Defining Your Brand
An effective branding strategy gives your business a leg up on the competition. Think about it: photographers are everywhere. From the consumer’s perspective, it’s a daunting task to select one. What makes your business stand out from the crowd? Did you know that your brand is not only about your logo or website? As you’ll see later in this chapter, everything will define your brand—from the way you pose your clients to the editing techniques you choose in postproduction. You have to be able to establish yourself in the marketplace and stand out from the crowd.
In order to define your brand, let’s embark on a little exercise. Back to the pen and pad. Here we go:
- What is your company mission? Your vision?
- What are the benefits and features of your products that differentiate you from your competition?
- What existing perceptions, if any, are there about your brand? (This is important if you’re an established studio trying to reinvent yourself.)
- When people think of your brand, what do you want them to think or feel?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can start putting together a better picture of your brand identity.
For example, our studio is perceived to be expensive in our market. I am okay with that. That’s part of our brand. There’s a set of perceptions that comes along with higher prices. (Better quality and better service are just two of them.)
Now, I’m not naïve. I get it. Just because you’re more expensive doesn’t mean you are better in any way, shape, or form. In fact, I bet we all have personal experiences in our lives that we can draw on where we’ve paid more under this pretense and been let down. However, as cliché as it sounds, perception is reality. We can look to examples in the real world to support this—Louis Vuitton, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Tiffany, True Religion, and a host of other high-end brands. The people who can afford these brands love them. They offer a high-end, rich, unique experience and product, and guess what? People are willing to pay a premium for that level of quality and service.
Let’s go the other way with this example—Wal-Mart, Volkswagen, Kia, Odd Lots, Old Navy. These are perceived as value brands, offering average or below average quality at a cheap-to-reasonable price.
What’s your personal perception of these brands? Would you ever go into Wal-Mart and pay over $200 for a pair of jeans? Probably not. Do you know why? Because the average consumer has preconceived notions about the quality of product and the price point when walking into a store like Wal-Mart, and they’d more than likely reject a product in that price range. The same would happen on the other end of the spectrum, by the way. If a high-end consumer walked into a Louis Vuitton store and was presented with a $10 pair of sunglasses, they’d immediately assume the glasses were of inferior quality; ultimately, those sunglasses would—not could—have a negative impact on the overall brand.
So let’s step back here and apply this to your current world. What does your brand say about you? What category do you want to play in? Do you want to be seen as an artist offering a unique product or service, or would you rather appeal to the masses providing the low-cost solution to professional photography?
If you chose the latter, I suggest you put this book down. It’s not for you. You’ll be out of business in the next 6–12 months and you’ll never be able to take care of your family, buy new equipment, or retire. Sorry. That’s reality. I know what some of you must be thinking or feeling right now: “Wow, Sal, that’s harsh!” You know what, it is harsh. It’s harsh, it’s reality, and it’s tough love. When I started writing this book, I wanted to help photographers who want to make a career out of this amazing skill we have. This skill is not meant to be mass-produced. As an artist, your vision is tied directly to you. And do you know what you are? A very limited resource. There’s only so much of you to go around. You can only shoot so many sessions per year. Show me another product or service based on limited resources that is mass-produced and cheap. After you’re done thinking about it and realize there are none, let’s get moving. We have a business to build for you!
So, as we move forward, here are a few more questions to ask yourself:
- What segment of the market do you want to go after?
- What will you do to stand out from the crowd?
- Does your current brand support this vision?
Let’s assume you have some work to do here. And let’s start looking at how to define and create your brand.
The Obvious Pieces
When you’re putting your brand together, there are some obvious pieces and some not-so-obvious pieces that go into your brand. By obvious, I mean that you see these every day with the brands you know and love. To a certain extent, some of the obvious ones might be so subliminal that you don’t even realize you’re being targeted by someone’s brand.
