Business Musings: Types of Brands (Branding/Discoverability)
I’ve been talking to myself lately. Actually, I’ve been talking back to podcasts, vlogs, and emails. Ever since I said I would be doing a series on branding, I’ve gotten links to great branding tips. (Please, keep them coming.)
Every single link I received that dealt with branding from a writer’s perspective talked about cover branding. Lots of great information in each and every one of those blogs or podcasts or discussions, but every time the writers mentioned branding in reference to a cover, I would mutter, There’s more to branding than covers.
A whole ton more. In fact, when I mentioned at the regular Sunday lunch that I would be doing this series on branding, one of the wags across the room for me asked, Without an entire semester? How can you do that?
Very generally. Because as my fellow writers who also have MBAs know, branding isn’t a one-off topic. Entire business schools have entire course and majors in branding.
Branding, at its best, is an art and a science.
As I got ready to do this series, I went over to my favorite default, Adweek, only to discover that they only have five subtopics listed on the header of their website, and one of those is “brand marketing.”
Okay. I promise. No entire semester. No gigantic course. But lots of information here and in the weeks to come, geared at making you think outside of the box that writing and publishing has put you in.
First, I’ll start as I always do, with a definition. According to Brick Marketing, which had the best pithy definition I could find, “a brand is the idea or image of a specific product or service that consumers connect with, by identifying the name, logo, slogan, or design of the company who owns the idea or image.”
Sounds simple, right? But it’s not. My usual go-to source for definitions, Investopia.com, has a long and complicated definition of “brand” that goes into some of the topics we’ll discuss in future blogs (but not today). When Investopia gets into the nitty gritty of the definition of a brand, it makes this very important assessment:
A brand is seen as one of its company’s most valuable assets.
I bet you never thought of your brand as an important asset in your business. I’ll bet that, aside from “branding” your name on the cover of your indie-published book, you’ve never thought of branding at all.
The first thing all of these sites discuss in examining brands is “brand identity.” As Investopia says, “A company’s brand identity is how that business wants to be perceived by consumers.”
Investopia hastens to point out that brand identity is different from brand image. Your brand identity is how you want customers to perceive your brand. Your brand image is how customers actually perceive your brand.
Yeah, yeah. Already too much detail.
Some writer blogs are savvy enough to know that the writer can be the brand. The publishers rarely are the brand. Harlequin was a brand once upon a time, although it has pretty much blown that by diluting its brand identity. Baen Books has a brand identity that’s pretty consistent with its brand image—that of providing science fiction and fantasy to sf/f fans in the know.
Over the years, publishers have had brand identity that coincided with brand image, but as more and more mergers occurred, publisher brands got swallowed up or disappeared entirely. What does Randy Penguin stand for now? Who knows? Not even they know.
Branding is marketing on an advanced level. Some of it does concern names on the cover. Some of it concerns the way a writer gets perceived. Some of it concerns a whole bunch of other things.
Back in the days when traditional publishing reigned supreme (and dinosaurs roamed the Earth), writers left branding up to their publishers. The people who interacted with the writer—editors—didn’t know anything about branding. The sales force generally took charge of the marketing, and wouldn’t even consider branding an author until the author had already had some success.
At that point, the sales force would tell the editor that the writer should probably stick to a particular type of book (say, books about tiny robots), because that was the writer’s perceived brand. But aside from that kind of malarkey, and decisions made in the art department about the size of the name on the cover, traditional publishers rarely, if ever, thought about branding.
Which is just plain stupid, considering that writers partner with their publishers so that their publishers would handle the marketing.
But I digress.
So as indie publishing grew, and the writers who had the most experience with marketing turned out to be the hybrid writers, they talked about what they knew: names on the cover, making sure the stories remained the kind of stories readers wanted from that writer, and so on and so forth.
Leaving, as my poker player husband would say, tons and tons of opportunities on the table.
