How to Move Beyond “I Make This & Sell It.”
Brand. Mission. Marketing. When I first heard these terms I had no clue what they meant and why they should be important to me. I was new to business in those days, a fledgling photographer with the misconception that all I had to do was build up my portfolio, share pretty pictures, and sell my services. I thought that businesses worked as long as there was someone out there that needed what I did. The problem was, eventually I couldn’t find many people who needed what I did, and those that needed what I did weren’t always willing to pay. When this happened I pivoted from food photography to portraits. Now I had people willing to pay for my services, but my heart wasn’t in it. Ultimately I ended up shutting my company down and doing other work for a number of years.
The truth is, whether you offer a creative service like photography or design, or sell handcrafted products — or are even in a different type of business entirely – you can either be at the whim of the markets, or you can create a market around you. Creating a market around you allows you to position your work in a way that makes it desirable to the people you want to sell to. It makes it so people want to hire you not because you can do their photos cheaper than the other guy, but because of who you are, the style you have, and the message and meaning behind the work you do. As a creative this can be so critical, especially since much of our work falls under the “luxury item” category.
How do we go about doing this? By building a brand, having a mission, and crafting a marketing strategy.
What is A Brand?
If you consult the almighty Google with this question, you will get a multitude of answers. Some say that a brand is your logo, or the fonts you use, or the colours you pick for your website. While this is an aspect of branding (I call this visual branding), it is possible to have all these pretty and on point, and still have a company that is dead inside. Have you ever worn an outfit that just didn’t feel like you? It may have looked nice, but you felt not yourself in it. The same thing can happen if you focus solely on the stuff that is seen. That’s because an authentic brand is built from the inside out – it is a collection of personality, beliefs, and values that is then presented to the world through the words it speaks and the clothing it is dressed in. In other words, a brand is the guiding philosophy behind why you do what you do with the people you do it for, and then visual branding is the elements we see that support that and showcase it. It is no different from how we use clothing or home decor to highlight the people we view ourselves to be.
If brand is the heart and soul of our business, mission is the blood that animates it all. A mission drives all the action bits and allows a brand to function as a working business, because – drum-roll please! – it actually communicates what we sell or do AND THE REASON BEHIND IT. This is critical because people connect with ideas, and a mission that highlights why we do the work we do can inspire someone to see themselves as a potential client. For example, if you paint commissioned pet portraits, and leave the statement at that, you aren’t showcasing why someone would want to buy one. But if you paint commissioned pet portraits for grieving owners so that they can remember a loved one, you tell people why your work matters. As an added benefit, people who identify as a grieving pet owner recognize the value in this and may be inspired to become a customer. A strong mission should piggyback on the philosophies of your brand, by showcasing why what you do is of value.
What is Marketing, Really?
A lot of people confuse marketing with a pitch for people to buy. That is actually sales, and it is a totally different beast. Marketing is all about creating recognition (of you, of your brand, of your work, of the results you get) and visibility. When you are thinking of building a marketing strategy, the question shouldn’t be, “How do I get people to buy from me?” but rather, “How do I get people aware of me and familiar with my work so I stay top of mind? So that people see themselves as potential clients?” That’s really what you should be asking. At the end of the day, whichever way we do it, we market ourselves and our work by sharing the messages of our brand, our stories about who we are and what we believe, and by showing up. Consistently. Not as a pushy sales person, but as an individual with quirks and points of view, and in ways that start conversations and lead people to feel as if they know, like, and trust us. It really can be that simple.
Understanding these three things made all the difference for me. When I came back to my photography work it was so much simpler to gain traction and get clients. Instead of doing the searching myself, my brand, my mission, and my marketing are speaking for me and attracting the people I want to work with. That has had huge impact on my time, and allows me to do the creative work that interests me.
Cheers to the creative life!