What Brand of Writer Are You? Part I: Branding Yourself (It might hurt a little, but it’s for your own good.)

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

McDonald’s®, Pepsi®, Marlboro®, Lexus®, Nike®, Oprah, Britney Spears, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. All of these are brand names. Strong brand names, in fact. However, a marketing specialist will be quick to point out that a brand is much more than just a name. After years as a business branding strategist, I can convey all I know about being a giant in one’s field with this simple concept: a strong brand is a promise kept. As a writer, I can go one better: a successful writer is a strong brand.

Yes, Mark Twain is a brand, and you can be one, too. Knowing what promises you’re making, to whom, and keeping them, is the way to define and build your own writing success. With a bit of introspection, honesty and accountability, writers can benefit from the same strategies used to build leading brands in the marketplace. Twain might have done it by chance; you can start branding yourself right now. Let’s start with the basics:

Background Image: Marina Noordegraaf/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

What is a brand?

A brand occupies a position in the mind. Ideally, the brand owns a singular space that serves as “mental shorthand” for a much larger set of attributes and associations within a broader class or category.

Far more than its name, logo, or product features, a brand represents all aspects of the relationship it offers to prospects. A strong brand offers a strong relationship by keeping its promises and consistently demonstrating its character.

In sum, a brand stands for something; and a great brand stands for something great, making it uniquely valued within its users’ experiences over time.

Test out any of the brand names in the first paragraph against the definition above. Americans, at least, will have an equally clear, automatic impression of Marlboro, as they will of Oprah. The Marlboro man represents ruggedness. Oprah is the supreme example of offering a strong relationship to her prospects and consistently demonstrating her brand character.

But what about Britney? Well, cringe as we might, brands stand for something, which makes Britney is a very strong brand, but not necessarily a positive one. Brands both profit and suffer from the consequences of the image they build in people’s minds. Still—Britney sells tabloids like no other, and many a rich paparazzi has her image to thank. Her brand is money in the bank.

Now try comparing your writing, and yourself as a writer, against the same brand criteria. Wouldn’t it be incredible to own a singular space in your market? Sure, that’s a dream, but all dream brands have to start somewhere. For writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the starting point was literally a collaborative fantasy that has branched off to become an extended brand family. They originally wrote “Dragonlance” together, a series of dragon books. Since then, they’ve succeeded as individual writers, and have also been brought back together on a number of products, including role-playing games. If you say these names to a fantasy fan, they know dragons are afoot.

Weis and Hickman are well branded. They provide a great example of how a path to success can arise from positive associations with specific product features. They enjoy an instant bias in their market, and show us the tangible value of a strong brand attribute. They have a platform for their work that began with a creation that was true to their identities. Now, all their prospects know what to expect from them. They’ve offered a relationship with readers, and delivered on their promises. All this keeps their names at the head of their pack, and their image sterling with their fans. So, now we see how your brand as a writer is far more than your name or your features. It is your ability to deliver on the promise of a rewarding relationship with readers… and editors! In this way, it is the future of your writing career. Better still, when you arrive at and stick to a well-defined brand, you’ll have more focus and a clear, enjoyable path for your projects and submissions.

Defining Your Brand

Brand Identity: Branding yourself begins with identifying yourself. Kind of like cattle. Who are you and where does your writing belong? Take inventory. “Know thyself” remains among the greatest advice of all time, so apropos for writers building brands.

What drives your identity as a writer? Some of parts of your identity are internally driven, meaning they come from you. They are either facts about you and your writing, or claims and representations that you make. Nike used the slogan “Just Do It” to provide an instant message about its brand of athletic shoes. Lexus is an expensive luxury car. If you’re Pepsi, you are a sweet brown cola. You are also an affordable beverage found worldwide, associated with youth and pop culture.

What about you? Perhaps you have a very clear defining genre for your work, like Shakespearian sonnets or lesbian pirate erotica, and thus genre is an important identity driver. You might eschew punctuation, or have a famous parent, or write in a style reminiscent of Poe. In all cases, you can only build a successful brand if you know the components you’re working with

Your actual human identity begins the process of defining all the elements of your writing brand. This includes any number of facts about you. If you’re Mark Twain, the Mississippi River matters to your identity. Living in a slave state as a young man matters. Your birth name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, matters to the point that you choose a pen name. Oprah, being black, being a female from the south, being from a poor family, being a spiritual person: it all matters. These traits didn’t have to be focal points of identity, but for a unique brand to build on a reliable promise, this type of authenticity is a good thing.