Realize, before I go any farther, that this series of blogs isn’t for you. It’s for me and for the people who work with me on my books. Because I know all this stuff and I’ve been too damn busy to apply it to my own work outside of a throw-spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks kinda way. Some of that is because I spent the last eight years clawing back the rights on my traditionally published books. Some of that is because I’ve been simultaneously building five different businesses at the same time.
And some of it was because I didn’t feel ready yet to do this kind of marketing push.
But now’s the time.
I have to admit, though, that it took Randy Ellison and his Targoz Strategic Marketing’s Reading Pulse Survey to kick me over the top. There’s a lot of good information in that survey, things that I need to implement in my business. I was planning to do this, with some extra research under my belt, in the next year or so, but the survey kicked me forward. I will discuss some of its conclusions when I get to that point in this series. However, if you want to see some of the conclusions, go to The Hot Sheet, sign up for their 30-day free trial, and click on the May 3 links. (By the way, they have some great material as well, almost every week.)
Randy’s work made me realize how haphazard our work has been on my publications, as well as on Dean’s, and on WMG’s in general. We moved toward branding and marketing a few years ago, but dropped that as we reorganized the business. We’re ready to do so again, with people who are invested in learning about this aspect of publishing.
But marketing isn’t as simple as some of the writing blogs make it sound. As I said in Discoverability, you need to know what your target audience is. You also need to know exactly what it is you’re marketing. And that’s where branding starts.
According to one business website, there are 18 different kinds (types) of brands. I went over there and yeah, they’re right, there are a ton of different kinds of brands. But most aren’t relevant to what we’re discussing here.
Some business courses cite ten different kinds, but the consensus seems to be that there are somewhere around five, six, or seven different types of brands.
For our purposes here, we’ll go with six different types of brands. They are:
Let’s start with the two I’m going to dismiss as irrelevant to writers. (Most of the time. All of this is most of the time). Geography refers to places that need to brand themselves. “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” is one way that Las Vegas branded itself. New York has billed itself in a variety of ways, from the city that never sleeps to “I [heart] New York.” Virginia, on the other hand, declares that “Virginia is For Lovers,” and New Mexico is “The Land of Enchantment.”
That’s branding on a geographical scale. Sometimes that’s relevant to writers because some writers (like Linda Fairstein) become inextricably tied to a particular setting or place, but it’s rarer than you’d think.
Event refers to big repeating events, like Burning Man or South by Southwest. These things become brands, and they’re centered around some kind of experience that people will have jointly. The Chicago Blues Festival is an event brand.
Some writers do event branding—particularly if they’re doing something special with a book tour. Three years ago, Gallery Books put ten of its romance authors on a bus and made the bus tour into an event. The bus had a special logo, just like the tour did. Called “Belles on Wheels,” the bus tour became an event, and the promotions began months before, including drawings, big reveals of tour dates, and of the bus itself.
Had Gallery Books done this Belles on Wheels tour every year, it would have become an event worth branding, the kind that readers would have looked forward to. It might have become something that the press noticed, something that communities planned for, and something that actually benefitted the authors who were on tour.
It did not. It was a one-time event, not an ongoing event, so it became less of a big deal than it could have been.
Other writers did some of this branded event touring on their own dime. For the life of me, I can’t track down the marketing on these things with my handy dandy Google. (A brand, by the way.)
Mostly, though, the brands that will matter to us as we go through this series are:
Most of the marketing advice concerning branding that you hear for writers is about personality branding. (Some places, like the Dummies site [also a brand] differentiate Person brands from Personality branding. Yeah, yeah. I’m not going to get as technical as I can, okay? If you want that, follow the links yourself, and dive into that rabbit hole headfirst, like I did.)
Personality branding is pretty straightforward. The person brand is focused on a famous person, while the branding is all about the personality. This works for groups as well as individuals (think Kardashians). The biggest personality brands belong to people like Oprah or Martha Stewart or Emeril Lagasse.
Sometimes a person becomes so famous they become a brand whether they want to or not. (Cher, Prince, or any one of a dozen celebrities at any time in history.) But generally speaking, the personality brand was nurtured by the personality herself.
