The term “brand” probably brings to mind a laundry list of well-known and well-regarded corporations like Apple, Google, and Coca-Cola. These brands are so powerful, in fact, that each year Forbes assigns a monetary value to the world’s biggest brands, and the totals can be staggering: the value of Apple’s brand alone is estimated by Forbes at $150 billion. Forbes has the full breakdown of how that total is calculated, but there is no doubt about the advantages of a solid brand: not only are consumers more likely to buy from a brand they trust, they’re also willing to pay more for products from those brands. The most important question for other marketers looking to emulate Apple is: how did they do that?
Though it may not be obvious, this is an especially relevant question for MBAs starting their first year of business school in the fall, and not just as preparation for intro marketing classes. Recruiters from major MBA employers will spend a lot of time and resources trying to determine which students are a good fit for their firm, and while plenty of employers are interested in top MBAs as a group, it’s up to individual candidates within that group to demonstrate their qualifications and fit for specific roles. How you present yourself to these recruiters – your personal recruiting brand – will determine a lot about the effectiveness of your internship and job search over the next two years; fortunately, a thoughtful and strategic approach to brand-building can put you well ahead of the pack by the time classes and recruiting start in the Fall.
Everybody Has a Brand
First off: your personal recruiting brand will exist whether or not you make the effort to cultivate it. A brand is simply a matter of how one is perceived by relevant stakeholders (primarily consumers), and the most we can do is try to influence that perception in as positive a way as possible. And while issues of reputation can seem nebulous or abstract, there are some common marketing frameworks that can shed light on the logic behind branding and offer guidance for those looking to build a valuable personal recruiting brand.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to concentrate on the segment-target-position model, one of the foundational elements of modern marketing practice and a staple of MBA marketing curricula all over the world. In any marketing situation – whether you’re selling pickup trucks or selling yourself to potential employers – you start out with a large, undifferentiated audience that needs to be broken down, analyzed, and addressed in smaller, more manageable pieces. The STP model is one easy way of doing just that.
There are a lot of companies that hire MBAs – more than any other campus hiring market, in fact – and one of your biggest tasks as an incoming recruiting prospect will be to figure out which of these companies to pursue. An easy first step is to segment the market by identifying variables that are shared by different groups of employers. There is a great deal of ink spilled about what the best variables are in a standard B2C marketing situation, but in the case of hiring markets the segmentation is much simpler. It’s easy enough to divide up the employer pool on the basis of attributes like industry, roles available, recruiting timeline, or on-campus presence, but you should also think about less objective measures, like company culture and recruiter preferences.
Once you’ve divided the audience into organized slices, your next step is to pursue those leads that are the most attractive to you. There are all sorts of subjective and objective considerations that go into this choice, but pragmatism is a useful guiding principle. Your targeted segments should not just be attractive to you – you should be attractive to them as well. And targeting too many segments or too broad of a segment makes it difficult to make a specific case for why you are a good fit. This is the sort of decision that is best made with the guidance and assistance of career services offices and experienced MBAs, whose understanding of the market can be invaluable in figuring out where to spend your time and effort this fall.
Positioning is about how you choose to present yourself to members of your target market, particularly in comparison to competitors targeting the same segment. Your brand’s positioning should make it clear to consumers how you are different from and better than other options, and the most effective brands choose a position within the market that is distinct (“Think Different”) and appeals directly to what they know about their audience’s needs and preferences. In the MBA recruiting market, this means thinking like a recruiter – if your job was to sort through hundreds or thousands of MBA profiles each year to find a handful of best-fit candidates, what would catch your eye?
Bringing It All Together
The practice of branding is fundamentally about story-telling. Good brands are able to attract the interest and loyalty of customers in large part because they are able to tell an effective story about what makes them or their products different and better from the competition. And while it’s important to make this story as compelling as possible, it’s also crucial to ensure that it is based in reality – that the story you tell about yourself is a more or less true one. Brands ultimately have to deliver on the stories they tell to consumers, and recruiting is no different.
In conclusion, the best brands are those that leverage a profound understanding of their consumers to tell a story that is targeted, truthful, and consistent. Moreover, in doing so these brands create enormous economic value and competitive advantages in their markets that drive their continued success. As an incoming MBA student, you will have the opportunity to employ these principles to improve your recruiting outcomes. And whether or not you use the STP framework or put any effort at all into your personal brand, you’ll be telling a story to recruiters as soon as you arrive on campus. Make sure it’s a good one.