Personal Brand Ethics: Building Trust And Connections

One of my great joys is midwifing my clients’ greatest work out into the world.

Each of them serves their audience in a unique way, building connections, amassing a tribe around a shared central theme. They are making a living yes, but they are relentlessly focused on their big idea. One that is—by definition—for GOOD.

So it always jolts me when I trip across someone who has clearly crossed an ethical boundary in promoting their personal brand.

After a recent discovery (more on that in a moment), I started searching for personal branding ethics, particularly for those with something to sell—services, speeches, books. Turns out, there’s not a lot out there. Brand futurist Martin Lindstrom did the best job in this two-year old piece for Fast Company. His mostly consumer brand oriented advice rings true for those of us with personal brands.

My favorite? “Don’t do anything to kids and consumers that you would not do to your own children, friends, and family.” Indeed.

Building trust in your personal brand is all about transparency and consistent alignment with your values. Here are five ways you can ensure you’re not only building trust, but growing a connected audience.

1. Do not accept ANY compensation—referral fees, affiliate fees, commissions of any kind— without clear and direct disclosure. If you get a dime from your recommendation or promotion, you need to be crystal clear about it. Your audience deserves to know whether your recommendation—even for a $5 e-book—is attached to a monetary benefit.  Your ethical life will be vastly simplified if you just say no to extracurricular fees.

2. Avoid making outrageous, entirely self-serving claims. Sounds like the first day in professional selling 101, right? But I recently tripped over a “financial advisor” who touts commission-laden whole life insurance as a 401 (k) replacement, sold thru “my free authorized advisors”. Marketing-speak translation: life insurance salespeople paid me to include their names on my website—and I’m maybe even getting a kick-back once you buy from them. Seriously? To add even more insult, she regularly parlays this hype into controversial appearances on high-visibility platforms. Which she then uses to further legitimize her claims. Legal? Apparently.  Ethical? No way.

3. Never disguise advertising as content. Helpful content is highly desirable. And a straight-up advertising-style appeal is perfectly appropriate—this is business after all. But have you ever signed up for a “free” webinar where the host spends the first 10 minutes on a sales pitch? How likely are you to stay on? How likely are you to sign up for their mailing list or buy anything they might have to offer? Exactly.

4. Match your words with your deliverables. This may seem like no big deal, but it’s at the crux of trusted personal brands. The more alignment the audience feels in EVERYTHING you do, the stronger they sense you’re being authentic and transparent. You’re building trust. So if you truly are the top web designer for national law firms, tout away. But if you’re a small town solo with two local lawyers to your credit, you want to dial down the rhetoric. Pull in your best audience by telling real stories about how you’ve helped people exactly like them.

5. Stay away from anything vindictive, mean or callous. Ain’t nothing wrong with being provocative. But building an audience on being perpetually mean (think the fashion police who revel in public shaming) will eventually come back to bite you. Not to mention that unchecked snark attracts bullies like bees to honey. Do you really want an audience of trolls and wannabes?

Your ultimate goal here is to be clear on whom you’re serving and then use their best interest as your lens. Will your advice, your content, your essence serve them? Will it get them closer to where they want to be?

Whenever that answer is no, you know what to do.

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  • Great across the board advise.; it would make my world that often cuts into politics sane. I see the hyperbole and worse all the time, and not just in the ad and related material but in press statements and other public comments. And the press who cover these things does not always pick up on the lines getting crosses (but when they do catch up……).

  • Rochelle

    Thanks for the peek into politics Corey!

  • Rochelle this is why i love to read your posts.
    As a veterinary practice consultant I get approached by companies to promote or endorse their products. I don’t have a problem doing this provided I feel the product is a good fit for my clients and will either make their lives or the lives of their clients and patients better. Occasionally I am offered a “kickback” which is almost a red flag. I thank them and tell them in no uncertain terms that their product must win my favor by it’s own merit or it won’t get my nod. Recently I was asked to write some management articles for a company in direct competition with one of my best clients. I disclosed my relationship and the offer to both parties. My client was fine with me doing the articles but the competitor felt it too much of a gray line so I lost the work. That’s OK. Now both parties know I can be trusted to treat them ethically in the future and my personal brand is enhanced.
    I try to approach my clients the same way. If I don’t think I can help you I will refuse the work or find you someone who has the skills. I also start every consultation with the statement : ” I will help you to the very best of my knowledge, skills and abilities but I can’t MAKE you do anything. So unless you are willing to listen and change we need to stop now because your success is my success and I don’t like to fail!”.
    I sleep well at night and work with people who truly desire to improve with my coaching. Thanks again for reinforcing my ethical mantra…

  • Rochelle

    Wow Debbie–thanks for sharing this! I especially love your consultation opener–what a great intro for coaches with potential clients…

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