The biggest personality brand that I know of in romance is Debbie Macomber. Everything she does, from her books to her speaking tours, reflect who Debbie is—or at least, how she presents herself to the world. For a while, James Patterson had a personality brand. He’s in the process of diluting it by writing with co-authors and doing a bunch of other things that we’ll discuss later in this series.
Stephen King, on the other hand, has a personality brand that he doesn’t pay much attention to. If he did, he would only write horror fiction. Yet, his name is recognizable and his brand is the diverse fiction (within certain limits) that he writes under that name.
Organization brands are just that: branding done for organizations. The Red Cross is a brand. A lot of organization brands are tied to personality—a charity started by a famous person, for example, might become an organizational brand in and of itself.
Publishers are organization brands. Your indie publishing house could become a brand. Baen Books is a brand that sells itself as a brand. So does Tor books. So did Harlequin, but since Harlequin was bought out, it doesn’t do so any longer. Eventually that organizational brand will simply go away.
Service: a service brand is based on the experience, on what the consumer gets—the service, if you will. If you’re run a house cleaning business, you’re providing a service. If you do it well, then you will eventually get recommendations based on the name of your company.
A service brand is based on trust. The consumer has to believe that the service they will get from the brand will be good—or at least good enough.
Uber is a service brand: in theory, you can trust that app will bring you a car that will get you from one place to another safely. Considering many of the problems that Uber has had, it still hasn’t entirely mastered the trust part of a service brand.
Writers aren’t just a personality brand. They’re also a service brand. Writers who become Big Names provide a guaranteed service—the reader will get an enjoyable escape from their reality for a few hours. Even if the book isn’t up the Big Name’s highest standard, the book will still be good enough that the reader won’t regret the purchase.
Product. Certain products have brand awareness. 7-Up is a brand and also a product. If you buy 7-Up in Dallas, and then buy another can of 7-Up three months later in Detroit, you expect the exact same taste experience.
A product brand can be an individual item like a can of soda or it can be a series of items, like Ford Trucks, all built to the same standard, and all with the same expectation of quality. I’m not saying the product is good; that depends on your taste. But the quality of the product(s) should be the same across the board. One brand-new Ford truck shouldn’t be impossible to drive off the lot while the other model of brand-new Ford truck drives like a dream.
Writers can have product brands, which I will get to shortly. If a writer writes a successful series, that series becomes a product brand.
Businesses can have different layers of brands. The business can (and often is) its own brand. The business might also have a personality brand. For example, Virgin Atlantic has Richard Branson, who is a personality in his own right.
For those of us in Oregon, we deal with the personality of Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike. In Oregon, Phil Knight and the Knight family are both a regional brand (yes, another kind of brand) and a personality brand. Outside of the state (and outside of American sports), most people have not heard of Phil Knight, although they have heard of Nike.
Nike is an organization brand, a business brand, and if you shop in their stores, a service brand. Their products, though, have their own branding, which gets very esoteric.
Sometimes the products share branding. When Michael Jordan was the face of basketball in the 1980s, he got an endorsement deal with Nike to produce a branded shoe—the Air Jordan. Those shoes were so popular that they are still being produced today, even though Jordan himself has not played professional basketball since 2003.
Highly successful writers often end up with three different kinds of brands, whether they know it or not. Those writers are personality brands. They also are service brands (for providing a specific kind of read). And, if they’re known for a series, they end up with product brands as well.
Sometimes this happens accidentally. George R.R. Martin was very well known in science fiction when he sold his fantasy series to HBO, but he became a three-way brand once the show hit the airwaves. George did a lot of media (and he’s funny), so he became a personality brand. The series books ended up being product brand, even though George has written a bunch of other books outside of the series. And for better or worse, he has become a service brand, although at the moment, that part of the brand is mostly known for not finishing books on time, which isn’t really helping the brand much at all.
