Personal Branding For Academic Entrepreneurs

branding for academic entrepreneurs

Personal branding is anathema for some academics. Personal branding has become synonymous with commercialism, narcissism, individualism, and influencers.

Even Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook who, arguably, sells personal branding for a living, opposes the idea of packaging people into a brand, saying that “When we are packaged, we’re ineffective and inauthentic”. Instead, she suggests that people need to speak honestly and draw from their own experiences.

Unfortunately, when we are trying to get our message across to a new audience, we don’t always have the time to interact with them in a way that allows us to project our authentic personal narrative – not immediately anyway – which is why personal branding is important.

People make quick judgements about you based on very little information. If you believe you have an important message to get to your audience, then you also need to curate the way that you interact with your audience to ensure you reach the right people.

Why is personal branding so important?

Put very simply, your brand is your way of distinguishing yourself from the rest of the market. By becoming an academic, completing a PhD (or doing a PhD), you have started the process of differentiating yourself into a bespoke expert in your field.

Unlike a traditional profession, such as a lawyer, doctor or architect, where the professional title conveys a great deal of generally accepted knowledge about what that person does, you need to find new and unique ways to present your expertise.

branding exercise

However, when you step outside the confines of a mainstream profession and start creating new expertise that is unique to you, you lose the marketing advantage and familiarity that is conveyed by the brand of, say, your professional title.

Let’s take Brene Brown as an example. She is a social worker by training, however she is now an international best seller and speaker on the topic of vulnerability. She has produced one of the most highly viewed TED talks, multiple books, and is a sought after public speaker (and still an academic).

If you look at Brene’s website, she doesn’t label herself primarily as a ‘social worker’. The first page of her website contains a quote “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do“. This claims her space around self-acceptance and vulnerability. It sets a tone that is warm, inviting, sympathetic and kind. It creates an invitation and a call to action – that we need to create and own our own story.

While her background as a social worker has created the context for her research and understanding, it is her research and her presentation of that research that sets her apart, that creates her unique personal brand.

Why academic entrepreneurs need personal branding

If you work in a university, your professional identity is determined largely by your academic level (lecturer to professor), your department and your role in your department.

When you step into the space of being an academic entrepreneur, you are looking to reach new audiences. Academic roles and titles are specific to the academic setting and generally don’t translate well into other roles and sectors.

When you take your niche expertise to a new audience who may sit outside the higher education sector, you need a new way of presenting what it is that you do.

A mainstream audience generally won’t care about your H index, the number of publications or citations you’ve had, or how much grant income you’ve earned.

mad scientist

They want to understand whether you can help them solve their problems and whether or not you’re the kind of person they want to work with.

They need to know that you can deliver on your promise and that you have values, approaches, and an ethos that is consistent with their goals. That requires a completely different way of promoting yourself and marketing your skills compared to, say, the academic promotion process.

For example, if you work as a consultant with not-for-profit organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, there is a good chance you will need a separate consulting CV. It will summarise your academic achievements and how they might be relevant to your consultancy work, but will it emphasise your relevant content expertise and your ability to deliver on the kinds of projects your client wants help with.

Communication style

Another feature that distinguishes you as an academic entrepreneur from your traditional academic role is the way you communicate with your audience. Most (not all) academic disciplines’ main outlets are peer reviewed publications which are objective, impersonal, and written in ‘academese’.

Successful academic entrepreneurs are the face of their expertise and brand – injecting themselves, their values and what they hold important behind that branding.

Further, the fact that you are, or have been, an academic will create a number of pre-conceptions, some good, some not so good. You want to be clear about how you (or academics in general) are perceived by your target market and address those issues to give an accurate picture of who you are how you work and what you are likely to deliver.

For example, the current anti-science movement (i.e., anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, flat earthers) has gained steam and academics are frequently targeted and harassed as ‘part of the conspiracy‘ to hide ‘the truth‘ (i.e., ‘big pharma shills‘).

Depending on your niche, it will be important to position yourself in the most credible and trustworthy light which will help attract the right audience and dissuade trolls and petulant detractors who will never believe you no matter what you do.