What are the obvious pieces of a brand? They’re the basics that most people should think of when they’re defining their brand. The following list isn’t exhaustive, but it will surely get you off in the right direction:
- Marketing pieces
Let’s explore each of these, but before we do, I want you to indulge me in a little exercise. I want you to pick three words that best describe your brand as it stands today. In fact, take it a step further. Have people close to you offer words that best describe your brand through their eyes. This is going to be tough to listen to, but it’s for the betterment of you and your business.
Now, I want you to select three words that best describe your brand as you want it to be seen in the very near future. For our business, we chose creative, stylish, and award-winning.
Why are these three words so important? Because they should dictate everything you do from this point on as it pertains to defining and creating your brand. You need these terms to drive your name, logo, tagline, and all the other items on your brand list. You can’t describe your brand as creative and then have a noncreative logo. Use these keywords to inspire your business and the next steps.
Easy, right? Just pick a name and let’s go. Holy cow! Stop the madness. As you can imagine, I see lots and lots of business names, and I knew that for this book, I had to write a little section on what goes into a name.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is it! This is the first thing most people will speak when they’re speaking of your brand. Choose wisely. I think you have two options here. Either go with your personal name or select a unique name altogether. Each approach comes with its own set of pros and cons.
Select your own name and the business is tied directly to you. You become the face of the brand. Your brand will live and die by you. We set up our business to be Salvatore Cincotta Photography. The brand is inextricably tied to me. This is great news if you’re building your brand to be a limited-resource high-end artist. However, what happens if you ever try to sell your business? What’s your exit strategy? I have news; it’s going to be near impossible for me to sell my business with this name. But in the meantime, I’m able to charge a premium as an exclusive photographer. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I have a unique name.
What if you select a somewhat generic name? You run the risk of being perceived as a generic box store of sorts. This becomes a challenge as you try to build your brand and charge more for your services. On the plus side, you can add and subtract photographers without impacting your overall brand, and best of all, you can sell the business at some point if you choose to.
Whatever option you choose, please do me a favor and take some of my advice. Leave religion, politics, and hobbies out of the name. No one cares that you’re extremely religious, or that you’re a Republican, or that you love dancing pigs. If you do something like this, you immediately alienate a part of the market. And the one thing you need to understand as a business person is that you don’t want to accidentally alienate any segment of the market due to race, religion, or politics. Saving Grace Photography: no! Right-Winged Photos: no! Funky Town Express Studio: come on. I hope you get where I’m going with this. Think about your name, and most importantly, think about how it’s going to be received by the consumer. Better yet, look to corporate and find an example of an extremely successful brand that incorporates race, religion, or politics into their names that aren’t related to companies that are race or religion, or politically tied.
Your name will dictate and influence the perceptions about your brand. Choose wisely and ask people you can trust for their honest gut reaction.
I know. You have Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and now you’re a professional graphic designer. They must feel like we do, don’t you think? Everyone has a camera and now everyone is a professional photographer. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Let the pros do their thing. They understand the importance of a good logo. Your logo will be everywhere—your website, marketing material, and so forth. It’s worth the $500–$700 that it’ll cost you to get it done.
The logo should match the personality of you and your business. Things to consider: Do you want to be super artsy with it? Clean and simple? Work with your graphic artist and ensure he or she has those three keywords that describe your brand.
Closely related to your logo is the tagline. The tagline can be a simple one-sentence descriptor that conveys the essence of your brand. Don’t overthink it, and don’t make it corny. And again, it should match the overall tone of your brand.
We used our three keywords as our tagline. “Salvatore Cincotta Photography/Creative. Stylish. Award-Winning.” For us, that was perfect. Clean, simple, and to the point.
Graphics are the elements you choose to incorporate into your logo. A graphic can be as simple as a flower or as random as the ribbon on a can of Coca-Cola. This element is not a must-have. It should complement your logo and add to the overall look and feel of the brand. If not, then you just might be forcing it.
Our main logo, Salvatore Cincotta Photography doesn’t include any graphical elements. However, one of our logos for our top-end clients, Black Label, does incorporate graphics into the logo to give it a richer look and feel.
