Business Musings: Brand Identity (Branding/Discoverability)
I know a lot of you have questions about last week’s post on target audience. I answered some of those questions in the comments. However…
I’ll be doing three more posts on target audience throughout this series—and series it clearly is. You’ll have to be patient for some of this, or you’ll have to wait for the book.
One thing I will say is that most of you seem to think of your audience as a thing, not as a person. As I said last week, you start with one reader, then get another, and another, and another, to build an audience. In that sense, musicians have it better than writers.
A musician plays to empty bars. A musician watches as patrons come in, talking and laughing, and pay attention to their friends. Eventually, someone looks up and watches the musician. Then that someone elbows his buddy or shushes a friend to hear the end of a song. The friend starts listening. Then someone else notices that the two of them are listening. And soon the entire table is listening.
That’s how an audience builds. Some of those people might return to hear that musician the following week. And the musician, remembering that moment, might play the same song or something similar before going on with her set list.
Your audience is not a thing. It’s people. (Every time I type that sentence, I think of Soylent Green. That’s not what I mean, though.)
As you find your audience, imagine people or a person or a table in a crowded restaurant, all of whom are slowly starting to pay attention to you. Make your audience real.
My inclination as a completest is to write all of the target audience posts at once, but that won’t help you, because you can’t understand some of the upper-level marketing stuff without understanding other basic branding concepts.
Also, I can tell from the questions I’m getting, both on the site and in my email, that many of you have not read Discoverability or the blog posts (free but out of order) on this website. There’s an attitude that you need to have in your marketing that most of you are missing.
Most of you want instructions. Do X and you’ll get this result. Do Y and you’ll get that result. I’m sorry, folks. Once we’re past marketing basics—and branding is upper level, not basic—then that kind of talk is just silly.
Almost everyone who is selling a marketing system for writers is selling what worked for them at a very basic level. (Probably getting them from zero sales to 100 sales or something small like that.) Once those people start talking about their success and boiling it down into a system, they become marketers only, and not writers. Those folks are selling a system that is as worthless to you (outside of a few stealable tricks) as any system promoted on late-night infomercials, with just as much hype and disappointment as those systems usually provide. Those systems are a get-rich-quick scheme—for their creator. Not for you. You’re the one handing over the money.
I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again: You will not get a system here in this series. You will get a way to approach branding and a way to think about it. The mindset is the important thing, because trends change. But marketing is something that has been around since the birth of capitalism. Marketing is flexible. You have to be too.
Once you learn the mindset, then you have to do the hard work of applying it to your writing.
If you have trouble even conceiving of that, I’m afraid I can’t help you beyond this: Ask yourself why you have put up mental barriers on this particular topic. Why don’t you want to learn how to do it right? Why don’t you want to learn the mindset that will enable you to be flexible as trends change? What, exactly, are you resisting?
In order to do the upcoming posts on targeting your audience, I need to continue getting into the nitty-gritty of thinking about brands. You need some basics before you can move to how to use some of this to target audiences effectively.
Remember, the overall topic of the series is how to build a brand. In order to do that, you’ll need to understand some basic concepts.
I must confess I didn’t know some of the actual terminology before I started writing this series. I did know the concepts, but that was because we had to use them in my varied jobs. I didn’t go to business school nor did I work for an ad agency or any large corporation that was organized around terminology. (When I formally worked on advertising, I was in radio, and we were short-handed, so everyone did everything.)
So, this week, we hit one of those terms that is completely obvious, but I hadn’t ever used before in conversation.
Brand Identity is how you want customers to perceive your brand. You define the identity, although the customers may not accept that definition. (The customer’s perception of the brand belongs in a completely different post.)
Right now, remember, we’re dealing with building the brand. (If you haven’t read the post “How To Build A Brand,” go read it now.)
So you get to think about how you want that brand to be perceived. You need to imagine your target as you develop your brand identity. What do you want your target audience to think about your brand?
Remember, you’re building a brand. You probably don’t even have an audience yet. But you have a target audience—people whom you hope will buy your product. Those are the people (yes, people) you imagine as you decide how you want them to perceive your brand.