Developing your AE personal brand

Developing your academic entrepreneur brand requires that you consider the following:

1. Personal values

Have clarity about your personal values. What drives you? How do you want to be perceived by your audience?

Your personal values are important because they underpin everything you do and your consistency and integrity in the world. You may change your product or your audience, but ultimately, your actions will still be underpinned by what you value.

This is really what we mean by authenticity – projecting an image of you that is entirely aligned with who you are. Failing to project a consistent image or not being true to your values makes people distrust you and what you stand for.

2. Why

Identify your “why.” It is important to anchor what you’re doing in your reasons for doing it.

You two important questions to ask yourself:

  • What you are trying to do for the greater good (your altruistic goal)? Consider how you want to make a difference, and what difference you want to make.
  • What is in it for you? It might be that you are trying to achieve a better work-life balance or create new work opportunities, but being explicit about your personal goals is an important driver and motivator.

It is important that you keep your goals and values aligned. It is also valuable to keep your goals at front of mind to keep you on course when you have a bad day, wondering why you have embarked on this adventure in the first place.

3. Audience

Who is your audience? Who are you trying to reach with your message or messages?

There may be a number of different groups. For every different audience, identify your ‘ideal’ audience or develop an avatar for that group. Importantly, also consider people who are NOT your target audience or likely detractors so you are prepared for possible reactions from these groups.

4. Value proposition

What is your value proposition? For every audience group that you have identified, think carefully about the pains they are experiencing and the gains they want to achieve that are relevant to your expertise.

Russell Brunson, an online marketing entrepreneur, takes this idea further an proposes that all pains and gains can be linked back in some way to someone’s health, wealth, or relationships.

Now think about how you will resolve those pains and gains with your expertise or products, or the value you add to your market. This becomes your value proposition.

5. Products, programs, services

What products, programs or services do you provide that will address your value proposition? For each, make a list of the pains you solve and the gains you offer.

Do some research and see who else is offering similar solutions in the market. What do you offer that is different or better, and why will people choose you or your product instead?

Once you’ve identified your products, programs, and services you’ll take to the market, consider the digital channels you will use to reach your target audience(s). Where do they spend time? Who else do they follow?

All of this information will guide your strategy for positioning yourself in the market.

Your AE value proposition

You should be able to create a statement that fills in the blanks below:

For _____(target audience) ______ who are unhappy with __________(pain or unmet need)_______________ and / or want _________(benefits)____________ my _______(product / service)______provides ________(solution).

How your personal branding will help you become an AE


Having clarity of purpose as to who you are and what you do that will differentiate your role and expertise in the market. This will become your reference point both in terms of how you make a difference to your audience and also remind you of why you are doing this.

Consistency through curation

By developing consistency in your messaging to your audience, your branding will help you curate a wide range of outputs and skills in a way that enables you to achieve your purpose. It also enables you to direct your online footprint to present a more streamlined message.


Ensuring that all of your public facing outputs reinforce your purpose and are in alignment with who you are, what you stand for and what you are trying to achieve.

Audience identification

Developing clarity of who you do want to work with and who you don’t and ensuring that are you actually reaching your target market. You will not appeal to everyone and, if you are effective in your communication you are likely to polarise some groups. Being aware of who you will and will not appeal to will help you target your messaging more effectively, and to expect and manage certain detractors.

Clear value proposition

Achieving clarity of your value proposition: “I make a difference to whom by doing what.” Your value proposition is the way you achieve your purpose by delivering value to your target population.

Marketing consistency

Your AE personal brand will be represented in the following marketing tools:

  • Business name
  • Website domain name (URL)
  • Logo (if you have one)
  • Services, programs, and/or products
  • Marketing materials including your website and blogs
  • Business cards
  • Headshots and portraits
  • Report and letterhead labelings
  • Signature presentation

Take home message

Your personal branding is an indispensable part of your transition to academic entrepreneurship. An effective brand strategy will increase the effectiveness of both your messaging and the approaches you use to access your target audience. Without it, you are potentially making yourself vulnerable to exposure that detracts from your brand and wastes valuable time and resources.

If you would like more information about developing your Academic Entrepreneur personal brand, we have developed a tailored coaching program for academics and will soon be delivering online training. For more information please contact us to discuss your needs.

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