Are you a freelancer / service provider / creator – looking to rise above the noise of a crowded marketplace? Do you wish to make an impact on the world, generate more business, and get paid honestly to do so?
Whether you’re a digital artist, retoucher, author, editor, or artisan – BRANDING can have a gargantuan impact on the income you receive, and the market’s perception of your products and services.
In this masterclass we’ll examine what branding REALLY is, and how it can be leveraged to raise your profile, professionalism, and income.
Commodotisation is the ENEMY
Before we delve into the real meat and bones of this guide, let’s take a look at why branding even matters…
Within a crowded marketplace, the absolute WORST thing you can be is a COMMODITY. Commodotisation is where your product or service is just another ‘me too’ operation, duking it out in the little-leagues with thousands of other clones – all vying for the attention / pocket change of a handful of customers.
In this arena, the most important factor in a customer’s buying decision is usually price. When pricing is the biggest value proposition you have, you enter a never ending cycle of HURT. It really is that ugly!!
The Little Leagues / Bargain Bucket
Why are the ‘Little Leagues’ or ‘Bargain Bucket’ arenas so ugly?
Within a fiercely competitive marketplace, much of your energy expenditure will be invested in competing with your immediate peers – launching promotions, lowering prices, working EXTRA hard to gain the hallowed attention of your customers.
All of this ON TOP of the energy required for your creative output!! Even with world-class branding you’ll have to deal with competition – but with a solid strategy in place you can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend ‘competing’ and focus on what you’re meant to do: producing great art, or delivering your products / services.
Clients / Customers From Hell
When all you have to offer is a product or service that’s CHEAP (like the budgie), you will have to deal with (some of) the most difficult / noxious / demanding clients and customers your marketplace has to offer.
This is a universal truth of business, evident within any sector you care to look:
“The cheaper the customer, the bigger the problems.”
First off, not ALL cheap customers will be awful / demanding / demonic, but within the bargain-bucket crowd, you’re going to encounter a LOT MORE of them, than at the premium end of the market. I’ve seen it with my own practice, and I’ve seen it right across the board elsewhere.
Now these customers / clients don’t wake up with the intention of being noxious toward you, they just lack the professionalism or experience to undertake a collaborative process in a fluid manner. They’re learning the ropes, and may lack the finesse required to undertake a complex creative project.
The result of this inexperience is increased back-and-forth, additional / unreasonable demands, or just straight-up clashes of personality. Stuff you can do without!!
Breaking free from the Bargain Bucket is absolutely critical, if you want to reach the next level of your business. Your bottom line, sanity, and the joy you have for your work will instantly improve once you remove yourself from the realm of commodisation.
Now this isn’t just about money or how much you charge – it’s really important to clarify that at this stage…
The ultimate aim is NOT being just another ‘douche with a copy of Photoshop‘, a ‘guy with a camera‘, or a ‘gal with an Etsy account‘… it’s about being a unique creative force that customers and clients ACTIVELY seek out. They like the cut of your jib, and want a piece of the action.
You should be over-subscribed / in-demand, with customers tripping over themselves to work with you and buy your products.
Having a first-rate product / service will be the main factor behind you reaching this beautiful stage – but a major (overlooked) element of getting there will be BRANDING.
Branding ISN’T Your Logo
Let’s get down to brass tacks – branding IS NOT your logo. This is probably the most important takeaway from this entire masterclass, and it will be drilled incessantly throughout the rest of the guide.
Branding is the art you create. Branding is what you say and how you say it. Branding is the way you deal with clients, customers, and new prospects. Branding is everything you put forward, right down to your email signature or the way you deal with Trolls online…
Any message you put out there – visual, written, illustrative etc. is a part of your branding, and it all counts toward creating an idea or ‘notion’ within the mind of your market.
Even if you’re involved in the smallest of ventures, the principles here are equally important. You’re being subconsciously analysed / categorised / prioritised by the market at-large, based on everything you do.
Of course, your logo / company website etc. will be a part of your overall presentation to the world – but the role of these accoutrements is a LOT less important than you may have imagined.
Branding extends FAR BEYOND your logo. Branding is your profile picture, it’s the language you use… even the way you dress. All these disparate elements combine to create a mental-tapestry of your overall mythos.
I bet you didn’t expect things to get this weird huh? All will be explained…
In the realm of commodotisation everything is really ‘samey’. The products / services / look alike, me-too styles and me-too approaches. It’s hard to tell one thing from another. The only variation is small differences in price. Nothing screams out. Nothing is remarkable.
How do you escape from this amorphous mass of mediocrity?
You do things differently wherever you can. You impose your unique style and voice on everything you do. You specialise on narrow niches as opposed to being a ‘generalist’ (who does a little bit of everything.)
Here’s some of the things that can instantly seperate you from the herd:
- Innovate wherever possible. If everyone does ‘X’ in a certain way, find a new / more effective way of doing that thing. It could be something as trivial as your pricing structure, or the way you write your promotional copy. Seek to put a fresh spin on existing conventions.
- Inject some personality into your work. Whether you like it or not, YOU are part of the product. If you can incorporate your unique voice into your marketing materials, adding humour or personal observations – you can rise far above the (often) dry nature of selling wares to strangers.
