A/K/A: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Brand
Last time, I talked a little about the history of branding, and about why it’s important for writers to think about. Hopefully, I assuaged many concerns about author self-branding with this simple point: a brand is not a product. And you, as an author, are not a product. Rather, a brand is an image: the collection of values and emotions and thoughts that a customer associates with a product or service. For you, as an author, your brand is your image to readers, and the collection of values, emotions, and thoughts that a reader associates with your name (or pseudonym) when they see it on the cover of a book or on the by-line of a story. Whether you are actively cultivating a specific brand image or not, you have one – and you can’t really choose to opt out of branding. You can only choose to disengage and let it happen on it’s own, or to actively take charge of it and direct its growth.
Either choice is legitimate, but there are dangers associated with disengaging: you may end up with a brand image that you come realize you don’t want, at which point it may be too late to change it.
Whatever choice you make – whether to engage or disengage – every blog post you write, every tweet, every public status update, every story you write, every book, every public appearance you make, how you dress and how you carry yourself in public, the visual appearance of your blog or webpage, the cover art on your books – all of it is influencing your brand image. Some of those things are more in your control than others, but they’re all making an impact on the image your reader is developing of you.
Assuming, then, that you have chosen to actively cultivate your brand… how exactly do you do that?
Marketing & Branding
In the most basic level marketing course you can take, you’ll learn about the “Four P’s of Marketing”, which are: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. (Although I’ve seen a slightly different version, too.) The Four P’s are a useful mnemonic for remembering the different aspects of what constitutes a “marketing”-related activity. It’s also a useful tool for thinking about branding, because of the four, two are an essential aspect of branding and the other two are at least peripherally important. This isn’t terribly surprising: virtually everything about a product can influence a customer’s perception.
In my marketing and branding classes, we engaged in a number of simulated exercises that encouraged us to experiment and learn about how marketing and branding actually work. These simulations typically us a product to be marketed, and a budget, a number of ways to spend that budget, and the ability to set the price for our products. What were some of those options? Purchase marketing research to tell us about the market and what customers want. Purchase advertising – where we got to customize some of the content of our advertising message. Buy premiere shelf-space at retailers, or pay salaries for a dedicated sales force to service certain retail channels. And finally – usually later in the game – the option to invest in product research to either create new products or refine existing product lines.
What we learned was that advertising was an important part of marketing. Advertising allows you to set the message, to choose what you want to communicate and who you want to communicate it with – but the primary pay-off from advertising was in consumer awareness. Consumers won’t try your product if they’re not aware of it. But after you convince someone to give your product a try, you’ve got to keep them coming back. And that’s the real secret of branding. How do you keep them coming back? The answer to that is simple: give them what they want.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is, while “messaging” is important – what you tell your prospective customers about your product and how you communicate with them – it can’t completely override what the customer sees right in front of their face. The most important aspect of branding – the single overriding factor – are the physical features of the product itself (including pricing) and how those features compare to customer needs and expectations. If a customer wants “Feature X”, and your product provides “Feature Y”, you’re not going to keep the interest of that customer. It doesn’t matter if you say in your advertising that “Our product has Feature X” (it doesn’t; that’s a lie), or “Our product has Feature Y, which is a substitute for Feature X” (is it really? maybe it is, but unless “Feature Y” is demonstrably superior to “Feature X” that’s not going to fly) or even “You think you want Feature X, but what you really want is Feature Y, which our product has” (oh really? you think you know what the customer wants, do you?). Throughout these simulations, all else being equal maybe advertising or price or ideal promotion would win the day – but in a marketplace with differentiated markets, the product that appealed to the right customers was the one that gained the advantage.
So what does this mean for writers?
The Product Is the Message, or Author Authenticity
As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, one of the things that I found ironic about Nathan Bransford’s post was that while he says he’s arguing against building an author brand, he spends his whole article actually arguing in favor of effective author branding. What do I mean? After leading off with the provocative line: “I believe this strongly about the Internet: There is no such thing as a brand.” and “To me, a brand is a cultivated fiction, it’s an image spun from a grain of truth.” he spends the rest of the article talking about the importance of “authenticity”, which he contrasts as being antithetical to branding.
