Purpose – Over the past two decades the subject and growth of social media has been exponential, along with its relevance to the sport marketing industry. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the strategic usage of social networking websites to develop the concept of a personal brand by international rugby union players. Design/methodology/approach – This study was embedded within an interpretivist paradigm that allowed the qualitative examination of the way international rugby players use social networking sites. The primary data collection method involved ten semi-structured interviews and was triangulated with secondary sources which involved visiting the three social networking sites utilised by all the players (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram). Findings – The research analysis revealed personal branding themes that can be classified according to the following mnemonic: personality, exposure, response, follow, endorse, consistent, and target audience (PERFECT). Research limitations/implications – This study has focused entirely upon international rugby union players; therefore no claim is made for generalisability to other contexts. A potential area for future research lies in replicating this study in different sport settings in order to identify whether the identified contextual factors also play a role outside of international rugby union and for different gender, playing-level or social media categories. Practical implications – This study has reinforced that, within “real-life” social networking contexts, the development of an online profile can help create differentiation for players in a highly competitive market, especially if they share similar “sporting” characteristics with colleagues or other athletes. This research highlights that the utilisation of social networks by sports athletes has to become part of a strategic marketing approach. Originality/value – The author draws attention to the theoretical position based on the PERFECT mnemonic offering sports athletes a framework to develop a successful online branding strategy. The central premise is based on emphasising uniqueness and distinction to offer a competitive advantage by delivering added value throughout various communications. © 2016, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.