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Aliza Licht knows how to stay ‘on brand’

The branding expert and former Donna Karan exec’s new book charts her journey from corporate PR to entrepreneur and takes the lessons learned to teach readers how to curate their own personal brands

In a world where it seems as if everyone is busy crafting a personal “brand” for themselves, Aliza Licht is something of a branding connoisseur. 

In 2015, Licht penned her debut book, Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It in Your Career. Rock Social Media., a mentorship guide for young professionals looking to jump-start their dream careers. Licht used the book’s success as a stepping stone to create her multimedia brand and consultancy, LEAVE YOUR MARK LLC — of which she is founder and president — solidifying herself as a global mentor.

Licht’s newest book, On Brand: Shape Your Narrative. Share Your Vision. Shift Their Perception., released on Tuesday, is an extension of sorts to Leave Your Mark, but with a focus on public perception and making sure that the image you’re presenting to the world matches how you want to be seen. It’s a book for those wanting to reach the next step in their careers or looking to pivot into something completely new — just as Licht herself did when she first started LEAVE YOUR MARK.

In 2009, before “influencers,” Instagram and TikTok, Licht worked for clothing giant Donna Karan as the senior vice president of global communications. In secret, she was also the mind behind DKNY PR GIRL, the brand’s anonymous Twitter presence giving followers an inside look into the world of fashion. After two years of mystique, Licht revealed herself as the face behind the handle, a move that sent shockwaves across the internet and became the catalyst for her first book deal. When the excitement surrounding DKNY PR GIRL and Leave Your Mark had died down, and with management steering Donna Karan in a different direction, Licht decided it was time to resign after 17 years. 

On Brand covers Licht’s journey into creating her own personal brand and offers up advice to readers who are looking to do the same.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: To start off, who is On Brand for?

Aliza Licht: So we live in this world today where people work in hybrid environments in virtual environments, and, you know, maybe back when I did create DKNY PR GIRL, having a personal brand was more of a choice. You know, DKNY PR GIRL was really one of the first examples of what we would later call ‘an influencer’, we didn’t know that word at the time. But today, I believe in this economic uncertainty, at a time when thousands of layoffs are happening each day, banks are closing, there’s so much chaos in the working world, I think it’s every single person’s responsibility to understand the message they’re putting out there. So really asking yourself, ‘OK, what do I want to be known for? What do I think people are consuming when they get to know me?’ and making sure that perception matches that. So I don’t care if you are in college and you’re thinking ahead with this book, you could be a middle manager who’s thinking about their career and their rise, you could be an executive who’s crushing it in your career, who wants to take that next step to become a thought leader. At the end of the day, I believe every single person has some version of a personal brand, because it starts with what makes you you. So this whole concept is just understanding what you want to be known for and making sure other people see you that way. 

JI: What made you want to focus specifically on the personal brand?

Licht: I think this goes back to really the times we’re in right now, and I believe that a strong personal brand means that your name gets dropped in rooms you’re not in and that people think of you for opportunities that other people haven’t even heard of yet. So, that is why, especially now, people who are coming up in the workforce, who are never going to go to an office, they’re never going to be able to create that in-person, understanding how to earn social capital, how to present on Zoom, how to have executive presence, how to build authentic relationships, all of these things are essential to being successful. So in On Brand, I really treat the idea of personal branding as much about the ‘in real life’ as it is if you want to do something online.

JI: How does On Brand differ from Leave Your Mark, and how does it advance the narrative that you started with your first book?

Licht: Leave Your Mark was my way of grabbing coffee with every single person who DM’d me on Twitter saying, ‘How do I break into fashion? How do I become a publicist?’ So, it is really, I always lovingly say, it’s like ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ meets career advice, because it’s like my story growing up in fashion with what I’ve learned, but really centered around landing your dream job and teaching the reader how work works. So I would say it’s a younger book, perfect for college-age, perfect for right out of college, there’s definitely thousands of people who are way older than that who read it and got something out of it, but I see Leave Your Mark as like a career mentorship in the form of a book. On Brand is different, On Brand is more mature, a bit more serious in concept. It’s not to say that someone who is in school right now or graduating or right out of school wouldn’t get a lot out of it, but the way that I positioned On Brand, is for people who are already on their way in their career journeys and want to really think about building equity in their own name. A lot of people rely on the brands that they work for. If you work for a really well-known brand, it’s very easy to slip into what I coined, ‘last name syndrome’ in Leave Your Mark, which means I was Aliza from DKNY or I was DKNY PR GIRL and I was introduced that way, but that’s not my name. So the idea of being a working person, but understanding that your name means something and should be able to stand on its own, is essential, because we are accumulating skills in all of our jobs, doesn’t matter if you’re a corporate person, a solopreneur, any type of worker in general, or even if you’re just starting, but we need to make sure that we’re thinking and putting as much effort into what our name means as we do the companies that we work for, or the companies that we’re trying to build.

JI: One thing I found really interesting when reading the book is the emphasis you put on understanding how others perceive you. It’s not enough to one day decide how you want to be seen by the world, you’ve already put something out there and given people a perception of you, and they might not take to the change you’re trying to put down.