News flash: the only truly effective branding is that which is authentic. This is true, ultimately, even without the internet. A brand is not merely a cultivated fiction. It is something that connects to consumers in a specific, emotional way. But you don’t achieve that by delivering a message that runs counter to the facts of your product. Frito-Lay doesn’t try to position their products as fine foods, or delicacies. Frito-Lay makes snack chips, and they market their products as being ideal snacks for certain snacking occasions. This branding works because it relates well with the facts on the ground. It doesn’t contradict customer expectations.
For authors, this is interesting, because they produce work in a medium of communication. In the classical sense, branders are producing a physical product, and then relying on some medium of communication to deliver a message about that product. For writers, the message is the product.
Writers, as they say, write. As a branding strategy, then, the best thing a writer can do is to write well. Really, really, really well, if you can manage it.
The next most important thing a writer can do is to correctly identify your audience, and refine your product and your communication to the needs of that audience. This isn’t as simple as writing for “readers”. Who are your readers? You can refine this by genre. You can refine by age. You can refine by gender, or by any number of other demographic or psychographic. (A real quick aside: demographics you’re likely familiar with: age, sex, race, etc. Things that make people visibly different on the outside. Psychographics are about internal, non-visible traits. They’re your interests and preferences. Demographic boundaries and psychographic boundaries do not necessarily coincide. People with common interests do not always look alike. But in the regular marketing world, psychographics are harder to measure. Luckily we writers and readers have been dealing with this for a long time: for us “genre” is one very useful psychographic.)
If you’re self-publishing, then your only concern will be your direct audience. But if you’re aiming for a traditional publishing path, then you have a more complicated audience question: there are also editors, agents, and others you may have to work with. As much as possible, you want each of these not only to like and be enthusiastic about what you write, but about how you write it, which is to say how easy you are to work with.
Blogging & Social Media: Your Message Is You
Effective branding works in part because of a consistent, targeted message. You know who your audience is, and what they want, and that you have a product that meets those needs. Now you just need to keep pushing that message to your audience in creative and engaging ways. And if you’re an author, you blog.
Here’s the good news for your budding brand-conscious author-blogger: you control the message and the delivery. You can write about what ever you want to write about. But if you want to brand effectively, you need to consider two things: what’s authentic to you – what’s interesting to you, or about your life – and of those things, which are likely to be of interest to your readers that you’re also comfortable sharing publicly? For your message to have maximum impact, you need to be able to engage those readers at a personal level. If you’ve picked your genre, you already know one useful thing about your readers: what they like to read. Expand and expound upon that, and branch out from there.
Ultimately, this boils down to what makes a good blog: readers come back to a blog if the blog regularly updates with content the readers find useful or entertaining or both. If you can’t be both useful and entertaining in what you write, you may have picked the wrong profession.
But here’s the bad news: unlike in those marketing simulations we ran, you don’t have access to a magnanimous corporate budget. You probably can’t afford air-time on a mass-market channel. This makes it harder to benefit from the positive effects of “consumer awareness” that a mass-market channel can provide. And you can’t afford expensive and detailed marketing research that tells you all about your audience and what they like, want or need. That makes it harder to target specific customers. This makes what tools you do have – your blog or other social media presence – all the more important. You’ve got to be clear and consistent in your messaging. You’ve got to be exciting and engaging. And you’ve got to be attentive to your readers, to their likes and interests, and intuitive about how those overlap with your own interests and agenda. And this is, as it turns out, really hard to do on a consistent, regular basis.
The good news, part two: even though the internet is forever, the internet is also a long-tail of second chances. Until you make it big, you’ll keep getting new chances to get it right. Nobody’s likely to read a long backlog of uninteresting posts stretching back years – and if those posts were uninteresting it won’t matter too much. What matters is that you keep your current content fresh and interesting.
Other little pointers: look-and-feel matter. As I pointed out above, visual elements are a part of your brand, and that includes the visual appearance of your blog or site. Here’s one where I’m failing, I know. My list of links and whatnot has grown so long that my sidebar is a cluttered mess. So yes, I’m failing at my own advice, here. I just haven’t had the time to deal with rebuilding the visual and thematic elements of the site.
I hope I’m not failing at the other aspect of my blog: providing interesting and engaging content. Either way, I still have time – both to fix the visual appearance and to continue to learn to provide good content.
And I still have time to work on the most important aspect of my brand: my stories.
How much thought do you put into what you blog about? What your blog looks like? Who your audience is and what their needs are?
And, in the interests of following my own advice: What do you think about my blog: the appearance, the content, and so on. What keeps you coming back? What likes and interests do you have that I’m able to touch on here?
Share all this – and more – in the comments.