Branding is one of those words we all use, often without being quite sure what it really means. Here, we’ll learn more about the concept of author branding and how it applies to a developing professional writer.
It is tempting to think of “brand” as one of those made-up, nebulous words that marketers love so much. Except, Forbes values the world’s most valuable brand (Apple, in case you’re wondering) at $205.5 billion, which is a lot of cash for something we think doesn’t technically mean anything.
Why, then, is a brand worth so much? Well, a brand is like a mental shortcut for consumers. When I consider purchasing a product from a company I recognize, a range of mental associations automatically kick in, which, if they’re positive ones, make it easy for me to make a choice without having to think too hard about it. I know what that name stands for – quality, taste, style, affordability, whatever – and so I can buy the brand name item with confidence. This is such a useful method for us that we’re usually prepared to pay a premium for our preferred brands, even when, as blind tests often show, there may be very little difference between the household name and its lesser-known, cheaper rival.
The other day, for example, I needed to buy a saw. I was in a hurry, so I went online and started browsing. I quickly came across something that generally fitted the bill and saw that it was made by Spear & Jackson. Now, I know very little about tools, but I think of this brand as a reliable one. The price was affordable, too, so I went ahead and bought the saw based on its brand. There may well have been other, better tools out there – some that would last longer, were made better, or even some that were cheaper. But I didn’t have the time or inclination to do comparative research. I saw a name I knew and trusted, and took the easy route.
A similar scenario: while looking for a gripping and suspenseful read at an airport bookstore, something to tide me over on a long flight, I might go for the Stephen King novel rather than the Algernon Pumpernickel. The latter’s book looks clever and original, but he’s unknown to me (especially as I’ve just made him up!). The former, on the other hand, is a name I can trust. King’s books have been made into loads of films, they are highly celebrated, and his public persona appeals to me. Also, everyone else likes him – why shouldn’t I give his work a shot?
A brand, then, is a shortcut, a reputation, a promise. When I pick up a Stephen King book, I don’t have to wonder whether it’ll be any good or not. We all know what Stephen King stands for as a writer, and the very name promises readers a certain experience that even a book that I have barely even glanced at can be expected to deliver.
We might not realize it, but years of hard work and thousands of marketing dollars have gone into making those purchasing decisions so easy for me. That’s because another important aspect of an item’s branding is its reach. A brand name is just arbitrary if no one recognizes it, so marketing to a target audience is an intrinsic aspect of brand building. In anything from sports sponsorships to billboards to Facebook promotions, big brands work tirelessly – and pay big money – to keep their names at the front of your mind.
You may have heard of phrases like “brand safety,” “brand management,” and “brand reputation.” When a company has built up a string of positive associations with its products and deeply embedded those in the consumer mindset – think, for instance, of how we automatically talk of “googling” things, or how we tend to order “a Coke” rather than “a soda” – maintaining that reputation becomes a vital task. Corrupt execs, product recalls, poor service: there are all sorts of things that can harm a brand. And, they’re all important reminders that a brand doesn’t belong to its owner, per se; it belongs to its consumers.
A business will have all sorts of brand guidelines to control everything from the tone of voice its communications use to logos and trademarks to a preferred photography style. But what a business wants to be seen as and what people really see can be two very different things. What Donald Trump or Facebook or Martha Stewart might say their brands are might be different from your opinion, for example. And of course, the perception of that brand can change significantly over time.
Building an Author’s Brand: 5 Essential Steps
How can we apply these ideas to a writer trying to establish their work and grow a following? Here are a few pointers.
Develop a Brand Positioning Statement
Think about how you want potential readers to see you and your work. This is no time for false modesty! A few made-up examples:
- A witty observer of daily life who can make you laugh out loud about domestic and work situations, but also question the meaning of everything.
- An extravagant world-builder who can transport you to another, weirder galaxy and make you want to stay there forever.
- A sensitive and compassionate writer who combines powerful storytelling with in-depth research to shine a light on some of the world’s most pressing social issues.
This is a useful exercise because it can help you clarify your own goals as a writer. But in terms of branding, it also helps you develop what marketers call your point of difference or USP (unique selling point). What is it that you can do that no one else can, or at least not in your unique writing style or voice?
Once you have that initial concept – and remember, you can always refine it over time – you can use it to focus or concentrate your energies in terms of promotion and marketing strategies.
Identify Your Audience
You have an idea of who you are and what you want to stand for. Now, who do you want to reach? At first, your answer may be based more on guesswork than fact – and simply saying “people like me” won’t get you very far! Think about things people have said about your work in writers’ groups, readers’ reports, book reviews. Over time, as you grow your presence on both traditional and digital platforms, you’ll start to meet more of your tribe. A few examples:
- Parents of young children looking for a bit of relief from another arduous day of childcare and work-life balancing are the sorts of people who might enjoy Jonathan Coe and David Eggers, read The Guardian or The New York Times, and watch Big Little Lies and Fleabag.
- Sci-fi and fantasy obsessives who are still furious about the final episode of Game of Thrones often love video games and anime, and are always looking for a gripping new saga to sink their teeth into.