Let’s start wide with the overall steps to building a brand identity, and then I’ll refine for writers below. (Please don’t skip ahead.)
Overall Steps To Building Brand Identity
- Define The Business
- Determine Your Target Audience
- Determine Your Business’s Voice/Personality
- Determine Your Brand Message/Tag Line
Sounds so simple. Elementary steps that are (ahem) very similar to figuring out your brand.
But…let’s have Investopedia really freak you out. Here’s what they say about building a brand identity:
Building a brand identity is a multi-disciplinary, strategic effort; every element needs to support the overall message and business goals. It can includes a company’s name, logo, design; its style and the tone of its copy; the look and composition of its products; and, of course, its social media presence.
That freaks me out just reading it. Do I really have to do all of that?
Over time, though. Not right away.
And remember, you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can modify, change, reconsider, and redevelop your brand at any point in your business’s history. Remember how I told you in some previous posts that I’ve been dealing this year with a lot of Hollywood types who are interested in my sf? Turns out one reason why is that SyFy is “refreshing” its brand.
Apparently, some genius at SyFy believed (years ago) that reality TV was the way to go. Now, SyFy is jumping on the scripted series bandwagon because of the streaming afterlife. SyFy mostly missed that boat and now needs scripted content immediately. Hence people contacting me to see if my sf book series are available for option. (Everyone wants science fiction right now, not just SyFy, but SyFy’s rebranding efforts are relevant to us here.)
Here’s what SyFy is saying:
The network’s reboot, which rolls out on June 19 (and globally later in the year) will include a new logo and typeface, but is much more than just surface level. “This is a wholesale change, top to bottom,” says Alexandra Shapiro, evp, marketing and digital, entertainment networks, for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment.
Go to the article here and enable video so you can see what they’re doing with their logos—and yes, I mean logos plural.
SyFy is also returning to its roots. The “re”brand is actually a re-turn to the original brand, in many many ways. (I remember when the cable station started, because a friend of mine was influential in putting it together, using the vision SyFy is coming back to now.)
So…don’t worry as you start into branding. Everyone rebrands eventually, especially when the branding isn’t working the way you want it to.
The key is to start setting up your brand identity, and work forward from there.
If you go to that Adweek article on the SyFy channel, you’ll also see how the channel is taking its overall brand and breaking it down for each subset—the TV audience, the internet audience, the social media audience. You’ll also see how SyFy is using the new branding on the TV shows themselves.
Remember, each TV show has its own brand, brand identity, and marketing strategy. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took its branding one step farther this season, and divided the season into three story arcs, each with its own brand.
You can do all of that with your writing. It just depends on how creative you are.
So let me boil brand identity down for writers, as much as I can without getting too specific. (Remember, you can do this your own way. You don’t have to use mine.)
I’m going to go from the small to the large, because it’s simpler to write about—and probably because that’s how writers will create their own brands.
Brand identity for writers
Most writers just brand their books. Writers don’t think about their entire business. So let’s start with branding a single book.
Note: I’ll be doing all of the following on the fly, as you should when you start spitballing your branding ideas.
I’m going to use my standalone first novel, The White Mists of Power, as the example. We haven’t really done much overall marketing with this book in recent years. It was heavily marketed by one of the last master marketers at a major publishing house when the novel first appeared in the early 1990s.
The White Mists of Power is what used to be called a high fantasy novel. The labels are more fluid now. For our purposes, the book is set in a made-up world with kings and queens and peasants and magic, but no magical creatures. It shares certain elements with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, but it lacks elements as well. The White Mists of Power is not a series book. It’s not as dark as George’s books (although my book is not light), and my novel doesn’t have dragons.
The White Mists of Power is adventure fantasy fiction with appealing characters in a made-up world, with a lot of magic and a lot of politics.
Off the top of my head: people who liked George’s books/TV series. People who like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea. People who like Jacqueline Carey and Victoria Aveyard.
And as I type those names, I realize that in addition to the usual fantasy readers as my target audience, The White Mists of Power could be marketed as New Adult. That’s an audience that wasn’t even defined 25 years ago, and it would be new to this novel.
