Sunday, September 09, 2007

Branding - Let's Keep It Simple, Shall We?

Yesterday, I was invited to speak at the monthly meeting of the Tampa Area Romance Authors, where I delivered a workshop on "Branding". You see, I have this theory that branding is not as complicated as it sounds, once you understand a few of the basics. The ladies of TARA were great, and I got some wonderful feedback on the workshop, so I thought I'd share it with anyone else who's been scratching their head about "branding", and why it's so important to published authors and aspiring authors alike.

I'm going to do it in three parts, because hey... I presented it in three parts, and you'll have to come back to my blog three times that way, right? :) No, seriously, better to break it up into three different sections than overwhelm you with one giant one.

So here we go:


I used to think that branding was so complicated! I mean, I went to the conferences and sat through the workshops. I’ve seen six week courses on this stuff! I heard phrases like “emotional velcro” and “brand equity” and “target demographics”. I thought I understood branding in a general sense: McDonald’s has their Golden Arches, Coca-Cola has their big red and white circles that say COKE, Dr. Pepper has their peppy people dancing and singing in the streets. But when it came time for me to do it for myself, it became really complicated.

I know what I write. I know what I like to read, but how does that translate? I did my research, I lurked on online loops, I tried to absorb it all and figure it out.

And then I had a revelation. I read this quote by Dolly Parton (of all people), and it goes like this: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

Dolly should know, right? When we think Dolly Parton we think big hair, big um… (heart! Yeah, big heart! LOL), country music and a cheerful, upbeat personality. Dolly is unashamedly Dolly, and she does it well.

And that’s what branding really is. At heart, branding is about being yourself, finding the part of yourself that you’re trying to express through your writing, and then expressing it WELL.

We strive so hard to write well, don’t we? We do all we can do to be the best we can be. Branding is really just an extension of that – because branding is really about evoking emotions, which is just like what we try to do in our writing.

Technically, branding is defined as: “Establishing a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.”

Huh? I’m an intelligent person. I know what the words mean, but how do they translate? The definition seems so… well… unemotional.

So here’s my radical thinking approach to branding: Branding is simple. It’s not just developing the right tagline, the right font, color scheme, or logo (all of which are important, by the way, but not THE most important things). Branding, if you do it well, is more of a concept that springs to mind whenever your name is mentioned. And it order for it to be authentic, in order for it to be something that people actually believe, it has to be an extension of yourself.

Let’s talk about some examples (and I’m going to use people I’ve met, because it will better illustrate what I’m talking about later. These are people who if you meet them in person, are the personification of their brand, and just by looking at their websites you can tell who they are, whether they include a picture or not:

Meg Cabot (young, upbeat, funny)
Tawny Weber (sexy yet fun, playful yet hot)
Jennifer Crusie(humor, accessibility: upbeat covers, upbeat website, cherries – what’s more innocuous then cherries? Life’s a bowl of them, right?)
Susan Elizabeth Phillips (gracious, down-to-earth, human)
Julia Quinn (young, self-effacing, sweet but intelligent)

Branding is the sum total of your reader’s experiences and perceptions, some of which you can influence, and some that you can't. Branding is about who you are, and what you’re trying to express. I give kudos to McDonald’s and Coke and Dr. Pepper – but they’re selling a product, not a person.

You, my friends, are selling a product, AND a person.

“Find out who you are, and do it on purpose,” as Dolly says.

Now, let’s get down to business. I’m going to give an overview of the elements of branding, and then some actual exercises to get your brain flowing.


1) Establishing your target audience (historicals? YA? fantasy? inspirational? paranormal?). You need to know who you’re selling to establish your branding theme, which we’ll talk about in tomorrow's blog.

2) Figuring out your unique selling point. (what’s unique about you? Why are your stories different? Why are you different?) That was one of the hardest things for me to come up with, until I examined my life a little more closely. The most obvious thing that’s different about my writing is that I write about ghosts – not vampires, not werewolves, not shapeshifters – and that makes me different in the paranormal market. I also use humor in my writing, which makes me considered “light” paranormal instead of “dark”. But even more importantly, I looked into WHY I write about ghosts, and that’s where I struck gold: My family and I once lived in a house that was apparently haunted. My mother had heart failure on the operating table, had an out-of-body experience, and lived to tell about it. I grew up watching Creature Feature, and loved shows like the Addams Family and the Munsters. Basically, I spent my life preparing for a career to write the stories I do without even knowing it! But once I realized it, I was able to define my brand.

3) Once you establish your brand, you have to be consistent with it. It should cover all aspects of what you do: your website, your stationary, the fonts you choose, the colors you choose, the signature you use online, the way you look, the way you present yourself…. If you write hot and steamy and you dress like a Quaker, you’re not an accurate representation of your brand. If you write inspirationals, but you dress a bit racy, you’re not an accurate representation of your brand. I’m not advocating going around in costume, but be consistent. Branding is all about PERCEPTION, and if you want to be treated as a professional, you have to look like and behave as a professional.

4) Be flexible. If there’s something about your brand that isn’t working, change it. Don’t get caught up in saying, “No, I like flowers. I’m sticking with flowers. I like this curly little font, even though I’m writing romantic suspense.” One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to be too stubborn. Yes, you want your brand to be an accurate reflection of who you are, but you want to present yourself in a way that other people can relate to. It’s kind of like when you don’t like to do housework, and your house gets real messy… you might say “take it or leave it”, but if the 6o’clock news was going to come in your house and do a story on you, would you clean it up? I’ll bet you would! It's still your house, it's just cleaner!

So tomorrow, we'll move on to figuring out who you are. You’re not going to accurately brand yourself until you know what it is you want your readers to see in you.

Any of this making sense yet?

1 comment:

Tawny said...

Aww, Thanks, Terri!

I think you've hit a key point in branding, too - it has to feel comfortable and "true". Otherwise its a costume. Promotion is hard enough, but doing it with a brand you're comfortable with makes a huge difference, IMO. :-)