Creating an online identity: What’s your brand?

If you hail from the great north strong and free then you might remember this very successful Molson Canadian beer commercial from their “I am Canadian” campaign.

In this one minute commercial, we’re given many of the classic elements of what might be considered the Canadian brand. Joe the Canadian wants us the viewer to know and understand the things that he is not, such as…

  • he is not a lumberjack or a fur trader
  • he doesn’t live in an igloo or own a dog sled
  • he doesn’t speak American

…but he also shares what he is, such as…

  • he believes in multiculturalism and peace-keeping
  • he loves his hockey
  • he pronounces the letter Z as “Zed”

Even how he expresses himself through the course of his speech suggests what it is—albeit in a cliché fashion—to be Canadian. He starts out soft-spoken, polite and even a bit apologetic but then tries to transcend the viewers’ expectations by rising to a patriotic crescendo.

My name is Joe and I AM CANADIAN.

In a nutshell, that is what an online identity is—a distillation of who you are into a web presence that faces out into the world.

Self Promotion and the Web

Empty stageThis post kicks off a new category on Tilted Windmills where I’d like to share a bit of my perspective as both a creative and a web designer/developer who has been building websites and traversing the online world for over a decade.

I think one of the most fascinating things about the web is that it empowers creatives to get their message out in ways that we couldn’t have dreamed of previously. Artists who no longer need galleries to sell their paintings. Authors who don’t need publishers to put their books into the hands of readers. Musicians who don’t need record labels to find an audience.

You want to sell your work?
Find a job?
Connect with other like-minded creative individuals?

Then you need an online presence and, like Joe, you need to step out on that great stage that is the world wide web and say who you are.

I’ve met so many talented people over the years who say things like “I really need to get a portfolio online” or “I really need to get my name out in order to do the work I want to do.” Often these same people feel overwhelmed by the web. They aren’t tech savvy and the notion of building a website or even just posting their work up somewhere feels way too intimidating. As a result, they stay away and they miss out on so many great opportunities.

My plan for these posts is to hopefully make the web a bit less daunting for creative types looking to make their debut. My plan is to touch on subjects like different online portfolio platforms, social media and different ways you can promote and sell your work online.

But before we do any of that, I want to get back to basics and talk a bit about branding…

Figuring out Your Brand

Even among those people who are hesitant about stepping out on that online stage, I think there’s a natural tendency to rush out the process. They create a portfolio site with a smorgasbord of creative work with no clear sense of what they can do or who they want to work for. They launch a twitter account and begin tweeting about everything from what they had for lunch to world issues.

It’s like these people are standing in the wings, working up the courage to move and then race to that center stage spotlight to cry “Okay, I’m here!!”

*insert crickets chirping*

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with finding your voice and feeling out your brand through action—seeing what things you tend to talk about, write about, draw, paint and so on—and those disparate elements will eventually fall together into an identity like that of Joe the Canadian. In many ways, that’s been my own strategy however I’m also pretty comfortable in moving about the online world and I’m enjoying the process of figuring those pieces out.

If however you don’t have a clear idea of why you are standing on that stage and what it is you are there to say, then it’s going to make what might already be a daunting process for you feel even more daunting. By figuring out the elements that make up you and your purpose online ahead of time, you’ll feel a great deal more confident when you step out on to that stage.

Your creative role as brand – Particularly relevant for those who are planning to use their online identity to look for work, try to get as clear as possible about the kind of work you want to do.

If you want to be known as a writer, what kind of writing do you do? Are you a writer of novels? Of blog articles? Of children’s literature?

If you want to be an artist, are you an artist who puts their work up in galleries? Are you trying to work for magazines? For animation or game studios?

I’ve always ended up working as a jack-of-all-trades and I would say the biggest piece of advice I could give to you is that it’s is much, much harder to establish a brand as a generalist. The more specific you can be about the role you want and the kind of work you want to do, the easier it is to lock that role into your brand and your online identity. 

I am Joe and I WRITE ACTION-PACKED CRIME NOVELS.
I am Joe and I ANIMATE FOR VIDEO GAMES.

Isn’t there a danger of shoehorning yourself into doing just one thing?

Yes, absolutely, but at the same time these roles are not being written in stone. If you find yourself under a job title or a role that just isn’t working for you, change it and set a new path for yourself. Be Joe who throws off that soft-spoken, polite Canadian stereotype and shouts his pride to the rafters.

Your style as brand – This is the type of branding that people tend to be more familiar with. It’s the way that some people can instantly recognize an Apple product at a 100 paces just by looking at the line of it. It’s how you know you’re watching a Tim Burton film by its dark, weird subject matter and muted colours—and frequent appearances by Johnny Depp.

Morning Mood by Leonid AfremovFor example, the style of painter Leonid Afremov is very distinctive. Personally I really love his work and I have a print of the painting at right in my hallway. Regardless of whether I’m seeing his work on DeviantArt, eBay or even just pinned to a Pinterest board, I immediately connect whatever piece I’m seeing to the rest of his work. If I was an art director or an interior designer and I knew that I wanted colourful, slightly abstract painting for whatever I’m working on then I’d know exactly who to go to for it.

If you’ve got a way of painting or writing music or telling stories that you love to do, then keep doing it. Make that style a key component of your brand and what you’re known for.

Your attitude as brand – Let’s say you build your portfolio site and you post a piece of graphic design work that you did for a client. In the description you say something like “This is a logo that I designed for a mining company. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on it, but the client said they thought it was okay.”

By writing this on your site in this way and attaching it to your name, you’ve now made “hesitant person who does mediocre work” part of your brand. Do you want it part of your brand? Probably not.

Let’s say you’ve got a twitter account under your name and you find yourself in 140-character screaming match with your now former best friend. Your name is still on that account so now you’ve made that conversation part of your brand.

On the other hand, if you are an activist with strong convictions about democracy, the environment, animal abuse and so on, and you get into heated twitter debate with those who hold similar views or those who hold opposing views, then you may want that to be part of your brand. You may want to be known as someone who goes to the mat for you believe in.

Either way, you have to be aware of what you are projecting. The first rule of the web which you’ll probably be hearing me harp upon time and time again—assume that everything you put online is public. You are your own public relations person now and need to act accordingly. I’m not suggesting you start spin-doctoring your own image or anything like that.

Be yourself, but be the best part of it. Be the part that you want to show off to the world.

Go Forth and Ponder

So now that you have some nuggets to think about, write down a few elements that you feel are a good fit for your brand. Try to think in terms of things that fit the most naturally into you. If you find yourself getting stuck on the whole, slightly-scary “who am I?” question, try checking out some of the books in the site’s Resources for Creatives section—particularly the books by Martha Beck.

Also, as this is the first post of this type for Tilted Windmills, let me know in the comments if you found this useful and if there are any other areas in around online self-promotion that you’d like me to touch on in future posts.