We speak with branding expert Phil Pallen about identifying one’s core message, crafting an online presence, the role self-awareness has in this process, and why authenticity has become overrated.
Phil Pallen is the founder of the Phil Pallen Collective where builds brands for TV personalities, experts and businesses. You’ve seen his clients on Shark Tank, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, The X Factor, Project Runway, The Doctors, and more. Phil is also a highly sought after celebrity brand expert, weighing in regularly on shows such as Access Hollywood. He is the author of Shut Up and Tweet, a book with game-changing strategies that will turn you into a Twitter rockstar. Whether it’s in entertainment, lifestyle or the world of startups, Phil Pallen helps clients enhance their competitive advantage through a strategic online presence. He can be followed at @philpallen.
What is the Phil Pallen Collective?
I’m a brand strategist and my company has evolved from just me, a one man show for the first two years, to being full service. I’m a small agency. I don’t really use those terms; I like to call it more of a ‘collective’ because that is what it is – a collective of creative minds. We help people position, build and promote their brands. The emphasis is on people. I built my reputation in LA, and around the world, helping people build their personal brands. I do a little bit of corporate work, but all of that is really inspired by the way that I brand individuals and the way that my team is able to inject personality into the branding process to make you more memorable. So everything from brand identity, development, visuals, photography, websites, social media campaigns geared towards whatever your goal is (growth, conversion etc.), content marketing, content creation, editorial placement, blogging, all these kinds of things.
How do you identify someone’s core identity and brand in order to craft their message?
Branding is defined by people differently. My definition is unique in that I believe that branding is best achieved by recreating the in-person experience. Everything that I’m building and crafting online is based on who you are in real life. Those nuances I get when I’m sitting across from you having a coffee, the content you share, the way you share it, is your personality. I’m looking and absorbing those things if we have the privilege of being together in person. Realistically that is not always going to happen. Like it or not, people are going to Google you and find what they can about you online. It is now not a luxury, but a requirement, for you to have a presence online that accurately reflects who you are and why people should care. Another way of looking at it is that your online brand is the control you have in crafting your first impression.
How important is self-awareness during this process?
It is one of the most important components without question. Whether people like it or not, whether they are a product or service, they are a huge part of that brand story, the narrative that we’re creating. They’re not mutually exclusive. For example, if we’re looking at a product on Shark Tank that does really well based on sales, there is a huge part of that brand that is connected to who created it, whether there is a celebrity behind it, or whether there is a story with how it was founded. People care about this kind of thing and it’s a way to differentiate from others. You are a part of the brand, whether it’s sales, communicating it on TV, or telling it to someone on the street. We need to at least strive to think about ourselves objectively and not take things personally. You need to know where you are strong and where your challenges lie. You need to be aware of those things so that it helps compliment your goal. But self-awareness is everything. Some people come to me and they’re very self-aware, which is great. Other times, people are not self-aware. I know this when I ask very simple questions like “describe yourself in three words.” Within five minutes, or less, I’ll know whether or not their words are accurate. Usually two of the three are accurate. The third is often not quite right. If they’re not self-aware, they need to be open to feedback, learning, and discovering about themselves. While I’m a brand specialist, I also become a therapist in some ways – which is also a part of the job that I love.
I imagine that sometimes those three words are aspirational. Does the process allow for growth into what’s possible?
Absolutely! I don’t like doing branding from a surface level, or doing it quick. I like to take the time to do it right. We work efficiently but we’re very thorough. I won’t brand you in a week. I like to see how you communicate over email and phone, how you describe yourself, how you interact with customers or clients. I need to understand that. In the branding process, we’ve built in a number of steps that help us really understand you. We don’t have to be together in person to do this. A lot of my clients I met for the first time after working with them for a year or more. The branding process doesn’t always take that long, but a lot of the time clients will find the branding component useful and want to continue with social media, content, or strategy calls. People often use me as their sounding bound when they’re making business decisions or pivots in their career. It really takes time and every strategy comes back to what your goal is. So to come back to your question, I want to be crystal clear on what your goal is, or at least, what you think it is now, and it will likely evolve. I will want to know what are you trying to achieve and why are you branding beyond making something look pretty. There are some people that think branding is a waste of time. Obviously I disagree and it couldn’t be farther from the truth because they are people that don’t understand branding and the power of it. Branding allows you not only to take inventory of who you are today, but who you want to become. How do you think I became a brand strategist? I decided one day that that was my title because it sounded like what I wanted to become. Now I go on TV as a celebrity brand expert on a routine basis to give comment on some of the most recognized brands in the world. And so I have manifested this because I’ve branded myself. It’s a constantly evolving process. As I evolve as a person, I make sure it evolves online. Your life is a work in progress – you grow, you evolve, you become better. It’s your responsibility to make sure you’re communicating that on the web. That is essentially what motivates everything that I do.
