Personal Branding for Professionals – how your appearance matters
Personal Branding and Professional Brands are often discussed together as if they are opposites, which is ironic because for most professionals your professional brand is very much a personal brand.
Professionals primarily deliver their clients value by their services (rather than products) and these services are usually tailored to the individual, and thus personal in nature. As a result professionals tend to develop strong relationships with their clients, and their clients in turn bond to “their” provider.
This means that to a great extent your professional brand is your personal brand.
But it gets more interesting: clients of professionals generally have no way of knowing the quality of the services they are receiving from a technical perspective – they can’t assess how good a surgeon is with a scalpel for example, or how much research and knowledge a lawyer has contributed to a task.
So how do client’s assess the skill, quality and value of their professional service provider? They use Proxies.
Personal Appearance as a Proxy for Professional Service Quality
Proxy: a figure that can be used to represent the value of something in a calculation.
In our study, a majority of respondents indicated that it was important for physicians to be neatly groomed, be professionally dressed, and wear visible name tags, but not necessarily a white coat. Despite these self-reported preferences, when patients’ families selected their preferred physician from a panel of photographs, respondents strongly favored physicians wearing traditional attire with the white coat. Traditional attire was associated with perceptions of knowledge, honesty, and providing best overall care. Physicians wearing scrubs were a second choice among participants and were perceived to be caring and competent to perform a lifesaving procedure.
Clearly, a doctor’s skill level doesn’t change the moment they put a lab coat on, or when change into jeans and a T-shirt, but in the absence of other ways to assess qualities like skill, caring and honesty people fall back to those things we can all assess: Are they dressed as I expect, are they smiling, do they remember my name.
While there has been a lot of research done on this topic in medical and legal settings, these principles generalise to almost all areas of life.
Our brains are constantly looking for social cues that tell us who people are, why they matter and how they relate to us. Robert Cialdini’s landmark book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, points out that people are strongly influenced by perceived authority, to the point where they will be more likely to follow a request by an individual wearing a uniform (almost any uniform will have an impact, even if not giving authority in that specific situation) or a suit.
Uniform and physical appearance are just the most obvious of many subtle and not-so-subtle cues our brains look for when evaluating others.
To a large degree, personal branding for professionals needs to confirm our authority as a professional while supporting this with our authenticity as an individual – be a real person.
While there are specific cues that people look for within each professional, what is probably more informative is the things that turn people off. These are often conserved across different industries:
Warning: This list will sound like what you mother and boss have been telling you your whole life!
For positive professional appearance, avoid
- Visible Tattoos
- Visible Piercings
- Too much skin exposure – long sleeves are generally perceived as higher status than short
- Dirty or crumpled clothing
- Ostentatious or inappropriate clothing
- Strong fragrance or body odour
- Poorly maintained fingernails
- Excessive Jewellery
And naturally you do want to wear:
- Clothing that makes you feel confident and comfortable
- Clothing expected by your customers – leaning toward dressing up rather than down
- Clean, neat and contemporary attire
Personalising Professional Attire
If you work in a formal or traditional office or industry, your options to express yourself through dress will be somewhat limited. From the perspective of personal branding, we don’t want to necessarily look like a corporate clone though. How can we add some personality or our own unique flavor?
Generally the best approach when starting out is a minimalist one. Add a single distinctive piece of jewellery or accessory. Use consistency or themes in how you accessories or in your clothing choices to a lasting impression over time. Pay attention to feedback and reactions from others and gradually develop your personal style in a natural and organic way. Most importantly, ensure you feel comfortable and confident with whatever clothing your wear.
Nothing builds your personal brand quicker than your feeling 100% happy in yourself, and being able to focus on your job and those around you. Looking the part can help you reach that goal more quickly.