Then there’s Tom Wolfe. One stroll down the “Alphabetical by Author W” shelf shows how he CAPITALIZES on his NAME as a part of his brand identity relationship with prospective readers. We know who we’re reading when we read one of his books. Just like you know you’re eating in a McDonald’s when you’re under those golden arches.

Maybe your name on a manuscript is not going to pull in as much attention as Tom Wolfe’s does, at least not yet. But one day it could be just as recognizable, if that is what you aspire to. Your intentions for your brand, though, can only take you so far. Your identity might be a thing of beauty, but rest is in the eye of the marketplace beholder.

Brand Image: The fuel of your brand strategy will be leveraging what it is about you as a writer that makes you, you, and makes your writing stand apart from anyone else’s. In the end, perception is everything. What already exists in the mind of your readers is key.

The other half of what drives your writing identity is externally driven, meaning they are factors which exist outside of you. Your image actually resides with others who encounter you and your work. You contribute to your image via the messages you send about your self and your work, so it is crucial that you define your identity and send messages according to the image you want to create. Impressions received from an unsolicited query, and the editor’s feelings about unauthorized biographies, would both be a part of a biography writer’s image. Thus, they would also be part of that writer’s brand.

How you think about what you have to offer can be vastly different from what is received by others. This is why the submissions/rejections process can be so valuable to an aspiring writer. It serves as research on your image. Writers’ groups, online critiquing communities, writing classes and even informal family reads are also windows to your image. Any effort at branding yourself must include feedback, and you’ll do well to take notes on reoccurring criticisms, compliments and questions as part of your market and audience research. Is your writing brand what you think it is? Are you the writer you are intending to be? Only others can answer these image questions. The answers, good and bad, can all be used to your benefit.

For example, some creative writers complicate their identity (what they control) at the expense of their own image (what others experience). Perhaps they try to create an air of mystery or veiled meanings in an effort to keep their audience guessing, and presumably intrigued. But seasoned veterans know it’s hard enough just to get your work read, without adding any unnecessary questions or confusion to the mix.

You might think you are different and that’s a good thing, but not always so if you’re making the reader work hard to “get” your messages. When that happens, your image isn’t at all what you set out to convey with your identity. Furthermore, having a writing brand actually is about being able to be pinned down, in a way. From the marketability perspective, recognizable and understood are not dirty words. There should be an element of predictability in a brand. That’s why people return to it again and again. However, it needs to be predictably good. Stay away from predictable plots, dialogue and imagery!

To help you get started on branding yourself now, take this brief inventory of your own brand identity, then work on creating a concise brand statement you can tape to your computer screen and use to guide all your work.

Your Writing Brand: Take Inventory

  • The physical facts about you (i.e. gender, location, age, background)
  • The technical facts about your writing (genre, specialties, style)
  • The look and sound of your writing
  • The intended audience for your work
  • The type of people who favor your work
  • The markets for your work
  • The benefits for those who read your work
  • The formula or approaches you use for your writing
  • What/who your brand of writing reminds people of
  • In what environments or under what circumstances your readers would be found
  • The competition for your writing in your markets
  • The comparisons to your writing in your markets
  • The challenges and predicted future of your markets
  • What your brand stands for in your opinion

Your Writing Brand: Core Identity Statement

  • What is at the hub, or is the essential, unchanging part of your writing brand identity, around which all other components rotate?

Your brand essence, or core identity, doesn’t need to be fancy. You don’t need a political platform to refer to as you write; rather, you need an easy to use navigation system. Your writing brand can be as simple as the following examples:

I craft travel stories that always end with a connection to the universal qualities of the human condition. My audience enjoys up close and personal tales of little known and exotic places, and the every day stories of the people who inhabit them.

Sensitive, psychologically driven literary fiction featuring prominent female characters and their children, submitted in grammatically and cosmetically perfect form to editors at small local presses.

Sickeningly realistic slasher novels with a hard drinkin’, no holds barred, in your face attitude. Favorite short stories for reading while waiting for new dagger tattoo.

I only write rhyming, long form poetry. I do not strive for anything other than an honorable approach to the traditional poem.

Next month, we’ll address the more specific tactics for building your brand image in Part II of this article.

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