Licht: Yeah, or, like, you think of yourself one way and that is not what people think of you. So, early in the book, there is an exercise as you know, where you’re asked to think of, ‘how would your colleagues describe you? or ‘how would your friends and family describe you?’ and ‘what do you think your superpower is?’ and then you’re asked to distribute that survey to people and have it come back in. In preparation for this book I did that, and I’m happy to say the answers married together, and that really is the magic. How you think about yourself should be how others think of you if you’re shaping your narrative correctly. But the problem is, most people don’t think about their narrative, they don’t think about actually making sure other people understand the value they add.

JI: It can be really scary to ask those questions. You talk a lot about the fear of showcasing what you can do and what you can bring to the table, so many people might not even realize they’re not putting down the exact narrative they think they are, because they’re too afraid to.

Licht: Yes, I mean, you raise a great point. And, listen, I hate the word brag, I really do, and this book is not about teaching people to brag, what it is trying to do is teach you to strategically position yourself. And that can show up in a lot of different ways. For people who are really uncomfortable talking about maybe something great that happened or an accomplishment, why not lean on trusted colleagues to say, ‘hey, you know what, I would love my manager to know this, but I feel really weird talking about it, would you be able to mention it?’ and then return the favor. Or put your results in a deck that you present to your manager, for example. But, I think if you’re waiting around for people to notice you’re really good at your job or what you do, that’s a huge mistake, because people are thinking about themselves.

JI: I also love the emphasis you put on not waiting for someone to shine a light on you, but to ‘make your own spotlight,’ but you cautioned not to inadvertently become the villain by overpuffing yourself up.

Licht: I think that, again, it goes back to strategic positioning and also elegantly sharing. So my rule is, for every one time that I’m going to talk about myself, or I’m going to share something super exciting that’s happening, I’m going to make it my business to support at least five other people publicly and share, amplify what they’re doing, because I think talking about yourself all the time is really boring, and people start to root against you. And I think the other thing that’s really a great tactic, which I talk about in this book, is the idea that you can create your personal brand and become very well known for something or be top of mind for the work that you do, if you’re putting something out there that’s going to benefit others. There’s a lot of ways to do it. It doesn’t have to be in a way that’s just like, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, no one wants to follow that.

JI: You talk about how the personal and the professional brand are often the same thing, but is there any way to have that work life balance or do you always have to be aware that you’re ‘on?’

Licht: Such a great question. Well, the more senior that you are in whatever you do, whether in a corporation or as an entrepreneur, the more there is no room to make mistakes — and I do think we live in a world where you’re one 15-second video away from trouble. And we’ve seen it happen so many times, we’ve seen people get fired for a tweet, we’ve seen people get college acceptance letters rescinded for a text message. So, this is where I believe that people need to be thinking about what they’re saying. And they need to think about it not just on social media, they need to in their DMs, on text message, on email. How you’re showing up matters, and you’re leaving an impression on every single person you come in contact with. And yes, if you mess up it can affect your livelihood, I mean we see what Cancel Culture does to very famous people. So that’s one of the reasons in this book I put in an entire chapter on reputation management, PR 101, and how to survive canceled culture, because if I’m going to tell you how to build a personal brand, I need to help you if you get in trouble, and hopefully avoid it.

JI: Touching upon that chapter on cancel culture, barring doing something that’s truly unforgivable, is there a way for someone who made a mistake to get back to where they were and rebrand fully?

Licht: It really depends on what the person has done. Public apologies, especially well known people, we know that we all analyze the sincerity of the apology and what steps the person has taken, whether to educate themselves or really show that they really didn’t understand the topic or really didn’t understand the history of a conversation and really want to better themselves. You know, we see this a lot with antisemitism, we see a lot of people who have overtly been antisemitic, especially sports figures online, end up at Yad Vashem on a tour, learning about the Holocaust. By the way, I think that’s a great thing and I think it’s important, like if you are a public person, to show that you are taking an action to actually learn more. Can you come back? Sometimes you can. And I think that regardless of who you are, you need to definitely take a break to show that you are actually sorry. I think when people just sort of snap back like a rubber band, they’re like, ‘oh, sorry,’ and then they move on to their sort of regularly scheduled programming, we can all see that like, OK, they didn’t take this that seriously. So there is definitely a moratorium on activities.

JI: To conclude, what do you want your readers to take out of this book?

Licht: I want people to understand their place in the world. I want them to peel back the layers on their aspirations, to think about their North Star goal, to be self-reflective on how they’re speaking, what they’re aligning with, the energy they’re giving off, and making sure that that audit, that self audit, is actually what they intend to, and then connecting the dots back to the people around them and the impression they’re making. I truly believe this is critical work for every single person, almost as their own personal journey. If people read this book, I would be shocked if they didn’t think of themselves in a new way, because the work is self reflective, and I’m giving advice, and I’m giving strategy, and I’m giving tactics, but I can’t create your personal brand. I can share everything I know, I can share why you should do it, why you should think about it, but you have to do the work. And that is why the mental gymnastics sections are there, because I want you to feel empowered to take these baby steps throughout the book and just start thinking it through. I mean, they’re fun exercises, they make you think about yourself, they make you think about how you’re showing up. So, there’s a million, sort of, personas and case studies, certainly in the rebranding section, but I really hope people are just self-reflective and just take away that they should just think about the impression they’re making throughout their journey in their life.

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