As odd as it may sound, the colors you choose are also tied to your brand. I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer here. However, I do think you need to consider colors before moving forward with logos, website design, marketing material, and so forth.
A question worth asking: Who is your demographic? If you’re a family photographer, you’re more than likely targeting families. If you’re targeting families, typically mom is the decision maker. Therefore, I suggest that your brand, logos, colors, tagline, and so on be geared more toward women. Now keep in mind that you run the risk of alienating men, but in this case, maybe the pros outweigh the cons.
In our business, we target weddings and seniors, and those are two very different demographics. So, rather than focus on any single one color, we opted to remain neutral in our design, colors, and use of graphics.
Really, Sal? Sounds? Yes indeed. Even the sounds you select for your website, hold music, studio music, and slideshows impact and define your brand.
Companies like Apple spend millions of dollars perfecting the right sound for when you turn on your computer or send an email, or when an error message pops up. Next time you get into your car, pay a little more attention to the sounds your car makes when you put the key into the ignition, put the car in reverse, or take any other actions. It’s even more pronounced when you go from a car about 10 years old to a new one. You can hear the difference in a significant way.
For us, we opt to only have music on our site with slideshows. We feel it sets the tone and gets people in the mood to watch our portfolio slideshow. I use a company called SongFreedom.com to get legal access to mainstream music for my website. There’s nothing worse than going to a website and listening to 1980s keyboard music. That’s not my brand or my demographic. Is it yours?
I have lumped all three of these together not because they are necessarily the same things, but because they are all geared toward the same audience in a digital way.
Certainly the graphical pieces are important to your brand; that’s a given. The piece that most people don’t even think about is the voice. No, not your actual voice—your written voice. See, when you write, how you write, what you write about—that becomes your voice and ultimately becomes part of your brand.
I’m going to level with you. No one, and I mean no one, cares what you ate for breakfast, or about your philosophy on manicured lawns or the host of mundane thoughts you have rolling through your head on a given day. Okay, maybe your mom cares, but beyond that, no one.
Your social media presence should not be your soapbox. Believe it or not, people come to your site to see great images! To be inspired. To hire a great photographer. So, rather than talk about what you ate for breakfast or your bike ride, give them what they want: great images!
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve heard from all the “experts” in our industry about how such personal ramblings allow the clients to see who we are as real people. Um, maybe it’s just lost on me, but I gotta be honest here. When I walk into a restaurant, I want great food and great service. I don’t want to know too many personal details about the chef, what movie he recently saw, or why he loves baby kangaroos. I want to know things that are relevant to my meal.
Now it’s your turn. When you select a product or brand, do the daily tribulations of the CEO influence your buying decisions? Or do you make your decisions another way? I’d be shocked if you told me you selected a pair of jeans because you heard that the CEO of The Gap liked yellow jellybeans.
Be conscious of your social presence and what information you’re pushing out to the masses. If it doesn’t help your brand, it’s definitely hurting it.
Whatever marketing pieces you put out there—whether they’re flyers, direct mail pieces, or point-of-sale displays—should all be tied back to the brand, the logo, the colors, and other elements. If you have a corporate-looking brand—clean and simple—then putting together a marketing piece with frilly flowers and design elements might confuse your client base and they might not even realize it’s your brand.
Nike is a perfect example of a branding machine. It’s all about the swoosh. Their marketing is clean and simple. It matches the overall brand. They let the product (and typically the athlete) speak for itself; the swoosh is there just to reinforce the brand and the message. Just Do It.
In our studio, we try to ensure anything going out is recognizable by our customer base. We spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising, but if no branding is tied to it, then all that effort and money has been lost. No one will remember who we are or that the message was tied to our company. Be sure to invest in marketing collateral that’s cohesive with the overall vision and brand.
