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  • Emily Ellet

Branding a.k.a. Self-Knowledge

It's a cattle brand.  Get it??

It’s a cattle brand. Get it??

So a friend (holla, Sara!) asked me if I would share my thoughts about branding, since it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time, money, and energy working on.  (I also promised you in a previous post to expand on how I ended up dyeing my hair.)  I’m happy to, as long as we all acknowledge up-front that I’m still developing my understanding of branding, especially as it relates to my own product (myself).  It’s a work in progress!  But here’s my experience with it so far.

(Note that when I speak about my brand, I simply mean an amplified version of myself – not an artificial character I put on for professional reasons.  It’s totally me but with a sort of Instagram filter on my personality, to help casting directors and other creative teams see what roles I am right for.)

The Sam Christensen Personal Brand Workshop

Branding wasn’t particularly on my radar as an actor/singer until 2011, I think.  It was the spring of either 2011 or 2012, when I had dinner with an actor friend whom I greatly respect (that’d be you, Terry Dale Parks!) a couple months before I was going to get new headshots.  Somehow the conversation turned to branding, perhaps because I’d mentioned my struggles to pick outfits for the shoot.  And Terry recommended that I take the Sam Christensen Personal Brand workshop.

Of course, I’d never heard of it, and Terry proceeded to explain that Sam is something of a genius at helping people, especially actors, figure out their brand.  The more he described the experience, which he’d recently finished, the more excited I became at the idea of knowing my brand, and within the next couple weeks, I had signed both my husband and me up for the workshop.

It was not cheap, but to this day, I think it was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.  In the course of four days, I learned how people, particularly strangers, perceive me; I learned what sorts of adjectives and phrases identified key parts of my individuality; and I learned how I can use this knowledge in auditions and rehearsals.  Even more valuable, I walked away with a set of seven “essences,” statements that capture my brand particularly well.

I think I blogged a bit about what those essences were in the early days of this blog, but one of them is actually the name of my blog: Gingham and Steel.  I loved how it captured my Midwestern, slightly frontier-woman sensibility and my driven, contemporary, feminist side in one pithy phrase.

My other favorite essence was “I can do it all by myself, but I’d really love it if you wanted to come along.”  The first time I said it out loud, I burst into tears.  It perfectly captured years of my life, struggling with being capable of doing things on my own and yet wanting people to come with me; it is worth noting that this dichotomy continues to this day, the only difference being that now I’m aware of it.  (Which is only sometimes helpful, hehe.)

The cool thing about the branding process from the Sam Christensen workshop was that it was designed to change with you over time.  As you mature, your brand will shift – few people are exactly the same at 30 as they are at 20, and so much can happen to us in the space of even just a year.  So the workshop gave us the tools with which to keep tinkering with our brands and my essences into the future.

Granted, the most important part of the workshop was hearing what strangers perceived when I walk in a room.  You can always get honest feedback from friends and family about what you’re like, but it’s probably not the same as what someone you’ve never met sees when you shake their hand.  And as an actor/singer, that first impression is the most important to understand, because every time you walk in an audition room, that’s what you’re being judged on.

But there have been some other resources that have helped me develop and articulate my brand, which shows up in everything from my look to my website to my headshot to my “tone” online.  Several of them are also valuable personally, as self-knowledge is one of the most important tools for understanding your past, present, and future successes, struggles, and relationships.

Clifton StrengthsFinder

One (also recommended to me by Terry) is the Clifton StrengthsFinder quiz.  I’m not big into “personality” quizzes like Meyers-Briggs or whatever, because I really don’t like being pigeonholed.  So I was a little wary when Terry recommended StrengthsFinder.  However, since it was only $10 and he promised wonderful things, I took him on faith and went through the online quiz.

I was so glad I did.  SF puts you through something like 200 questions, each of which must be answered in 10 seconds or less, to decide what your five greatest strengths are.  There are about thirty strengths in the pool (empathy, connection, discipline, flexibility, etc.), but SF isn’t trying to tell you that you only exhibit some of them.  On the contrary – it insists that everyone expresses all of them!  However, you are stronger at some than at others.  So it’s organizing them for you from greatest to weakest, so that you can be more self-aware.  (Though you’ll pay a lot more for your complete list; $10 is simply for your top 5.)

It’s particularly valued by business professionals.  In fact, some companies require every employee to take the quiz, so that they can better communicate and collaborate as a team.  I’m not sure it’s really a branding tool, in that sense, but it sure is helpful in understanding yourself, especially in professional settings!

For example, my greatest strength is Input.  I had no clue what this meant at first, but as I read SF’s explanation of how this strength can express itself in your life, I started to laugh out loud.  Input people love to soak up as much information as they can about a topic (or many topics, depending on their other strengths).  They also love to share it with people who would find it particularly helpful.

All of a sudden, I could see why I emailed an overwhelming number of articles to various members of my family – it was my Input valve, turned up to 100%, trying to give them what I thought they would benefit from.  (I’ve learned to exercise more restraint in this area since then!)  Why I subscribed to (and read cover to cover) six or seven completely different magazines.  Why I often wrote way more than the history class short answer tests required in high school.

One of my other strengths was Context, which also didn’t make my sense to me.  (Focus and Discipline were much more obvious.)  Turns out, Context people really need the complete backstory of things – both when receiving information (like, why are we having this extra rehearsal?) and when sharing information – suddenly I understood why I had so much trouble with tangents when telling a story.  It was necessary information, as far as I was concerned.

I actually fought the idea of Context and Input at first, buying the book that introduced Clifton StrengthsFinders and reading through all 31 or 32 of the strengths to make my OWN list of what my strengths should have been.  Then when talking with Terry’s wife, Amber, who did SF workshops around the country, I discovered that that exact behavior was classic Context!  (I’d had to see the full spectrum of all the strengths before being sure about my own.)