The novel’s voice is pretty straightforward. The novel’s not humorous or light in anyway, although it does have music running as a subtheme. The voice is pretty close to my normal voice, so if I were marketing the book, I would use my usual speaking voice.
Brand Message/Tag Line
Tougher to do here, off the top of my head. But I’d do something involving politics and growing up. The original tagline, appropriate to 1991, was “An Epic Fantasy About A Bard’s Quest For His Stolen Inheritance.”
All of the marketing here will follow the look of the book itself.
Possible Out-of-the-Box Marketing
In addition to the usual stuff—cover branding, blurbs, using key words that would reflect the books I cited above—I might do a Spotify Playlist involving music similar to what I would think that Byron the Bard would play. The Spotify Playlist would have a thumbnail icon that would either be similar to, or be a small image of, the cover of the book. I would do a few other things that might bring in readers 18-30, who wouldn’t even know that the novel exists.
Let’s go with something very different here. When I first planned this post, I was going to use one of my SF series, but I think my Kris Nelscott Smokey Dalton series is a better teaching tool.
The Smokey Dalton novels are crime novels, set in the late 1960s/early 1970s with an African-American detective. They are straight private eye fiction, but set in a world rarely seen in modern mystery fiction (even now). The books are historically accurate and veer into noir.
When the books first appeared, the only similar series was by Walter Mosley. His Easy Rawlins series spans decades, though, and is set in a different part of the country. (L.A. for him, and Memphis/Chicago for me)
Both series are very political, and use historical events as pivots for the mysteries. The Smokey Dalton series is critically acclaimed and award-winning, and has received attention, not just from the mystery press, but the mainstream press as well.
Mosley’s readers, of course. Readers of George Pelicanos, because he also uses historically accurate backdrops, and African-American characters. James Sallis’s readers.
More than that, though. African-American readers, not just those who read mystery, but those who read historical fiction and historical novels. Readers of political fiction (and non-fiction) set in the 1960s.
Teachers, librarians, and an audience I’ve wanted to build—museum bookshop curators. I could easily see these books in the gift shop at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, for example. I suggested this to my traditional publisher, who laughed. WMG will eventually try for this, but hasn’t yet.
Very serious. Very political. Very focused on equality. Very focused on history as it relates to 2017. If Kris Nelscott/Smokey Dalton was all I was doing, I would be tweeting (more than I do) and writing blogs about Black Lives Matter and Voting Rights and Chicago Southside politics.
Brand Message/Tag Line
Again, tough to do off the top of my head, and unlike The White Mists of Power, this was something my traditional publisher failed at. I think the tag line would probably be something about Smokey himself—a man who takes justice into his own hands. It would take some refining to get to exactly what I want here.
All the Smokey Dalton books have a similar cover design, with different (but similar) art, the same font, the same interior, and a similar pattern to their back covers/interiors. If you look at the books separately, they should appeal to a reader all by themselves. And if you look at the books together, you would see that they are part of a series.
Possible Out-of-the-Box Marketing
I already mentioned the museum shops as possible outside-of-the-box marketing. There are a lot of book festivals that target African-American readers, and I would see if I could get the books on their recommended lists. I would also do articles/advertising/blogs in publications/websites that focus on Civil Rights, the past, and the future.
The Writer Herself
Initially I was going to use me (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) here, but I’m going to use Kristine Grayson because she’s a much more typical writer than Kristine Kathryn Rusch is. Grayson moves outside her genre a little, but not all that far. (Unlike Rusch who goes from nonfiction to noir to goofy fantasy romance to hard sf to damn near anything else that strikes her fancy.)
Kristine Grayson writes goofy paranormal romance and occasionally goofy fantasy short stories. She writes some YA novels, which are straight fantasy only, about the characters in her romances, and one Middle-Grade short that should have a few more added in. She also has a tongue-in-cheek Western series featuring a married couple that only exists in short fiction right now, but will probably be a novel series at some point. I’m also hoping to write goofy fantasy mystery novels with a romantic element using some of the characters from the Charming series of books.
