Brand Management for Writers Part 1: What is Branding?
Recently, about a month ago, fellow author and blogger T.S. Bazelli mulled over the question of author-branding. Her post was in response to one by author Nathan Bransford on the subject, in which Nathan contended that “there’s no such thing as a brand” when it comes to authors on the internet.
It occurred to me, after reading these two posts, that it had been a long time since I talked about branding on my blog – in fact, it has been over a year. So perhaps it might not be remiss for me to address this topic.
To start, then, let me state my credentials and qualifications on the topic. I do not, nor have I ever worked directly in a capacity to influence the branding of any company – though I have been on the very peripherals of rebranding campaigns. However, this past May I completed my Masters of Business Administration from one of the top business schools in the country. As part of my course of study in my MBA, I studied Marketing, and specifically I studied Brand Management. I took a class in Product and Brand Management specifically because I felt that the topic would prove important in my career. I found that the topic was not intuitive for me like some topics – but I learned enough from that class to come away fairly well-equipped to discuss the generalities of brand management – and as a writer I feel equally well-equipped to discuss those generalities as they relate to a writer’s career.
So, given all that, it probably comes as no surprise that I disagree with Nathan Bransford’s central premise. You might find it interesting, then, that in my estimation Bransford goes on to spend much of the rest of his article discussing the importance of branding – apparently without realizing that’s what he’s doing, given his central premise. A lot of authors, especially in this social-media-saturated climate, have developed a deathly paralyzing fear of the idea of self-branding, and to such as these, Bransford’s article offers a lot of comfort. It’s probably easier to swallow a pill about branding – if you hate the idea of branding – when you’re first told how unimportant branding is.
Bransford, for instance, starts by saying this:
To me, a brand is a cultivated fiction, it’s an image spun from a grain of truth.
But by the end, he’s saying this:
The only brand you’ve got is you.
The central conceit of Bransford’s article is based on a mistaken assumption about branding and marketing, namely, this equation:
Branding = Lies
If this is your starting point, then yes, Bransford’s article will be a breath of fresh air. If, however, you approach branding from a different direction – if you understand that “brand = image”, you’ll reach very different conclusions.
I don’t want to scare writers who are worried or nervous about the prospect of branding: it is also my goal to put you at ease, even as I tell you how important it is. But my hope is that I can accomplish this goal by sharing a little bit about what I learned about branding in my MBA. Don’t worry: you don’t need to go out and get an MBA to get what I’m talking about.
Let me start with a short aside on the history of branding.
Cattle Rustlers and Soda Jerks
The history of the word “Brand” goes back to very old times. It means “to burn” or “burning” and refered to the practice of the producer of a good burning a mark or symbol onto a product to identify the maker. A prominent North American example of this was cattle branding: ranch owners would devise peculiar and distinctive marks and burn this mark onto the hides of their cattle to identify them. This system of cattle branding allowed multiple ranchers to graze their livestock on open prairie and be assured that their proper cattle would be returned to them at the time of roundup.
Branding as a means of identifying products produced by a specific manufacturer came into more general use in the late 1800s and early 1900s – yep, it’s a product of the Steampunk era! One famous and oft-studied example is Coca-Cola. In the early days of Coca-Cola, local soda-fountain jerks at drugstores were still the go-to guys for tonics and sodas (which originally, as I recently learned, were flavored beverages designed to help the medicine go down – in the most delightful way, of course). But Coca-Cola was centrally produced and distributed – not formulated or mixed on the spot – and they needed to raise customer awareness of the product. Thus was born the ubiquitous and iconic imagery and the cursive logo. Coca-Cola is still considered one of the pre-eminent brands today: an oft-repeated fact in B-schools is that Coca-Cola is still preferred by the majority of cola drinkers, based on buying habits in the US, despite the fact that most people prefer rival Pepsi-Cola’s beverage in blind taste tests (although I’ve learned there’s a caveat to that fact, which is beyond the scope of today’s article).
One of the key factors that leads to this buying preference despite the rival’s taste advantage: the value that people attribute to the brand. The New Coke fiasco of the 1980s further demonstrates the positive effect of Coca-Cola’s branding: taste tests suggested the new Coke formula was superior both to the old Coca-Cola formula as well as to Pepsi. And yet the public outcry over the switch to New Coke was so swift and severe that The Coca-Cola Company was forced to retract it from the marketplace and replace it with a product based on the original formula: Coca-Cola Classic.
In a nutshell, then, effective branding leads people to attach a certain value, significance, or meaning to a product, which when done right can cause the people to value the product at a premium in the marketplace. In other words: people will tend to prefer a well-branded product over one that doesn’t, and they may even be willing to pay more for it, all other factors being equal.
Okay, that’s why it’s important for products, but it doesn’t answer the question of why it’s important for writers.
Who Is Brand You?
When faced with the idea of branding, many authors feel uncomfortable, quite naturally. But Iam not a product, you might say. I’m a human being. I can’t be a brand. I’m not selling myself. This is another common misconception about branding – one that is perpetuated by the nature of what effective branding does. The brand is not the product. The brand is not a physical thing. The brand is not bought or sold. It is cultivated. It is nurtured. It is grown organically.
With good branding, you can take the same brand and extend it across multiple, related products, and you will see the same positive effect bleed over from one product to the next as long as those new products do not disrupt the brand image.
The essence of branding is all about image and emotional response. It’s about how customers perceive your brand – and by extension, your product. For writers, it’s about readers perceive you, and by extension, your writing.
Here’s the thing, whether you’re actively branding or not – whether you’re trying to cultivate a specific brand image, everything you do when you interact with the market is either reinforcing or creating a brand image. You can choose to check out, to dissociate yourself from the process, but with or without your consent, whenever you interact with customers, you’re creating a brand image. After all, unless you write as “anonymous”, it’s still your name (or your pseudonym) on your books and stories.
It’s perfectly possible, of course, to happen upon a coherent and strong brand simply by accident – or simply by being who you are. If you’ve got a strong personality, that will reflect in your brand. But it’s also possible for your interactions with your readers to be incoherent or inconsistent – we are, after all, at times incoherent and inconsistent beings. But that will hurt your brand image. The more frequently your interactions with readers are incoherent or inconsistent or off-message, the more readers are going to associate that with your name. They’ll form those impressions of you, and those impressions will influence what they think about your book and whether they want to buy it. If those impressions are negative: that’s one sale you’re not going to make.
Instead, the alternative, as a writer, is to think carefully about the message you want to put out there about yourself. What do you want your readers to think or feel when they see your name on a book? What keeps them coming back to and reading your blog or your tweets or your status updates? Just who, exactly, is Brand You?
Hopefully, I’ve given you an idea of why branding is important – even to you, as a writer. Next time, I’m going to go into a little more detail about what branding is, at a fundamental level, and how you can consciously influence it as a writer.
In the mean time, tell me: what are your impressions on the idea of author branding? What are your favorite brands out in the real world: products, services, authors, you-name-it?