Why Teach Personal Branding in College?

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A tall, good-looking MBA student in a button-front shirt and jeans wandered into the lecture hall early at a West Coast university where I was to give a leadership branding seminar.  I struck up a conversation with him, asking about his background and what he planned to do with his MBA after graduation.  He had a confident manner, having worked in automotive sales, but he didn’t know how to make a compelling case for himself.

Cut to Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.  The undergraduate business students are wowing their professors with their crisp “elevator pitches”—their 30-second narratives that help them stand out and be remembered.  [Note: The author, who holds a Master’s degree from the BU School of Communication, has guest lectured in the BU business school and her book is used as a required textbook.]

Unique Career Management Course

These business students are part of a unique four-year required course offering on Career Management that systematically integrates personal branding.  Introduced to undergraduates in 2013, the Career Management course became a mandatory course for the graduate school this year.  BU has 2,500 students in its undergraduate business program, and more than 500 full-time and part-time MBA students in its graduate school of business.

BU Jim French_Karen Kang

James French, former interim assistant dean for the Questrom Business School’s Feld Career Center and current lecturer in the Organizational Behavior Department, says the undergraduates tend to think that you do personal branding once and it’s done.  The MBAs, because of their years of work experience, know that there is a continuous need to enhance and refresh one’s brand throughout one’s career. “You may have 20 different jobs in your lifetime, so you need to rebrand throughout your career,” he adds.

One of the two required textbooks is my book, BrandingPays: The Five-Step System to Reinvent Your Personal Brand.  French, who designed much of the Career Management curriculum, chose BrandingPays because it provides a “concise and systematic” method for students to learn to develop the strategy, messages (including elevator pitch) and action plans for personal branding, something he says is essential for anyone in today’s economy.

“I tell students that they need to think of themselves as self-employed, even if they have a job,” he told me recently in Boston.

Personal Branding is Key in Today’s Economy

A former human relations executive, French says that there is a new work contract between the company and employee today.  In the past, you could spend your entire career at one company.  But, today, both parties know that employment can end at any time—initiated by the company or the individual.  Hence, the need to brand yourself.

I use “Bake the cake, then ice it” as a metaphor for personal branding.  We all need to put both our rational value and our emotional value together to make our brands stick, like Coke and Starbucks.  Both brands have a brand promise that includes their functional value, cola drink and coffee, as well as their emotional value, respectively, fun times and an affordable luxury.  For students, their functional value may be their educational experience and internships, and their emotional value, for instance, could be their can-do attitude despite a hard-scrabble life.

He explains to his students that if they were employed and asked to talk about their companies, they might spend a lot of time crafting the right set of words.  He believes students owe it to themselves to work just as hard to develop their own elevator pitch, one that positions them well for their career goal and weaves in unique aspects of their background to give their “cake” some “icing.”

High Employability and Earnings of BU Alumni

Questrom exteriorHaving a mandatory Career Management course with a unique curriculum that integrates personal branding helps to distinguish Boston University from other business schools. But, in the end, the bottom line measure of a business school is the employability and earnings of alumni, an area of strength for Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

The employability of Boston University graduates has been ranked 7th among US schools and 17th in the world according to a global study published in the New York Times.  In addition, the school is ranked in the top 30 for highest-earning MBA alumni, according to a recent PayScale report.

According to French, BU has a 97% track record for job placement among students graduating from the undergraduate business school.  He believes that the Career Management course will help BU graduates to present their best selves through their resumes, job interviews, internship experience and overall image.

Should personal branding be taught in college?  My answer is yes, because most students are at a loss to articulate who they are and what they stand for, let alone know how to get recognized for it. I have done one-off personal branding seminars in many colleges and universities throughout the US and abroad, and inevitably students tell me that they don’t have a clue as to how to brand themselves.

Time will tell whether the Career Management course will help to boost job placement and salary metrics.  But, for James French, there has already been a dramatic increase in an important measure: self-confidence.  BU business students stand tall because they know the value of their personal brands.


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