April 2, 2021

3 Things I Learned About Building a Personal Brand From Baking up a Brand

We live in the age of the personal brand. No matter who you are, what you do, or what you sell, you need a personal brand. There’s no avoiding it, so why not just lean in? I promise you don’t have to bend too far to build something of substance.

I would know. I built one of the most successful cupcake brands in the world, and along the way, I also built my own brand. Now, I can’t stop: from new business ventures to helping colleagues launch personal brands, I’ve been able to take my learnings and apply them to different industries, products, and even people. Here are three lessons I learned that will help you polish your persona.

Be Comfortable With Being a Face

We approached the branding at Sprinkles with great intention, but despite all of our precise planning, we didn’t foresee how I would become such a critical core of the brand. In the early days of the business, when I was also employee number one, it was natural for me to connect with my customers, sharing my story of leaving the corporate world to pursue my passion. People didn’t just start coming in for an afternoon treat, they stopped by to visit me. Some of our customers even started calling me Ms. Sprinkles. The press was naturally drawn to my story too, quickly labeling my journey — from banking to baking. Quite by accident, I came to personify the Sprinkles brand.

We could have named Sprinkles, Candace’s Cupcakes, but we didn’t. That was an intentional choice we made to ensure our product would always come first. What Sprinkles said was that this company is all about the cupcakes. But, people still buy people, and I eventually realized that by stepping up, and into my role as founder and face, I was giving people even more reasons to love, trust, and buy Sprinkles.

But it took me a minute to get behind this new role. Hospitality is all about service and giving. There was something that didn’t feel right to me about stepping out from behind the counter where I lovingly baked and boxed my customers’ goodies.

I had always been the quiet one in the corner making sure everyone had everything they needed. I shied away from this more public role. This wasn’t about me. It was about the cupcakes and the customers. And yet, it was about me too. When you are proud of your product, people want to see that in you too. It helps them feel good about the choice they are making, buying your product. This isn’t some shallow ego trip, but about becoming a passionate advocate for what you do.

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling baked goods, software, services, or even just your resume for a job interview — you have to be comfortable selling yourself, and not just what you’re offering. Ultimately, people are buying you, and not your product.

Strong Looks Get Noticed

A strong visual brand is essential for standing out from the crowd and building loyalty. It’s important to have a clear and consistent identity across every touchpoint. At Sprinkles, we set about to reinvent the lowly cupcake and no detail was too small. From the hand frosted icing to the colorful modern dot decorations, I wanted to elevate the cupcake beyond the world of kids’ lunchboxes and plastic clamshells, without making it inaccessible to buy or eat. I wanted to give the cupcake a modern-day makeover — one where the after picture looked like an even more beautiful version of the time before — not an unrecognizable stranger. The goal was to spruce up this beloved treat, and also to stay true to its playful, childlike soul.

That thinking extended to the bakery, which meant that our space would not feel like grandma’s kitchen. Cute and kitsch were out. Doilies were banished. There would be no vintage mixers in pastel colors. This old-fashioned aesthetic was replaced by natural woods in a chic and minimalist setting. The color pink would have to go to make way to a more gender-neutral aesthetic so everyone felt welcome and seen.

As I was initially thrust into the spotlight as the face of our company, I realized I needed to look as good as my cupcakes.

The old adage is true. You have to dress the part. I looked back at my early days of media and cringe. Baseball hat and not a stitch of makeup. Charming and relatable? Sure. I was truly just trying to make the cupcakes. In the scrappy startup phase, it was merely about survival. There was zero time for glamour, and it showed. I was lucky if I had a moment to powder my nose with something other than sugar.

Even when the cameras showed up for my cupcake collaboration with Blake Lively, I stubbornly stayed in my Sprinkles t-shirt and cooking clogs, while the gorgeous starlet radiated in head-to-toe Chanel. Not that I needed to look like a Hollywood starlet, but I sensed that people might be expecting more from me at that point than the look of a harried baker who had stepped out from the back of the bakery in between batches. I didn’t have to go Hollywood — I just needed to present a more polished camera-ready version of me.

Sprinkles Cupcakes were fresh and pretty and it made sense for me to present the same way, but how you present can mean something completely different for you. The key is that you are unapologetically yourself. If your whole vibe is nerd culture, don’t try to go glam just for the camera. You have to be you — but make it the best and truest version of the persona you’re trying to present.

Drive a Stake in the Ground

Sprinkles is a luxury product that most everyone can afford. A more sophisticated cupcake, yes, but still a cupcake: yummy, nostalgic, and playful. Sprinkles cupcakes are a treat intended for any age to enjoy in a bakery where everyone is welcomed. Kids who bring in A’s on their report cards score a free cupcake. Birthdays are celebrated. Sprinkles is even a member of the Disney family — with stores at Disneyland and Disneyworld. Our values are loud and clear — joy, connection, and inclusivity. It is the ultimate aspirational family-friendly brand.

It was a bit surprising for me to wind up on a TV show with the combative name, Cupcake Wars. As a judge, I was responsible for delivering my professional opinion on every cupcake set in front of me. Though considered a family show, it was still a competition format. Inherent in any unscripted competition show is the need for drama, and maybe even a snarky takedown or two — Hello, Simon Cowell. It would have been gold for ratings if I had let loose a barrage of scathing criticism. But joy and kindness, as boring as they might be, are my personal values, and the ones I imbued into the company I was representing on the small screen, so I channeled my inner Paula Abdul.

When representing your company, it’s important to reflect its brand values. Being the face of a family-friendly brand like Sprinkles means no racy Instagram posts or obscenities on podcasts, among other things. Luckily, the company I created and the brand extensions I was a participant in have always been a direct reflection of the values I possess. For me, living the responsibility to the Sprinkles brand is a piece of cake because these are the values I hold dear every day.

Whatever your personal values, or the values of your brand, be true to them. Not just when you’re on the clock or within a certain medium, but consistently, across time and space. Show those values on Instagram, shout them on Clubhouse, and live them in your everyday interactions. True values are fixed. Be intentional with the way you present yourself and represent your brand.

The bottom line is, just be a real person. Present the best version of yourself. Stay true to your core beliefs, and most importantly, lean into being front and center.