Before I rode off into the sunset to pursue literary art in 2012, I used to ride for an outfit, herding their brand. As the person in charge of the marketing communications department for a growing natural food enterprise, I multi-tasked in key areas. My team’s most important responsibility was to manage the organization’s brand experience. Like authors with multiple books, we owned multiple brands. We depended upon a customer base to interact with those brands to give them full expression.
The takeaway: you might own your brand, but your customers share the experience of it with you. Even if you don’t think you have a brand, those who interact with your business or read your books develop an understanding of what you offer or write, and that defines who they think you are. From the moment you begin to cultivate public interaction, you build a brand experience. Don’t you think you should own your brand? That’s what strategic branding is all about.
Don’t you think you should own your own brand?
That’s what strategic branding is all about.
Back Up to the Basics
Even if you think you know branding, don’t skip the basics. All good learning builds on a foundation of knowledge. The stronger your grasp of the basics, the more solid your footing will be. First, let’s clarify a few terms.
A brand is the conscious application of performance of product, performance of service, image, and an emotional connection with others.
Think of performance of product as quality, as in the quality of your writing skills or the quality of design for your book cover. When experienced authors tell those looking to publish that you need to hire at least one editor (consider that there are typically three types of professional editors required for print publications: developmental, line editing, and proofreading), they are advising newcomers to the level of quality that readers expect in books for sale. Quality is a huge chunk of an author’s brand.
Performance of service relates to customer service. We’ve all experienced those call centers that make us want to stomp and yell because they ignore our problem or bury the solution in a vast menu of numbers to press. We think less of a brand when customer service sucks. While authors don’t have call centers, they do interact with peers, readers, and fans through social media. How you behave and what you say or share in this public space is part of your performance of service as an author. Be mindful.
Image is what you project visually, and whether you believe it or not, your visual cues — such as color, font type and size, use of white space, choice of name, and logo – all tell the story of your brand. Each signal you give your customers or readers, whether intentional or not, becomes part of how they define you and understand what you offer or write. If we let mood dictate our choices for how our websites look, we are merely communicating an emotional state. Is that what you want? A website that’s like a giant emoticon? Instead, we should think about how we want others to see us. For an author, that begins with a name, legal or nom de plume.
Emotional connection joins quality, service, and image and differs from mood. Emotional connection is all about relationship building and compelling others to read what you write or buy what you sell. Emotional connection takes what we know in our brains to the heart level and expresses it to the heart of another, so they can then ponder what it is they feel. If you connect, you have hit your target. The better you can relate to readers at this level, the better your chances are of cultivating your target audience.
[pullquote align=”normal”]A thoughtful brand creates physical and emotional triggers in the mind of customers and readers.[/pullquote]
Branding becomes the strategic actions we take with our brand elements to create these triggered responses. When we are thoughtful, persistent, and mindful of our brand, our branding gains us loyal followers, readers, and customers. Good branding equates to meaningful sales.
Who Owns the Brand and Controls the Branding?
Philosopher René Descartes once proposed, “I think, therefore I am.” It sums up the idea of who is in control of your brand – whoever is thinking about it. You exist on the social media plane, you write, you sell books. You say, “I don’t have a brand.” You do, but you haven’t thought about what it means or matched up brand elements to any branding. This disconnect leaves your customers and readers in control of your brand.
On the other hand, you can be deliberate – you choose cosmic purple as a color to enhance your array of science fiction novels or use delicate primroses to decorate your western romance publishing logo. But maybe that steel-gray you thought represented your detective protagonist looks too cold and uninviting to readers. Maybe your colors are not triggering the responses you wanted. Part of building a strategic brand is engaging in a conversation with those who experience it.
First, you need to asses your brand. Like self-awareness, defining your brand can feel awkward. Some might have better intuition. Some might overdo cutesy and come across as childish. If you are a children’s book author childish nears the mark. But if you are a professional, writing about European travels, childish might not resonate with potential readers.