Anyway, my point is, learning my strengths was incredibly helpful, both in my personal relations (no longer do I send 10+ articles to my siblings each day!) and in my professional ones.  To be able to articulate my own strengths (and weaknesses, after reading the book) helped me to tone them down when they’re not helpful and to focus myself in areas where I know I will do the most good.

My Look

One of the areas in which I have struggled the most with my brand, however, has been my image.  As I’ve gone to audition after audition, I’ve really wrestled with what type I am.  I’ve blogged about this a couple times – I appear short and cute, but I don’t really fit ingénue roles.  So how can I communicate my true, driven, sweet yet type-A individuality in my look?

This might be a work in progress for the rest of my life; among market trends, magazine coercion (“You must have this bodycon dress!”), and some self-esteem issues, it’s been really hard to nail down my look.  If I’d had the money, perhaps I could hire a personal stylist to help me clarify my image and shop for a tailored wardrobe.  But I don’t have that luxury, so I’ve had to work it out the hard way – experimentation.

Thanks to a willingness to try things and the often helpful advice of friends, now red lips and leggings outfits have become my staple.  My décolletage is sometimes a feature; I try to downplay my hips and thighs.  And finally, FINALLY, after years of wondering, I have figured out what my hair color should be.

Granted, I have been wary of coloring my hair my whole life.  If God gave me this hair color, I kept saying to myself, why should I change it, especially when I know it’ll damage my hair?  But after some conversations with my voice teacher (in the midst of frustrating auditions), I decided to try red.  It seemed like that was a great way to express my strong personality in an unusual, eye-catching way.

My current headshots were taken right after trying a gentle, semi-permanent, coppery auburn, and I loved it.  It was beautifully done, and I loved knowing it wasn’t damaging to my hair in the long term.

However, there were a couple problems.  One, it was expensive to consider keeping – to go red, we had to lighten my hair slightly first, and that becomes a more expensive process to upkeep at the salon every 4-6 weeks.  Secondly (but equally important), suddenly three-quarters of my wardrobe no longer looked right.  Colors I knew and loved didn’t work with my new hair color.  Having spent years cultivating an understanding of my colors (I can’t recommend the original book Color Me Beautiful highly enough for simplifying shopping!), I didn’t feel comfortable shifting into a completely new set.  I would have had to redo my colors all over again and learn to love different color combinations.  It sounded silly and shallow for such a small thing to matter, but I had to be honest with myself and admit that it did matter – a lot.

So I let the red fade away with time and tried to content myself with my lovely but unspecific light brown hair.  Until last week, that is.  But I need to detour (Context, remember?) and share an important but seemingly unrelated piece of information.

Years ago, when I was upgrading our living room from our random post-college furniture into something resembling adult furniture, I ran across the recommendation to pull color ideas for decorating your home from your clothing collection.  If you surround yourself with colors that you love, you’ll be happier, it said; and your closet is almost certainly filled with colors you really love.

Well, I took that advice in reverse.  Having very clearly defined what we wanted our home colors to be (I didn’t spend 15 years in the remodeling industry for nothing!), I then started pulling from my Pinterest boards and scrapbooks to better develop my closet.   Over time, I really was able to define “my” colors, so that by the time I dyed my hair red, I had that minor identity crisis I mentioned above.

About a month ago, I spent some time scrapbooking here in my cabin.  I bought several magazines and ripped out everything that caught my eye, after which I created two large collages on the wall above my bed.  And then I spent day after day staring at them.  Scrapbooking collages like that are very stimulating for me.  Most of the time, I contain my scrapbooking in small 8.5×11 notebooks, but when I get home, I may have to buy myself a bulletin board, because there’s something satisfying, energizing, and even cathartic about looking at things you fell in love with for no clear reason.

Anyway, I was staring at the wall one day, looking at an image I’d cut out of a shampoo ad – a woman with luxuriously glossy brown hair.  It had felt odd to keep it, and I’d almost thrown it out, but some intuition reminded me that I felt things when I looked at it, and so it needed to stay on the wall.  At that moment, a friend knocked on the door, and it must have jolted something into place.  After he and I talked for a minute, I suddenly burst out, “I’m going to dye my hair!  And I know exactly what color it should be!”

Espresso brown had been staring me in the face for years – my home is drowning in the color.  I’ve been obsessed with it, but somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be the color I should be wearing.  Once I realized it, though, it made sense on multiple levels – including my brand.  The word I’ve come to use to describe myself is “intense,” which I think sums me up emotionally, personally, and professionally.  So a deep, rich, brown color would communicate that intensity succinctly.

I’ll admit I was nervous to jump straight into a permanent hair dye, but I’ve also never been so sure it was the right choice, so I just went for it!  And after washing it a couple times, it settled into exactly the shade I was hoping for.  My cast mates began asking me if I’d used to be blonde, which I found rather amusing, given that I had most definitely been a brunette.

Of course, this means that I have to buy all new headshots when I return to New York, but I was already planning on doing that anyway, since I’ve been aiming to redesign my website for months.  I’ll probably also look at reviewing my essences when I get home – and figuring out what my fifth Clifton StrengthsFinder was (I can’t remember out here on the ocean!).  Update: it’s Learner.  DUH.

So stick with me!  Branding is a constantly updating process, but it sure can be fun along the way.  What do you do for branding?  What are good resources you’ve found?

Though I am an employee of Princess Cruise Lines, all opinions are mine only and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Photo credit: SQ via photopin (license)

#business #SamChristensenStudios #professional #selfknowledge #personalbrand #CliftonStrengthsFinder #Actor #leadership

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