She added that when she thought of other brands like Toyota, Honda or Maruti Suzuki, she associated each one with one or more clear value propositions, be they efficiency, engineering innovation or reliability. I suggested perhaps marketers of other car brands had sold their brands' strengths better to her, or maybe she had not given the GM brand sufficient attention yet. She agreed both were possible. But if the first reason is the right one, what does it teach us?
I remembered our conversation when I read a book I chanced upon at a pavement store last week: How You Are Like Shampoo - For Jobseekers by Brenda Bence. It shows how the principles of product branding can be extended to people as well.
Research shows that pattern matching is central to humans. In the 1970s, psychologists Nancy Cantor and Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University, demonstrated how people resort to stereotypes, and tend to categorise strangers within the first few moments of interacting with them. Around the same time Donald O. Clifton, considered the father of 'strength-based' psychology, also suggested that to make a success of their lives, people needed to identify their unique talents and work towards maximising them.
This would enable them to produce better results at work and also offer them opportunities whenever the specialisations they had were needed. In a recent blog, Daniel Gulati, author of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, discusses a study of Hollywood actors by MIT Professor Ezra Zuckerman. The study concludes - and Gulati agrees with it - that actors who typecast themselves early in their careers, largely doing roles that conformed to a particular image, tended to earn more. "There is a lesson in this for career generalists wondering whether it is time to specialise in their next role, either within their current organisations or in a new company," says Gulati.
So how do you start becoming a specialist? First, you have to get over the mindset that there is nothing 'unique' about you, and combat years of conditioning that trains people to focus on overcoming their shortcomings.
Research-based consulting company Gallup has held millions of psychological interviews and identified themes of talent that aid people in achieving success. It offers the Clifton 'Strengths-Finder' tool, which lists 33 traits - and tests by which individuals can ascertain how much of each trait they possess. There are many other such tests.
Experts suggest the road to specialisation can also start from listening to what people say about you, how they introduce you. Then set down your own assessment. Get peers and seniors involved. Having acquired a realistic picture, start getting better at what you are good at, and let people know it too.
If the person hiring you does not know your key strength, chances of you getting into a role of your liking are slim. Similarly, if you are good at many things, your employers should know, so you can help fill holes in the organisation when they arise.