(CareerBuilder.com) -- It can be tough to pinpoint exactly what the term "personal brand" means, especially when it's loosely used to describe everything from professional image, to manner of dress, to online reputation. While this broad definition may make the term seem like just another empty business buzzword -- developing a personal brand can actually be a great get-ahead strategy for both job seekers and those looking to advance their careers.
So what exactly is a personal brand?
According to Dan Schawbel, author of "Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future" and owner of PersonalBrandingBlog.com, "A personal brand is what you stand for and what makes you special. [It's] composed of values, a mission, and a positioning statement that depict what you do and who your audience is. [It] is an indicator for how valuable you are to employers and customers at every stage of your career."
Your personal brand also encompasses the way you market yourself to your professional community, whether it be via your résumé, your LinkedIn profile, your manner of speaking or, yes, even the way you dress.
While creating a personal brand may seem daunting, chances are, you've already started building one. Here's what you need to know in order to expand upon, shape and make use of the personal brand you're already creating.
Define your brand
First and foremost, you need to decide what you want your personal brand to convey about you.
According to Schawbel, "Your personal brand should represent something that is unique to you; your personality, your passions, your talents and your dream goal. Ask yourself: 'What do I want to be known for?'"
For instance, if you've spent most of your career as a human resources manager in the financial world, and your ultimate goal is to become the vice president of human resources at an investment bank, then your personal brand needs to send the message that you're an expert and a leader in the areas of HR, management and finance.
Market your brand
Once you decide upon your professional goals and values, it's time to start letting others know about them. This may seem like an odd concept at first -- especially for those who have trouble tooting their own horn, so to speak -- but there are plenty of ways to subtly start getting your new message out there.
The Internet is a good place to start establishing both visibility and a strong personal brand, Schawbel says. "[Take] ownership of your online presence because that is where almost all first impressions now occur. Start your own blog or website under your full name, as well as accounts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Then, add your bio information to each and start reaching out to people in your industry using the tools. By constantly getting your name, face and valuable content out there, you will start to build and shape your brand, which will turn into opportunities," he says.
On LinkedIn and Facebook, for example, that may mean joining groups that reflect your professional goals. On Twitter, that means tweeting about what's going on in your field instead of your plans for the weekend. If you have a blog, update it regularly with posts and insights on your industry.
"Think about how you dress, how you behave, what you publish online -- and what that says about who you are," Schawbel says. All of these things should be consistent with the message your personal brand is trying to send.
For example, if your goal is to reach an executive-level position in the next five years; highlight your leadership qualities on your résumé, follow corporate leaders on Twitter, offer to spearhead new projects at work and dress like you're already in the executive position you're aiming towards.
"Your brand should be consistent because you never know how someone might find you," Schawbel says.
Look at how others are branding you
To gauge the effectiveness of the brand you've created for yourself, evaluate how others see you -- and whether it's in line with the image you want to project.
"You know you're communicating your brand effectively when your self-impression is equal to how people perceive you," Schawbel says. "One way to find out this information is to see how people categorize you on Twitter, with Twitter lists. If you're a personal finance expert, but people put you in real estate lists, you have a real problem."
If you're not on Twitter, asking colleagues or friends to sum up your professional image in a sentence or two will help you evaluate whether you're branding yourself properly.
The bottom line, Schawbel says, is that "By building your brand throughout your career, you protect yourself from the unpredictable nature of the economy, and gain more career options and opportunities." And in a time like this, who couldn't use more opportunity?
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