy,” says Strickland. “When I wrote about singleness, I found that people connected to that in a special way. There were lots of people who wanted to feel less alone and wanted to see their own experiences reflected in writing.”

She continues, “I think that reading pieces where I am honest about my experience as a single person helps people to see me through a more human lens. Maybe that isn’t what every writer is going for, but in my writing about singleness, I’m hoping to show solidarity, give encouragement, and sometimes make people laugh. I’d always read essays from someone who I feel like I could be friends with, someone who stands out from the words on the page, I think my topic aids in that.”

Strickland doesn’t think making a huge part of your identity integral to your professional brand is right for every writer. “I’d say that it’s definitely not for everyone. Just as people have to think about any personal information they are choosing to share—whether that’s their children’s eating habits, their sex lives, or their DIY journey, it’s vulnerable to put yourself out there (rather like dating). It’s always possible that people will reject you, or simply disagree with you. When it’s about how you’re living your life, that can sting a bit more.”

But how would getting into a relationship alter, if at all, her overall brand? Strickland says, “I’ve thought about this a fair amount, mostly because I do hope that I’ll eventually meet someone. I think of singleness a little like I think about any field. I read about it, I write about it, I’m always talking to people about their experiences and mining my own life for information, it’s an area of research even though it’s also my personal experience. I hope that even if I do couple up in the future, that research and lived experience will still be valuable. But I also know that at that point, other opportunities may present themselves as well.”

On Disability

Melissa Blake was born with the genetic bone and muscular disorder Freeman-Sheldon syndrome. “It’s characterized by joint contractures of the hands, feet, and knees,” she says, “When I was born, all my joints were incredibly tight, and I’ve had more than 26 surgeries to correct those deformities, as well as surgery to correct scoliosis and surgery to correct a brain stem compression. I’ve used a motorized wheelchair since elementary school, which has been such a saving grace in fostering my independence!”

While some writers can consciously make the decision of what they want to include, or exclude, from their brand, Blake didn’t quite have that opportunity. She says, “Honestly, I’m not really sure that I ever made a conscious choice to have my disability be part of my brand. My disability is such a part of who I am, so I think it’s only natural that it would be a part of my brand too. My life with a disability and disability issues are two of the main things I write about, in addition to relationships and pop culture. But at the same time, the those three areas (relationships, disabilities, and pop culture) are all intertwined because I’ve written relationship pieces that looked at the disability angle and pop culture pieces that looked at disability issues within pop culture. So basically, my disability does permeate many aspects of my life, so the fact that it’s a huge part of my brand isn’t surprising at all.”

Her advice to writers trying to decide how much of their life they should allow into their brand is to simply be themselves. Blake says, “The important thing is to be yourself; that’s really what branding is all about, so I think it’s important to inject some part of your identity into your brand. Don’t try to pretend to be someone you’re not because people will pick up on that right away. Be authentic and genuine.”

She continues, “Bringing my disability into my brand is most definitely helpful. Like I mentioned earlier, my disability is a part of my identity. There’s no denying that or getting around it. I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. For one thing, my red wheelchair gives me away right away! So if I can represent the disability community, it’s really important to me that I be a positive voice. There are so many negative stereotypes about people with disabilities and I hope I can shatter even just some of those stereotypes through my writing.”

On Religion

Ardelia Lee is a writer and mentor who grew up in the church. Recently, belief in God not only saw her through a major shift in business but it guided her through a complete rebrand and rebuild of her business.

Lee says, “My faith became part of my personal brand when I still worked as a copywriter. I had started strengthening my faith and really diving into my Bible, and it just naturally happened that I started sharing my faith with others. I found myself in love with God, so it just made sense for me to talk about Him with my audience. It was probably around September 2017 that I really started to own my faith and talk about being Christian and my beliefs. I was afraid that I’d get negative backlash from people when I opened up about my faith, but the responses really just ranged from supportive to apathetic.”

She continues, “I believe that writing about my faith has definitely helped me professionally. It hasn’t brought any new clients in, but it did prepare me for the closing of one business and the opening of a new one. I believe it also helped me position myself as a down-to-earth Christian. My goal was (and still is) to show that Christians are just like everyone else. We have problems. We’re not perfect. We yell at our kids. I think sometimes Christians get a bad rap because we (sometimes unintentionally and sometimes intentionally) walk around with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude.”

And Lee doesn’t believe that writing and mentoring about religion has compartmentalized her, either. “I actually believe that it’s opened up more topics for me to explore. I would likely look at topics with a faith-based slant—so marriage from a Christian perspective, etc.”

She also feels that bringing identity into a brand is helpful for professionals. “I love bringing in pieces of me and working them into my content and my brand.” says Lee. “For instance, I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan, and one of the things I love doing is referencing LOTR whenever I can, especially if it’s a ‘one does not simply’ reference. Because really, one does not simply love LOTR and not reference the memes. I also think that working parts of me into my brand helps it stand out more. People will think of me as the introverted, LOTR-loving, Christian copywriter/mentor. And I’m OK with that. I think it’s actually beneficial to be viewed that way.”

personal brand

Image attribution: Patrick Fore

On Illness

Stephanie Harper is a freelance writer and editor who’s been struggling with a condition called new daily persistent headache (NDPH) for over four and a half years. She has a constant, unremitting headache with frequent spikes in pain that also cause other symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity, and neurological symptoms such as numbness and tingling. Here she examines her feelings on how her headache became a part of her professional story.

“When my headache first started,” says Harper, “I stopped writing completely. I was overwhelmed by both my condition and my search for answers. It wasn’t until I started writing about my headache experience that I got back into the habit and started feeling like a writer once again. I think in this way, my personal brand developed organically out of writing about chronic illness. When I decided to pursue freelance writing professionally on a full time basis, a good portion of what I’d been publishing was about my experiences and that’s what I had to offer in terms of publications. Beyond that, so much of what I do, in both my creative work and my client work, is about storytelling, about creating and sharing narratives. It’s an identity thing, a very human thing, and my headache is just a part of who I am.”

While Harper’s experiences may be difficult, she’s found a way to turn them into something meaningful. She says, “Writing about my headache has certainly opened a lot of doors for me. There is a need for people to write about their experiences with chronic illness and I have been fortunate enough to add my voice. Beyond that, my need to take control of my life in the midst of chronic illness was what pushed me to finally commit to a full time freelance career. I can’t say this is what I would have done if I hadn’t needed to search deep inside myself for what was best for me and my health situation.”

Harper isn’t quite sure whether niching down as a writer on illness has helped or hurt her. She says, “It hasn’t greatly affected the kind of content writing or client work I do. I write on a number of subjects. However, I do think that the more I publish personal essays about my experiences with chronic illness, the more I become the ‘headache girl.’ I’ve never wanted to be defined by my pain, personally or professionally, and sometimes writing about those experiences can seem a bit like low-hanging fruit. I have so much to say about illness that sometimes I forget that I have a lot to say about other topics as well.”

Choosing whether to allow parts of your identity to intersect with your professional brand is a big decision for any creative freelancer. Have you struggled with how vulnerable you should be in your writing? Let us know in the comments.

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Featured image attribution: Easton Oliver

Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at www.erinollila.com.

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