Why Academics Should Consider Branding Themselves


Monday, January 17, 2022  / 11:23 AM / OpEd by Prof Robert Ebo Hinson / Header Image Credit: anyaberkut; iStock

This is the first in a four-part series on personal branding for academics in an era of dwindling state funding for higher education institutions, decreases in university income in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and unending criticisms from employers that the graduates from African Universities are not a good fit for the continent's human capital needs.


Let me start by introducing myself. I am Professor Robert Ebo Hinson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kigali, and a fierce advocate of the utilisation of marketing, brand and customer experience techniques to boost the fortunes of Universities in Africa. Whilst I have written extensively on topics like University Marketing, University Marketing Communications, University Customer Service Delivery and relates issues like alumni management, this is my first piece on how individual academics can use marketing and brand management techniques into formidable personal brands to boost their own career progressions and, in many cases, their economic fortunes. Strong personal brands usually lead to stronger corporate brands, so that as the academics build their personal brands, the institutional brands they represent ultimately become stronger as well.


The Case Against Personal Brands

The PersonalBrand.com website defines personal branding as the conscious and intentional effort to create and influence public perception of an individual by positioning them as an authority in their industry, elevating their credibility, and differentiating themselves from the competition, to ultimately advance their career, increase their circle of influence, and have a larger impact.


An article in the Social Media Marketing | Social Media Examiner entitled "Personal Branding: How to Successfully Build Your Brand" also argues that the process of personal branding involves finding your uniqueness, building a reputation on the things you want to be known for, and then allowing yourself to be known for them. Ultimately, the goal is to create something that conveys a message and that can be monetised.


For an academic, therefore, some of the approaches to building a strong personal brand will be:

  • choosing a subject area you want to be known as an expert in and positioning yourself as an authority in that industry (not in your office or lecture room alone),
  • elevating your credibility but not only publishing in peer reviewed outlets but also on platforms that industry experts read and
  • differentiating yourself from the competition by adopting unique approaches to standing out.


Those activities will lead to academics advancing their career, increasing their circle of influence and a monetisation of their academic efforts, so that their personal wealth can be improved and that of the institutions they work for as well.


Whilst I will do a more exhaustive treatment of personal brand building approaches and the benefits of personal brand building for academics later, it is important to note that there are strong reservations against the personal branding concept as well. Jessica Holland in a July 2017 article on the BBC entitled the "The case against personal brands" posits that self-promotion can also be exhausting. She argues further that Sheryl Sandberg, noted author and Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, also kicked against personal branding in a May 2017 Wharton lecture. Sheryl is reported to have noted inter alia that:


  1. You don't have a brand
  2. People are not that simple. When we are packaged, we're ineffective and inauthentic.
  3. Don't package yourself. Just speak honestly, factually and from your own experience.
  4. Traditional branding paints a picture of products that are flawless and consistent - think of famous brand slogans from "Never knowingly undersold" to "The best a man can get". Humans don't work that way, as Sandberg acknowledged. We are complicated and fallible. There's a risk that creating a "perfect" personal brand comes with enormous pressure to live up to it.


I must confess that I have read this article at least 10 times since it was first published in 2017, and ironically while it sets out to reject the idea of personal branding as absurd and dehumanising, my view is that it  achieves the opposite.


When an article argues that self-promotion can also be exhausting, and that when people are trying to create a personal brand, they must be always on, this is actually one of the most compelling reasons to build a conscious personal brand. When an article also argues that personal branding "introduces a new way of constantly policing yourself. It forces you to be far more instrumental about your personal life", well, this is why personal branding is so important. So that you are careful about your life in the academy and have a clear plan for achieving professional success.

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Five Platforms for Personal Branding for Academics

Fifteen years ago, I hypothesised in an article published in the Online Information Review that academics work in the general areas - teaching, research, consultancy, administration, and policy making.


I will end this part of this series by arguing that academics can use these five platforms as initial poles on which to hand their personal branding efforts.


For teaching, begin to reflect carefully on how your personal brand persona is projected through your teaching project cycle. John Tregoning argues that we have two things to sell, our ideas (what we teach) and ourselves. Of the two, the main product we sell is ourselves . He argues that be the brand: you are the product. So when you are assigned a course in 2022, remember that the brand touchpoints for your students start way before you meet them in class.


  1. How do you engage your students before you actually meet them?
  2. What is the quality of your course design and content?
  3. How much of your course is digital?
  4. How integrated is your course into real world issues and problems?
  5. How much have you drawn on your professional and academic network to bring in experts into your class, to give a real world feel to the course?
  6. How much do you know about the expectations of the class so that their expectations are factored into the course design?
  7. How much of your own scholarship is infused into the curriculum design?
  8. How much do you connect our own current research and consultancy and outreach assignments into the course?
  9. How many of the recommended reading texts include your journal papers, book chapters, technical papers, monographs or edited volumes?
  10. How many of your students would recommend you and your university to their organisations for future consulting and training assignments?


Basically, the question you need to ask yourself is how much of you is in the course you are teaching? And please do not worry if you are a starting scholar. One of the easiest ways to put your brand insignia on any course you are teaching is creating some snazzy podcasts and videos to accompany your course delivery and students will take these materials away and share and share and propagate the gospel according to you. This approach has yielded several professional opportunities to me and the various institutions I have been affiliated with.


I will deal with the issues around research, consultancy, administration, and policy making in part 2, how to develop a personal brand vision in part 3 and close out in part 4 by discussing the benefits of personal branding for academics.


About the Author

Professor Robert Hinson is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Kigali. You can visit his website www.robertebohinsonbooks.com or email at rhinson@uok.ac.rw for any training or consultancy assistance in the areas of marketing, sales, customer experience of higher education management.


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