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Brand Management for Writers Part 1: What is Branding?

October 5, 2011

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?

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 5:32 pm

    …Nice Mary Poppins joke. Wonder who else got that. 🙂

    Y’know, I never got why sodas were found in drug stores. But that makes sense now! Hmm…

    I love the idea of author branding. I think one person who did a good job with Branding was Trenton Lee Stewart and his Mysterious Benedict Society. Check it out if you have a chance. He did a great job building a whole image to the series. (They’re also an insanely clever books if you feel like sharpening your mind!!!)

    • October 6, 2011 12:06 pm

      Hey, I am what I am… I can’t help that I make jokes like that. Disney movies are a part of me. I wondered if anyone would catch it – so it’s gratifying to have the first comment reference the joke. 😉 I’ll have to at least look into Trenton Lee Stewart – after all, I never wake up thinking “I hope not to sharpen my mind today.”

      • October 6, 2011 7:55 pm

        Ha ha! One of my favorite authors, I really admire his work. Great characters, and oh dear me, GREAT puzzles. Great, great puzzles. The series begins with a certain Mr. Benedict’s tests for children. The four main characters each possess a certain field of expertise. So Reynie works through the puzzle with good reasoning and expertise, Kate basically goes around the answer with her quick practical skills (it’s kind of hard to explain…basically, she knows how to get where she wants to go.), Sticky thinks his way through with book smarts, and Constance either denies the problem exists, does exactly the opposite of what’s been asked of her, or writes an insulting poem about the situation.

        It can get pretty awesome.

        Well, there was my endorsement, Mr. Stewart! 😀

      • October 7, 2011 8:18 am

        Well, that’s a great endorsement. Thanks!

  2. October 6, 2011 12:16 am

    Hmm…lots to think about!

    I know branding extends beyond what one can see with their eyes, but honestly for me, if there are certain graphic elements I can associate with a company, author, or any person or product…that really, really grabs me. I love Cherie Priest’s visual brand on her Clockwork Century novels. (Not necessarily something she controls, but it’s still connected to her.) They’re all very cohesive and mostly consistent (Clementine is a bit different form the others, but somehow it still seems to fit in fair enough with the others) and I like to just stare at them sometimes and admire how wonderfully they work individually and on the whole (seriously). Having the same cover artist to do the art helps a lot, I imagine, and using the same or similar fonts types, too. (If I were a graphic artist, I’m sure I’d be using way more precise terminology right now.)

    Personality-wise, I also like her stance on taking history and doing whatever she wants with it. She has this almost flippant “I made it this way, so meh to all you sticklers for history ’cause that’s just the way it is!” kind of attitude, haha, which I find amusing. Punk. It’s very prevalent in the author’s notes she includes in Boneshaker and Ganymede. Also, for her, Steampunk is all about having fun and it shows in her stories. That consistency and dedication to her own personal mission is part of what contributes to her brand, I think.

    Oh! Unrelated, but semi-relevant: do you know how the Sci Fi Channel changed their name to Syfy? That totally pissed me off when they did that! It’s like they were trying to make it all cutsy or trendy or something. I’m sure there’s some psychological reasoning behind it, but I can’t really pinpoint it–just that the new one feels more playful, which seems more fitting of fantasy-type shows. I think it’s mainly the “Y”s that bother me; the way they (inevitably, of course) dip down and curve…it’s fanciful. The old logo and spelling had a more definitive edge to it where all the letters actually lined up along their bottoms, giving it more of the rigidity which I’ve come to associate with the sci fi genre as compared to fantasy…

    But idk, maybe this is all just indicative of the direction their network has been leaning more towards lately… In that light, it actually fits perfectly. In any case, I just have mixed feelings about it, is all. I still enjoy a few of their shows.

    • Madison Woods permalink
      October 6, 2011 11:30 am

      Tiyana, that ‘y’ bothers me too. I think it’s because they tried to do what you said, make it cutesy or trendy, and remove the brains from scifi.

    • October 6, 2011 12:22 pm

      You get into a good point: not only is an author’s name a brand name, but each individual series is separately branded as well. And you’re absolutely right that visual elements and graphics can have a big impact on the branding. Keeping certain visual elements thematically similar across a series is usually much more satisfying to a reader – similar fonts, similar placement of titles and author names on the cover, similar art style and color palettes, etc.. Unfortunately, of course, the writers don’t have that much influence over these factors in the traditional publishing model. In theory, whoever is in charge has some understanding of branding – but I don’t think that’s always the case. As for the travesty that is “SyFy”… I don’t really know what was going on in their heads. It’s pretty awful. But I suspect it has to do with the changed direction of the channel – not so much to do with “fantasy”, I think, but with the overabundance of fake, staged “reality” TV. I stopped watching SciFi years ago when it became clear that SciFi had become, in reality, the “WWE and Ghost Hunters” channel… yuck. By that time I’d seen pretty much every episode of Stargate SG-1 already, and they’d canceled Farscape…

  3. Madison Woods permalink
    October 6, 2011 11:29 am

    Your logic makes sense and reflects what I’d always considered to be branding. I’ve never associated trying to build a brand with trying to build an identity for *me* but rather, for what I am producing by way of writing. I am not my brand. But the image I’m working to build, which is a reflection of one of my aspects, is the brand.

    • October 6, 2011 12:23 pm

      Exactly. You are not the brand. Your image in the reader’s mind’s eye is your brand – and that has to do with what they think about you and your writing and how you interact with them. And your name is the visual reference point on which the reader makes those associations.

  4. October 6, 2011 10:09 pm

    In homage to the departed Steven Jobs, Apple is one of those major brands that is nearly universally identifiable by its logo and its products. Love them or hate them. Apple as a brand connotes innovative, high-functioning, well-designed products. I’ve used Apple products ever since the very first PC, the Apple II. Except the years when Jobs wasn’t at Apple, they’ve consistently impressed me and my family and I are satisfied consumers of Apple products.

    Brand = Reputation (per http://www.dictionary.com: the estimation in which a person or thing is held, especially by the community or the public generally;)

    I think there is less angst amongst writers about the need to create a brand than there is about the best manner in which to accomplish the self-branding.

    We’re all told we need to attract readers to our stories via branding, but how do we really do that? To me, that is the real question and what I struggle with every day.

    • October 7, 2011 8:21 am

      Oh yes. Steve Jobs really created a wonderful and iconic brand in Apple. It’s one of the most valuable brands in the world. I don’t generally use Apple products, myself (I don’t like the idea of buying into the walled garden approach, personally) but I have a lot of appreciation for the beauty and quality of Apple products. I’ll be getting more into the how of branding in my next post – a little teaser: it’s both easier and harder than you think it is.

  5. October 7, 2011 11:51 am

    I’ve ‘brand’ out of things to say. HAH! Ok that was a terrible pun. 🙂 Thanks for posting up your thoughts on this.

    • October 7, 2011 12:21 pm

      No problem. I’ll have a little more to say on this in a bit – sort of a “Branding 101” introduction that will have a few tips geared toward writers.

Trackbacks

  1. Brand Management for Writers Part 2: A Brand New Adventure « The Undiscovered Author
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  5. What is an Author’s Brand… and How Do I Get One? | Janet's Writing Blog

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