- World War II history buffs who want to feel like they’re learning something with each gripping yarn they consume are more likely to be retirees and older people who also grew up against a background of war, and/or had relatives who served in the armed forces.
Your chosen audience is only an illustration, an approximation of what is sure to end up being a more diverse set of people later on. And again, you can update it as you get to know your readers. But starting with an idea like this makes it easier to address the next matter: where to find them.
Decide How to Reach Them
With a brand position and a target audience identified, it’s time to think about where your potential readers might live, and how you’ll reach them. The options are many – everything from social media accounts to press coverage to in-person events such as book readings and panels. If you have a publisher, they will of course work with you on this, too.
Rather than give you a long list of places to promote yourself and your book – most of which you probably know already – here’s a brief case study of how we approached reaching potential readers of our book, Kitten on a Fatberg.
It’s a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric critique group, which is crowdfunding via Unbound. Our brand, we (me and my two co-authors) informally decided, was built on self-deprecating British humor, with elements of satire, pathos and farce, in the same vein as shows like Motherland and The Detectorists: a bit silly, a bit sad. Early on, we identified a target audience made up of aspiring writers, people with ambitions to get published (or published more) and who would enjoy a comic view at the travails of the process. Here are some of the things that we did to try and reach them:
- Grew my Twitter account using tweets like this and lots of conversation with fellow writers
- Talked about the book on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram
- Shared info about the book in lots of writing and book promotion Facebook groups
- Developed a Twitter account “managed” by the characters of the book, where we could tweet excerpts from the book to whet people’s appetites
- Wrote lots of guest posts on writers’ sites and blogs, about all sorts of related topics: from crowdfunding a novel to a history of novels-in-email
- Promoted the book whenever I got a story published, such as here
- Gave a talk at a content agency about how to start a writers’ group
- Experimented with Google ads
- Wrote lots of updates for the Unbound site and tried to give a better idea of the stories and the characters – such as this one on how NOT to run a writers’ group
- Placed display ads in literary magazines
The point here is that by having a sense of our brand and who we were trying to reach, we were able to give a focus and a direction to our brand-building activities. A useful definition of strategy I heard once is “a reason to say no to things,” and the same thing applies here. We have limited time and even more of a limited budget, so it’s useful to be able to hold up an idea and ask, “Is this on brand?”
Maintain Your Brand
A brand isn’t something you can create overnight, and then just forget about. As we’ve seen, a brand is in large part what other people decide it is, and the best you can do is promote it in a way that will shape their ideas to fit your vision.
Hitting the ground running is important, but so is keeping it going. Any serious writer knows promotion is a long haul, and that means constantly maintaining your brand-building activities to ensure things stay on track.
Social media promotion is an obvious tool, but it’s best to find a few platforms that work well, rather than dabble in all of them with no real results. You’ll also want to develop an author site, and perhaps start a blog or send out an email newsletter. All of these will be informed by your brand positioning and target audience.
As you become more established, the look and feel of your activities will be something you might want to upgrade and standardize. The design of your books, the look of your website, your calling card, the stationery you use to send out with a review copy: all of these elements can be coordinated into a visual identity for your brand. People often mistakenly think that branding just refers to a logo or visual components, but as we’ve seen, there’s lot more to it.
A concept of your brand shouldn’t feel like a constraint. Instead, it should help you develop a sense of where best to focus your energies. If you see yourself as a funny writer, try out some of your jokes on Twitter. If you write about a particular issue, align yourself with organizations and publications talking about the same thing.
Let Your Brand Evolve
Over time, you may find that you want to rework who you are and what you do as a writer. It also often happens that readers have a different idea of what they think your strengths are, or what aspects of your work strike the loudest chord, and you may want to upgrade your brand to reflect that. You may find that your audience members aren’t quite who you thought they were, and you may need to tweak your activities accordingly.
Here again, that brand thinking can guide the way to a smooth transition and help you refine an identity that is a logical extension of what you’re already doing. A writer of cozy mysteries might develop organically into a writer who publishes books about getting started in genre fiction. A political writer might try their hand at thrillers. Dystopian satire might morph into steampunk, and so on. On the other hand, a shift that is too abrupt – from military sci-fi to gothic romance, or YA to cyber-erotica – might be ill-advised for your brand. You might need to find a whole new audience, and all the work you’ve put into developing a readership won’t be of use anymore.
Of course, there are plenty of writers who have successfully written in different genres or voices. But the differences between each sub-brand are always very clear. In some cases – such as JK Rowling writing adult fiction as Robert Gilbraith, Agatha Christie writing romances as Rosemary Westmacott – writers will create separate brand names to free up their voice, differentiate the genre, and build different readerships.
That said, there are also writers who started out with different names and writing different genres – Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Isaac Asmov. But then, when they became established, they were able to put them all back under their main name because their brand had grown that strong. And this brings us to a final, crucial point.
As a writer, you need readers who will stay with you, who will like your work enough to follow the various evolutions of your career. In this light, branding is just a way to get us thinking about the sort of personality we want to express and project – not invent from scratch, but articulate and put out there to the best effect. Because the best readers don’t buy your books; they buy into you.