Thursday, September 3, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge Profile: Cynthia Alvarez

In an effort to share how other creative freelancers build their brand, I've done an interview with Cindy Alvarez, web strategist and startup aficionado. I think you'll find the steps she's taken to create a brand are things you can do as well.

Tell me about your career trajectory. What industry did you started in and what industry are yon in now? How do you describe your consulting business now?

I started doing web design in the early days of the web browser. As Web sites became less brochure-like and more interactive, I started realizing that visual design came too late in the Web site and product development process: I needed to be involved earlier to make sure the right thing was being built, not just making the wrong thing prettier. I've been doing interaction design and product management for the past few years.

I help companies use a customer-driven process to ensure that a) customers are interested in their product, b) their product solves specific customer problems and frustrations, and c) their product is usable. This involves interviewing real people and then an iterative cycle of showing them stuff, getting feedback, incorporating that feedback into new stuff--"stuff" being the very professional software development term.

Before you went freelance, what did you think of when you thought of branding? Is it a new concept for you?

I've actually been actively branding myself for probably eight years now. Both interactive design and product management are roles that mean totally different things in different companies.

It didn't take me long to realize that I have a very specific combination of skills: I don't have an MBA or MFA. I haven't worked in Fortune 500 companies. I don't have a lot of patience for formal process. I do have a rare combination of understanding technical details and design theory. I'm an excellent presenter and writer. I find a way to get the impossible done. This means that there are some companies and products where I'm absolutely the best person, and others where I'm mediocre at best. I want to associate myself with those areas where I excel, even if that means opting myself out of other opportunities.

How long have you been working on creating your new personal brand?

The most evolution has happened in the past 18 months or so. I've really focused what I want people to associate with me professionally, and what I can put forward to ensure that association happens.

Tell us what your brand is.

There are four elements that I consistently use across various channels:
Name: I'm always cindyalvarez and blog at
Icon: See above
Tagline: Serious About Launching Great Products
Content Topics: user experience, product management, startups, doing things quickly/pragmatically, experimenting/trying new things
Persona: optimistic, blunt, action-oriented

How did you come up with your brand? Was it difficult?

I brainstormed a list of phrases and topics that described what I am and what I aspire to, professionally. Things that are differentiated (i.e. everyone would like to be thought of as "smart") and memorable. I didn't come up with everything all at once - I kept discovering new brand contexts - oh, how do I describe myself in 100 characters or less? oh, what should my short bio be?

How do I know my brand works? When people I've never met face-to-face forward me articles that I'd be interested in, or introduce me to people or client opportunities that are great fits.

What steps would you recommend other creative freelancers take to create a brand?

Take a stand. You are not good at everything, be upfront about that. It's easy to think, I need work, I can't afford to turn anyone away, but there's no advantage in branding yourself generically. Focus on a few things you do really well. It makes you more credible, and it makes you a more attractive consultant to the people who need your specific skills.

You need to care - you don't come across as authentic if you don't really care about the associations that make up your brand. It feels very natural for me to write about user experience design and how to be a better product manager and how to do user testing because I've done those things and it frustrates me to see them done badly.

Prove it. (and don't brand yourself on "unprovable" qualities). You want people to think of you as helpful? Proactively answer questions, share useful resources, educate others in your community. Put something out there - blog posts, case studies, tweets, endorsements - that proves that you are the things you brand yourself as.

Be memorable at a glance. I use the same blue+orange "c" icon everywhere - whether you're skimming through Twitter or comments on someone's blog or a professional social network, it's always consistent. Most people use faces or complicated logos - those are very hard to distinguish when they're shrunk down or in the midst of a sea of other little icons.

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