Most writers who either still exist in traditional publishing or started there end up with their brands accidentally. They lost control of the brand creation early on, so what they end up with is their brand image, without ever giving thought to brand identity.
Some writers focus on branding from the beginning.
Lee Child is very clear about the fact that he chose his pen name with an eye toward branding. In an article titled “Lee Child” written by Oline H. Cogdill in the Holiday 2016 issue of Mystery Scene, Child called his name change a “show business thing.” But he thought about that “C” last name and chose it for a marketing reason.
“When I started,” he said, “there were a huge number of authors whose last names began with a C. I wanted readers to see my books as quickly as possible.”
In the interview, he intertwines service with product, and discusses both of those brands (without using the word) in a single paragraph. He said,
“I sort of have an emotional contract with the reader. They want Reacher, and I think it would be upsetting and weird if I put out a book without Reacher. And even if it was the greatest book, I don’t think readers would accept it.”
Other writers write more than one series. A number of brand name writers, Stephen King and Dean Koontz among them, write books in more than one genre. But they don’t really think about intertwining branding and bringing the consumer into the art.
It’s all a choice about the kind of writer you want to be, and the kind of work you want to do.
I believe that a writer should write what she wants (even if it is the same series with the same character) and then worry about marketing that material. Because of the haphazard nature of my own career for the past twenty years, I have too much varied material, and I need to separate it out so that readers can find what they want and what they’re looking for.
“Kristine Kathryn Rusch” can be a personality brand for some consumers, but I’m better off marketing my Rusch books as both service and product brands. Readers will get a promise from me for the Diving series, that it will never be set in 2017 here on Earth. They get a different promise from me for the Retrieval Artist. And so on and so forth for all the series I write under Rusch.
I have an easier time with Kris Nelscott, one of my pen names. I’m not ever taking Nelscott out of gritty historical mystery that deals with issues of race and gender. There, my work will resemble Child’s—I know that Nelscott readers want a particular kind of story and that’s what they’ll get.
The same with Kristine Grayson. That brand is goofy paranormal romance. If Grayson were to write a gritty 1960s detective novel, she would be breaking faith with her readers.
Rusch doesn’t have those constraints, but that creates its own problems, as I mentioned above. Although I do give branding some thought with the name.
One reason I changed the name of this blog from the Business Rusch to Business Musings is that I didn’t want my last name constantly associated with the word “business.” Of course, I didn’t think of that when I founded the business blog in 2009, so the name change was a course correction.
The Business Rusch is much more memorable than Business Musings, but I don’t want memorable on the title of this blog. I just want it to be a side thing that I do.
The first thing we writers have to do as we figure out branding is what kind of brands we provide. Are we personality brands? Service brands? Product brands? All or none of the above?
Because that will matter on how we market things, and how we use our brands to good effect.
So during the week, figure out what kind of brands you already have. If you don’t write a book series, but you have a large readership, you probably have service and personality brands. If you write a series, add in product brand. If you have more than one series, you probably have more than one product brand. And if you have pen names, then you might have more personality brands.
You need to know who you are and what you have before you can leverage any of that.
The other homework I’m giving you this week is to pay attention to the brands around you. Not just the brands from writers, but from companies. As I wrote this blog this afternoon, I was hyperbrand aware. I noted the brand on my TV, the brand in my tablet, the brand of tea that I drink, the brand advertised on my t-shirt, and the brand of the laundry detergent I was using.
Brands are everywhere now, and we pick the brands we use for a variety of reasons. Keep track of your reasons, because your consumer choices will influence how you market your own products. Make a list of what you like and don’t like.
Because you need some brand awareness as we go deeper into this series, and doing those simple things will help you with that awareness.
Yeah, I’m writing another series, which means I’m writing another book. I appreciate links and recommendations as the series goes along. I also appreciate the financial support.
If you want to support the entire series, and end up with a free ebook of the finished book that comes out of these posts, then head to Patreon.com and hit the appropriate level of support.
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Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!
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“Business Musings: Types of Brands (Branding/Discoverability),” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / olechowski.