Grayson has overlapping novel series—the Charming series, the Fates series, and the Santa series. They’re unified by the weird use of magic and the irreverent tone. They’re also all romances (at least at the moment).
Grayson is non-traditional paranormal romance, without shifters and raw sex. Her romances are sweet romances (with some sex, mostly fade-to-black), her mysteries are soft-boiled rather than hard, the YAs don’t tackle social issues (hard, anyway), and the books are all tied together by an off-kilter fantasy world in which fairy tales are real.
Readers who want to relax, smile, and not think about the problems of the world. Even with the upcoming mysteries, and in the YA novels, a happy-ever-after ending is guaranteed. Readers can come to Grayson to escape a bad day or a bad year.
Back when I was traditionally published as Grayson, I asked my trad publisher to target the audience of Once Upon A Time and other fractured fairytale kind of TV shows. The publisher didn’t, of course, going only down the romance trade channels, which kinda sorta worked…badly.
Goofy, strange, weird. The voice is very strong (and often contradicts itself—or goes off on tangents [Grayson loves tangents] and silly side angles), filled with puns and lots of uncomfortable punctuation (rather like this sentence).
If I were only writing as Grayson, my social media presence would be a lot like the paragraph above. I would also be sharing fun, goofy things—nothing political, nothing dark, and nothing that does anything more than help the readers escape a bad day.
Brand Message/Tag Line
Brand message: Everyone needs a happy ending.
Tag Line (needs refining): It’s not easy to get a fairytale ending
All of the Grayson books should have a similar look, but each series should be branded to each other. Maybe the Grayson books would share a font with the author name. Or maybe the similarities would be in layout. (Name always at the bottom, or something.) The books should be recognizably Grayson, though, even if the series are different from each other.
Possible Out-of-the-Box Marketing
Marketing to fantasy readers, especially those who like fairytales. Maybe even a somewhat different edition that appeals to readers of a different genre.
If you write a lot of standalone books in a particular genre or subgenre, you can do the kind of marketing I mentioned above for those books, making them a brand by genre/subgenre, even though they stand alone. Think of the SyFy channel here, and how it will be marketing its sf shows.
Or the CW channel, which has a superhero brand going—deliberately—and they crossmarket (with crossover episodes and everything) deliberately.
That’s thinking outside the box.
If you have a separate publishing business that publishes your writing, you will need to have different branding and logos for that business. That business will need all of the other stuff—the mission statement, the look, the tag lines, and yes, even its own voice.
Thinking About Brand Identity For Writers
I used the examples above just to show you how you should be thinking about your own brand identity. Sometimes you can do all of the above—different brands, different attitudes. Sometimes you can roll the brand identity into one entity, often the writer herself. But that can trap you into one product or one genre.
That’s what happened to the SyFy channel. They went too deep into one kind of product, and ultimately it hurt them and lost their core audience. They’re rebuilding to recapture that audience.
If you think of yourself as a TV channel, like SyFy or the CW, then you can figure out how to craft your brand identity. Some TV channels have a lot of different programming with different tones (think ABC or the BBC). Some focus on only one thing, like some of the family channels.
Each programming item has its own brand identity as well, but that identity has to mesh with the channel’s identity on some level. And then there are the standalone shows—the movies, the specials. Figure out how they fit into the channel as well.
There must be a vision behind your brand identity. Isolating and articulating that vision is 90% of branding. Then you can move forward with all of your other ideas.
Since I’ve been giving you homework, here’s some:
Figure out what possible brands you could have. You don’t have to do the write-ups that I did above. Just select what kind of brands you’re interested in from your own work, and give some general thought about how you would begin your brand identity work.
I’m beginning to feel like I’m conducting a master class in branding. It’s great review for me. It’s also enabling me to start thinking about the ways I need to brand my writing business(es), my series, and my pen names.
I appreciate all of the response I’m getting on this series, although I must note that —as usual with a series of blog posts—donations are down.
The blog also needs donations to survive. If you can’t afford to donate, that’s fine. That’s the reason this blog is here for free rather than behind a pay wall.
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“Business Musings: Brand Identity (Branding/Discoverability),” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.