I once had a dear friend, let’s call her Maria, who thought it was a good idea to prepare for a date with a fitness-loving beau by dressing in her SoulCycle outfit, though she hadn’t been to a spin class. Her hair was perfect, and her face flushed just so. I asked the obvious question: What the hell are you thinking? Maria was a beautiful woman but, like most of us, didn’t look her best after a workout. However, she had affected this very particular look because she wanted her date to think she always finished training with that post-workout halo.
The truth is that you cannot always fake it until you make it. Genuine connections are built on authenticity. So, like any good friend, I told Maria she would be found out in the end.
The same principle applies to building a service-based brand. When you offer a unique, intangible commodity rather than a physical product—as is the case for many real estate agents, event planners, stylists, consultants, and designers—your reputation lies in your credibility. Creating a strong brand identity starts with understanding your strengths, then aligning them with the needs and desires of your audience.
UNDERSTANDING THE GAPS
Try this simple thought experiment: Imagine yourself sitting in a room with your ideal client. Don’t think about what you would say, but what you want them to think of you. Now fast forward five minutes. You’ve left the room. What is the client saying about you?
When I discuss this with colleagues and business owners who’ve come to me for strategic branding advice, most answer that they’d like to be seen as intelligent, informed, and professional. And who wouldn’t?
But as we delve deeper, we often uncover an incongruity between their desired qualities and actual experiences. It’s okay not to embody every idealized quality, but this disconnect between aspiration and reality can damage a brand’s reputation if left unaddressed.
There is a distinction between disparity of experience and personality.
If you’re a New York real estate agent who claims to know every inch of Tribeca, but you’ve somehow managed to get turned around between Walker Street and Franklin Street while prospecting, an experiential problem needs to be fundamentally addressed.
However, if you want to come across as eloquent and outspoken when you’re naturally shy and introverted, that’s workable. It is possible to reframe that perceived weakness into a unique strength.
What you lack is not nearly as important as what you offer. The best approach is to lean into the synchronicities between the qualities you possess and those that appeal to clients, such as transparency, sincerity, and diligence.
And in fact, being true to yourself is often what sets successful brands apart. Genuinely owning your imperfections is more important and effective than playing at perfection. Self-disclosure of flaws builds trust, and authenticity is the foundation for legitimate points of connectivity. It’s also far less difficult to maintain; pretending to be someone else is exhausting.
LANDING THE ELUSIVE FIRST DEAL
The path to building true connections—unpolished and unpaved as it may sometimes be—is important because strong brands generate the lion’s share of their business from within their networks rather than through chance encounters.
It’s a poorly kept secret that knowing the right people is an advantageous foundation for those looking to carve their place in the business world; referral marketing is often more effective than any other channel.
Solo power players, especially those making conscious growth efforts, leverage personal experience in the same way—by relying on a strategically cultivated network derived from [cross-]industry expertise. There are likely people in your orbit who think highly of you and respect you. They are your audience and your path forward.
Rather than chasing a $10 million buyer, turn toward your own sphere of influence. Those who have worked with you in another capacity know you to be reputable and are far more likely to take a chance on you than a stranger.
Your first few contracts are your greatest obstacles. Building your brand from the ground up requires securing wins straight out of the gate and developing a posture of discipline to multiply that initial success.
With that discipline must come gratitude. “Thank you” goes a long way, especially considering that the strength of established relationships is vital in any service-based profession. Expressing appreciation for those who trusted in you—who became your clients, made recommendations, left reviews—strengthens the bond, cultivating security. Then, follow it with action: Validate their belief with a cannon of experience and wins.
The service industry is cutthroat—especially in my field more than others. The real estate world has a merciless appetite for agents; 87% of agents don’t last five years. To avoid becoming a statistic, always be thinking toward acquiring future clients. Whether it be a newsletter or participation in a charity, give people the chance to experience your brand when you are not around. You can start with social media, email marketing, in-person networking events, or by supporting local philanthropic organizations. The best sign of gained traction is unsolicited positive feedback.
After all, in this game, it’s survival of the most consistent.
EARNING THE RIGHT TO BE YOURSELF
Building yourself as a product is not a static event. Instead, it requires a constant cycle of introspection, audience evaluation, and business direction. You are your product. There is no substitute, no proxy for the service-based professional. Being honest, genuine, authentic, and yes, even flawed, can be a powerful strategy that allows you to connect with your audience on a deeper level. This notion may have eluded my friend Maria, but it does not make it less true. It might even become your strongest selling point.
You can read the article on Fast Company here.