A brand auditor can help you define your brand through an interview process. Throughout my career, I’ve audited many storefronts and digital platforms. Reading a brand comes across like reading palms. It can be a fun party trick to look at someone’s business card, website, and interaction to define that person’s brand as if I predicted love and longevity from a palm. But the lines between brand elements connect important dots. They form a picture of one’s brand.
Yet, a snapshot of your brand is not enough. It’s equally important to have periodic polls, surveys and (if you are ever doing a large platform or business overhaul, a focus group). All this feedback comes from those who experience your brand. What are their insights? How do they attribute meaning to your brand elements? Or, if you want to introduce new elements, ask your most loyal customers or readers to help you choose a cover, logo, banner or ad.
A partnership with those who experience your brand gives you valuable insights. You can make the branding more meaningful without losing control.
Consistency is the Key
You don’t have to have the best-designed logo or the latest trend of colors to have a powerful brand. Remember, you want to agree with your customers and readers about what your brand means. Once you meet on the common ground of your brand experience, you want to maintain consistency. Sometimes, we can get bored using the same logo, font, and colors. But if you are feeling that way, most likely your target audience is only beginning to recognize your brand. Remain consistent.
When it comes to advertising, an adage of marketing upholds the idea that it takes one person to hear a business or author name 22 times before they hear the associated message. Branding relies on consistency to deliver messages. Think of the “golden arches.” I can say that one phrase and most of you will recognize the fast-food chain’s iconic symbol (if not, get a happy meal and think about it). McDonald’s has consistently used the golden arches in their branding since their first store opened.
For authors, consistency means your name because it’s your biggest brand element and most prominent visual cue. The quality of your writing and the way you interact in social places contribute to the emotional connections readers develop toward your name. Even the slightest tinker – adding or deleting an initial – can upset the brand experience.
Often, future authors ask, “which name” to use. Like design, it’s not important to pick the best; it’s best to pick one and stick with it. If you are a new writer with goals to publish and sell books, you can tinker and explore. For some, it’s the first time having one’s name in the spotlight, which can be alarming. Many react by hiding behind a nom de plume. For some, what they write may conflict with a day career, and a pen name creates distance. For others, creating author aliases is as much fun as writing across genres.
You have some wiggle room to decide, get comfortable and test your name out on peers or blog readers. But once you begin to build a strategic brand, you must make concrete decisions regarding your name (or names). If you hide too long behind a pen name and publish blog posts, e-books or anthologies with it, you could risk losing connectivity with early readers who know you by that name only. Be thoughtful and ask your peers for feedback and experience. Then, be consistent.
Enjoy the Ride!
Unlike western cattle roundups, branding doesn’t burn. You want to build a strategic brand that begins with understanding the elements, includes informed decisions, and ends with consistent application. Create an author brand style guide to communicate your brand from your blog to your social media to your promotional campaigns. Engage with peers and readers and stay open to feedback. Even negative feedback is an opportunity to understand how your brand elements can be fine-tuned. Keep it all corralled so your brand becomes identifiable and meaningful.
Sit in the saddle of your brand and enjoy the ride. If you don’t brand your work, your author identity might get rustled. Instead, gather up your elements, think about where your trail leads, and be the one to drive your brand.
Day 31 Giveaway
Charli is giving away three author brand style guides, which are individually created to represent the brand elements of an author platform.
Below, comment, you must!
Charli Mills, writer and lead buckaroo at Carrot Ranch Literary Community, received a BA in creative writing in 1998 and began telling business brand-stories thereafter. By 2010 she earned the Master Cooperative Communicators designation, recognizing career achievements. She won multiple national awards for writing, publishing, and her presentation, “Telling a Compelling Story.” In 2018, she published her literary community’s, “The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology, Vol 1,” which earned a 5-star review from Readers ’Favorite. Branding remains a cornerstone of Charli’s career success. She conducts brand audits for authors to build strategic platforms to reach target readers.