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“Your reputation precedes you” is an idiom that most of us have thrown around a time or two. But have you ever paused to consider what might elevate your reputation and take it to the next level? These days, the personal branding movement offers us an opportunity to proactively pursue how we present and represent ourselves — cue AJ Vaden, who officially launched Brand Builders Group in July 2018 with her husband, Rory.

The former art major, personal brand strategist, and self-proclaimed personal development junkie from Dalton, Georgia, helps create, launch, and grow multi-million dollar companies. Forbes named her podcast, The Influential Personal Brand Podcast, one of the top 10 podcasts to listen to in 2021, and she’s on a mission to challenge and empower men and women of all ages to own their passion and purpose. Please welcome CEO and Co-founder of Brand Builders Group, AJ Vaden.

AJ Vaden in a burgundy hat

Please welcome this week’s FACE of Nashville, CEO and Co-Founder of Brand Builders Group, AJ Vaden! 

Was personal branding something you studied?

I started as an art major at the University of Tennessee. I’m from a little town, and I decided to get a fresh start with new experiences and new faces. Towards the end of my college experience, I realized that maybe being a painting major wouldn’t go very far! So, I swapped my major to advertising with a business and Spanish minor. I studied abroad in Mexico and Australia, then quickly learned that I wouldn’t be a good employee. I think my first job out of college only lasted six weeks. I realized having somebody telling me what to do, where to be, and when wasn’t good with me. I come from a very entrepreneurial family, and I wanted that freedom.

What exactly is a “personal brand?”

A personal brand is the digitization and monetization of your reputation. It’s not a celebrity or an influencer; it’s simply what people think about when they think of you, also known as your reputation. It is an intentional, proactive journey of digitizing and monetizing your reputation into a personal brand — what you want to be known for.

AJ Vaden posing on a bridge.

“People fall in love with you because of your authentic personality and who you are at your core,” explains AJ, “and we all need to be reminded and encouraged to be our unique, original selves.”

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Why is personal branding more important than ever?

We spent almost six months compiling and fielding a research study. We hired an independent firm, and we found that 82% of Americans believe that companies are more influential when the executives or founders have a public-facing personal brand. Why is that? Well, 74% of Americans believe that you are more trustworthy if you have an established personal brand. Our currency in today’s market is trust. When I can see you, and I know you and align with you, I’m more likely to trust, support, promote, recommend, and spend money with you. Personal branding is a way for me to get to know and see you before I ever meet you or buy from you. Personal branding is important because it’s the future. It’s also a trust accelerator.

AJ Vaden and her husband, Rory, laughing together in their back yard.

“My husband and I created Brand Builders Group to help people shift the way they view themselves,” says AJ. “A personal brand is not about the title on your business card or the car you drive … it’s about your personal beliefs, your values, your interests, and your energy.”

What do you feel is the number one struggle for clients when it comes to personal branding?

They try to be too much like someone else! They have too many ideas, too many business models, too many content topics, and too many conversation topics. They’re like, “I can help you with sales, and leadership, and entrepreneurship, and marketing, and branding.” They become a one-stop shop for everything, which makes them known for nothing. They aren’t clear on their uniqueness, and they don’t think that’s important. Instead, they believe competitor research and competitor analysis are essential. This is about what no one else in the world can claim because they’re not you. People spend too much time comparing and analyzing versus leaning into their God-given superpower.

Do you feel COVID-19 is affecting how people look to present themselves?

Absolutely. I think Covid woke up the majority of the population and got them saying, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Do I love what I’m doing? Should I be doing something else? Maybe money isn’t the answer. Maybe I want more passion, or time, or space.” I think it created an opportunity for us to step back and ask, “Do I want to go back to an office where it’s all about money, or do I want to create something that’s about impact and passion?”

AJ in a plaid suit with a pink blouse.

“I don’t want to compare my professional accomplishments to someone else’s, and I don’t want to have to earn my pride,” says AJ. “I’m proud of every success and failure equally because they are making me who I am.”

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What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?

This is a tricky question. I believe that a huge problem with American culture today is that we emphasize what we have done versus who we are. So, I am intentionally going to answer this question by saying, I don’t want people to be impressed by what I’ve done; I want them to be impressed by who I am, what I believe, and what I value.

AJ Vaden in her home office with her children.

At home with her children, it’s clear that a large portion of AJ’s personal brand is her family.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The one that sticks out the most recently is, “A wealthy mindset spends money to save time; an unwealthy mindset spends time to save money.” I’ve always been in an unwealthy mindset in my professional career. It’s always about how do I pay just enough to get it done? I end up doing all the work, and I’ve sacrificed a lot of relationships, family time, and me-time doing that. Now, I’m living in a different mindset, and I’m willing to invest the money to save time because it’s the one thing I can’t get more of.

Faith, family, and friends notwithstanding, what three things can’t you live without?

A coffee glacier from Portland Brew. It’s my vice! The second is travel — I love to see new cultures. I love my toes in the sand and the fresh mountain air. My last one is music – it’s an instant mood shifter for me. It’s powerful.

Thanks, AJ! And thanks to Nick Onken for the photos!

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