- A Unique Product. Having a unique product or service will go further than anything else, when it comes to rising above the noise. If you can offer *something* that cannot be obtained ANYWHERE else online, your customers will flock to you to obtain the rare rare thing. With ‘scarcity’, you can charge a higher premium – because they can’t get it anywhere else!! Supply and Demand – Free Market Economics 101.
- Specialising in a niche. By specialising within a specific niche, you can establish yourself as an authority – dominating the other players with your expertise and presence. This is the tactic I personally used when I was a book cover artist – I even went as far as signing off all posts as ‘The Horror Specialist’. Yah, I’m a douche, but it worked like gangbusters!!
Finding your ‘niche’ really is an incredible tool for seperating yourself from the herd, improving your branding – and going beyond commodotisation. We wrote an entire guide on it, check it out: Earn With Your Art – Finding a Niche (Part 2)
Live and Breathe Your Values
If you do a lot of social marketing, ensure your posting profile matches the brand values of your product or offering. This could be as simple as having a profile image / banner that matches the tone and vibe of what you’re doing.
Try not to bitch and moan on Facebook, or be bitter / resentful in your posts and interactions. Strive to maintain an upbeat and friendly persona (even if it’s a lie). Now I’m detecting a few headshakes at this stage, and I know a lot of you will want to seperate work from life – but if you’re operating a small to medium enterprise; your personality, online comments and behaviour will be inextricably linked with your business.
People buy from individuals or organisations that they like and trust. It’s as simple as that. Even though we’re a largely digital species now, rapport and ‘likeability’ still reigns supreme.
When you’re selling product, you need to exercise a lot more decorum and diplomacy than Janet who works in the call centre. Extreme political opinions or general ‘Edgelordery’ has the potential to be catastrophic when it comes to your success, especially in this age of screenshots and witch-hunts.
One PR nightmare can potentially decimate your venture – I’ve seen it happen!!
The same philosophy is even moreso important, when it comes to dealing with your customers and clients. Treat them with utmost respect. Don’t be a push over though, be firm but fair when it’s needed. Get back to them fast, solve their problems, build their trust.
A Tale of NeoStock (Case Study)
As a book cover artist, I was deeply frustrated with the poor selection of stock images out there (for the kind of work I was doing). Eventually, I decided to bite the bullet and build a company that addressed the problems the book cover community faced.
We weren’t the first players in the stock photography sphere, far far from it… however we WERE the first on a number of innovations, that really helped us stand out from the crowd / and meet our customer’s needs in new and useful ways:
- The Focus Group. To get a true idea of what the community needed with stock photography we developed a highly involved Focus Group – that allowed us to learn a great deal from our customers before we even shot a single image. This was probably our greatest innovation and has been adopted by our imitators ever since it’s inception.
- The name. A good company name is something you can tell a drunk stranger in the bar, that they’ll remember the next day. When you try to get too clever or complex (often with wordplay or puns), a name can (and will) get lost in the mind of your prospect. Ours is a simple phonetic delight, just three inoffensive syllables that skip off the tongue = NeoStock.
- Our offering. Prior to NeoStock, nearly all boutique stock providers were offering Romance stock photography. As a non-romance artist, it was my aim to capture all of the images and genres that I personally needed – and the concepts requested by our community. This factor alone raised our profile and generated buzz / conversation with publishing professionals worldwide.
- Product options. Most stock vendors offered a limited amount of images per set, often less than 50. It was our aim to completely blow that figure out of the water, and offer between 150 and 1000 poses per set!! This approach was completely unprecedented, and required at least 24 months of development – to create a ‘posing system’ where we could systematically shoot such a high volume of (useable) images within a limited time frame. Our unique posing system is the true secret-sauce of the NeoStock project.
- New concepts. By doing ‘the crazy stuff’ that hasn’t been done before, we’ve able to rise above the digital noise. This could be building rigs for horse-mounted riders, shooting a 20-strong zombie horde (to come!!), or apocalyptic survivor ensembles.
If what you do is well received / productive – imitators will come out of the woodwork and use your strategies or outright plagiarise your copy. It happens to us on a weekly basis. Do not let this get you down: continue to be FIRST, continue to strive for excellence. The savvy customers out there will know where it’s at.
(I’ve learned from bitter experience not to let these shenanigans eat away at my soul!!)
What About Logos and Stuff?
Indeed. Spend a good slice of change on your logo – if you’re not a (competent) graphic designer yourself. A GOOD designer will go through a rigorous consultation process to gauge what your business is, and what you’d like to achieve. The right designer will craft a beautiful logo to match the ethos of your business.
If you want to know more generic information about branding guidelines and the such, a quick Google search will get you well on your way!! There’s plenty out there written on the topic 😉
To summarise, you need to do all you can to escape the realm of commodotisation. You can do so by offering truly unique products or services, shaking up existing conventions by doing things differently, specialising in a niche to build authority and expertise, or using your personality to differentiate yourself from the other players in the crowd.
I do hope you managed to glean some useful nuggets of wisdom, from this hefty yet unorthodox guide on Branding for Creatives.
All the best with your creative adventures!!
About the Author:
Dean Samed is a professional cover artist, and Photoshop instructor.
He now dedicates his fulltime attention to producing ‘the best goddamn stock photography on the planet!!‘
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