Personal Branding Lessons from David Letterman

On Wednesday, May 20, David Letterman brought his 30-year run as host of The Late Show to an end.

I’ll confess — I never watched Letterman growing up. I can count on one hand the number of Late Show episodes I’ve seen. But I know him.

Talk show hosts are masters of creating personal brands to distinguish themselves from their counterparts and keep us tuning in night after night. Despite never having seen Letterman in action, I know he’s snarkier and edgier than many of his peers. I just know. It’s the brand he’s built over three decades on air.

Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, made his mark on The Tonight Show being boyishly handsome and puppy-dog excited, a reputation he gained from his Saturday Night Live days. And Conan O’Brien pokes fun at his freakishly long legs and tall red coif, with physically awkward gags and self-deprecating jokes that have become his signature style.

The most successful branders cultivate a personality that is unique, instantly recognizable and feels authentic. They give consumers a sense of familiarity to grab on to; a feeling of “I know you,” which often times extends to “I trust you.”

Personal brands extend beyond late night TV hosts to the world of business. Top CEOs know that crafting a successful personal brand goes hand in hand with effective leadership.

Look to leaders like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Letterman and Leno for tips on building a brand that will help you connect with others, and develop a strong leading voice in your industry.

Define what makes you, you.

Take a look at your passions and areas of expertise. Examine your personality traits, style, hobbies and experience and work those into your brand identity. Can you provide a viewpoint or way of presenting things that sets you apart from the rest? You could be the marketing guru who loves gardening, or the fashion-forward accountant who uses style analogies to explain Quickbooks.

Brands are, by nature, recognizable — so let your audience know what to expect.

Define your niche, and focus on developing it. Your audience should know what you stand for, whether it’s vintage cars or Apple products. If you’re into more than one thing, as many of us are, see if you can weave different interests into an underlying theme. If you’re all over the board, discussing too many topics or conflicting viewpoints, you risk coming across as a Jack of all trades, master of none — or worse, an inauthentic flip-flopper.

Get out there and build your reputation and image.

Letterman hosted more than 6,000 shows during his career, meaning he had plenty of exposure and practice to grow his brand over time. We don’t all have a million viewers tuning in every night for our monologue, but any one of us has the potential to reach billions across the globe. With a well-crafted message, a one-of-a-kind voice and passion for your subject, find your platform — YouTube, LinkedIn, guest blog post or your very own website — to share your content. Outside the virtual realm, search out speaking engagements or networking events that will put you in contact with others, face to face.

Align your efforts.

Update your social media profiles to ensure consistency with your new brand standards. And now, here comes the hard part. Post and share content regularly, on all your channels (including your main content sharing platform). Follow others in your field, and engage them in relevant conversation.

Most importantly, don’t forget to live your brand in real life. While this doesn’t mean spouting off your latest blog headline to folks at the office, it does mean building a brand that is an authentic version of you — with your beliefs, values, opinions and personality. Lead with that, and your readers will recognize, connect and follow.