Are there consistent themes that you work on with all your clients, whether they are an entrepreneur, creator, or startup?
Yeah, that’s so interesting because I will have some client prospect that will come to me and say ‘Phil are you an expert in luxury branding? Is this an area you specialize in because we’re looking for this, this and this.’ I say ‘absolutely not. I don’t specialize in anything. You specialize in that. You’re the expert, not me. I’m here to help you communicate everything that you are to the average person so that they pay attention to you in three seconds or less.’ I’ve helped a lot of people around the world in different industries, and with projects that I’m interested in, but regardless of industry it’s the same process that I help brand someone. First, it’s about positioning: what is something you love to do paired with something others need. Something you love on its own is a hobby. You need to have done your research to know that there is a need for this. You’re not just a lawyer, you’re a lawyer that specializes in tech, media, and startup law. You’ve done the work to know that there are people out there that need help, that need this area of expertise. I’m a brand specialist for TV personalities, experts and businesses. That’s where I specialize. Once you figure out the position, you build something to show for it in this order: photography, brand identity, website, social media profiles. Once you’ve built something to show for your brand, then you promote it. But if someone says ‘Phil, I have a brand and I need your help building the social media following’, well if you’re trying to be Nordstrom but your brand looks like Walmart, there is only so much I can do with you. I’m not saying we need to rebrand because I want your money, I’m saying we need to rebrand in order to get you to your goal. So I won’t take clients on that just need help with promoting, unless in fact they have a beautiful perspective and well-communicated brand. If I can’t get a client to where they want to go, I will not do it. But that’s the process: position, build, promote. If you follow those steps, people will come back to me and say ‘Phil I did what you told me to do – I read the book, I followed the steps, and it worked.’ Imagine that. You did what I told you to do.
Are there any non-obvious things you work on which consistently have a massive upside?
Yes. The role of photography. It’s something that may take some convincing, especially when I’m working with a lawyer or an accountant, or someone where they think their photo doesn’t matter. Well actually, the photo is more important than the $2,000 Armani suit. Think about how many people will see you wearing that suit, over the course of a year, then think about how many people will see you on a profile photo on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, someone you’re sending the photo to for an interview or podcast etc. People don’t think how important photography is when they communicate their brand. Rather than spending money on a fancy suit or outfit, I say hire a really good photographer. That is an area that is not super obvious until I explain it.
What role does a client’s authenticity have in all this?
I think that the word authenticity is overrated. Rather than the word authentic, I use the word ‘consistent’. It seems easier to achieve consistency between the in-person experience and the online version of you. With authenticity, how do you achieve that? It feels daunting and then you’re not going to do it. We’re going to move on to the next thing on our to-do list that is actionable. So instead, people need to record themselves on a phone call like this. I usually record, or open up a notebook, because I’ll come up with ideas that I’ll think are good for a podcast or blog. Build your system to take inventory of your in person experiences. Your best ideas, the way they communicate conversationally, is often the fuel you need for the type of copy you need on your website, the type of tweets you need to send about four times a day. Consistency is more important than authenticity. And to achieve it, you just need to build a system of inventory, auditing yourself of the things you say and do that become valuable content online. In terms of moving forward, it’s not just your opinion that is important, but use the web to its full advantage. You now have the power to see what blog posts perform the best, see what tweets and posts have the best engagement. Those type of analytics that are built in to where you’re creating content should be informing that process day to day. So it’s a combination of both – being true to yourself but using your audience to figure out what people respond to most.
How do you take inventory of yourself?
It’s definitely unique to every individual and I’m often coming up with different ways that people can do that in a way that makes sense for them. For example, I only allow myself one note on my iPhone in the Notes app because if I have 1400 notes in there I will never look at them again unless I’m on a plane without Wi-Fi and it’s the only place I have handy to write something down. So I give myself rules and parameters. I add all my thoughts for the week into that one note and then I schedule every Monday in my calendar time to download my ideas for the week and to put them into action. I use a platform that is a combination of my inbox and Evernote to make actionable next steps for myself. That’s my own system but every client is a little different. Keep it as simple as this. Have a notebook handy dedicated to just your brand – ideas you get, ideas for content etc. Leave it somewhere handy that you have with you all the time and stick with it. You just need a system to take inventory of these types of things.