Packaging is a tough concept for most studios. I see a lot of people I work with struggle with this one. You make a huge investment in the product—perfecting your craft, the right equipment, your logo, and your website—and then you drop the ball when it comes time to deliver your products to the consumer.
You can’t be the Louis Vuitton of our industry and deliver your products to the client in a plastic polybag. When you do this, you’re saying, “Hey guys, I know you spent a lot of money with us. Here’s some junk I have for you to take home.”
Louis Vuitton probably spends more money on their packaging and delivery of their product than they do on the actual product. I’m only half joking here, but seriously, their packaging is like no other I’ve ever seen or experienced, and there is a good reason for that. They charge a premium for their products.
Our studio has tried to adopt a similar philosophy when it comes to delivering product to our clients. We hand-deliver products to our high-end clients and blow them away with our level of service. As far as packaging goes, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money creating a richly branded packaging experience so our clients feel as though they’re getting the most precious of gifts.
The Not-So-Obvious Pieces
Wow. We covered a lot of things and I’m sure I have your head spinning right now with new ideas and concepts to consider. And that’s awesome! That’s what this is all about. Let’s shake things up in your business.
Before you get too far down the rabbit hole, I want you to start thinking about a few things that aren’t so obvious when it comes to branding. I find a lot of people don’t think about these things at all, or if they do, they just don’t care enough to give them the time and attention they deserve. I promise you, pay attention here, because this is just as important as everything I listed earlier, if not more so:
- Your dress
- Your personality
- Posing styles
- Editing techniques
- Lighting techniques
- Product lines
We’ll explore each of these factors to show how you can make changes in your business and how they currently might impact you in either a positive or negative way.
Yes, the way you dress matters. You want someone to spend thousands of dollars in your studio, but you want to dress like a slob? Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about hanging out in jeans and a t-shirt, but this hipster look that’s in right now is not going to bode well for your business. The way you dress says a lot about who you are as a person.
Don’t believe me? The next time you walk into a store, don’t talk to anyone; just look at the person working at the counter. In fact, you should put this book down right now and go do this. This is an important exercise.
Walk into Wal-Mart. Walk into McDonald’s. How are the people dressed? What’s your perception of them? Now ask yourself, would you trust them with $5,000–$10,000 dollars to document the biggest day of your life? To document your child’s wedding day? Why not, just because of the way someone is dressed?
Is it superficial? Oh, without a doubt. I’m not endorsing this way of thinking at all. In fact, I try with every ounce of energy I have not to pre-judge people. However—and this is a big however—this is the world we live in. So, I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist. I know when people walk into my studio, they are judging me—consciously or subconsciously—within seconds. I’m aware of it and I make sure that when I’m meeting with clients I’m dressed appropriately for my brand. Creative. Stylish. Award-Winning. You don’t show up in a tuxedo and you don’t show up in cargo shorts and flip-flops.
Minds are being blown right now. “Wait, first you tell me the way I dress matters and now you want to tell me that my personality matters? Won’t people just hire me because of my art?” No. No, they won’t. They’re hiring you just as much for your personality as they’re hiring you for your art. In fact, though most of my clients are drawn to my artwork, I believe most hire me because of my personality. That’s without a doubt my X-factor. When it comes to wedding clients, they’re more than likely asking themselves, “Can I spend 8–10 hours with this person? Sure, he seems like he’ll make the day fun and exciting.”
Again, this is reality. If I were hiring someone for my big event, I’d surely want to have fun with them. If their personality sucked, then there’s a good chance the pictures aren’t going to be good. As we all know, there’s an art to getting people to respond to the things we need them to do in front of the camera.
Our business is different than other businesses. We spend significant amounts of time with our clients, so personality is a major consideration. Keep your energy level up, don’t talk about yourself (no one cares), listen to the client, ask lots of questions about them and what they’re looking for, and you’ll be well on your way to winning over clients.
The way you pose your clients says more about your studio than you can imagine. I look at websites all day long and I can see a traditional photographer a mile away. Which, by the way, isn’t a problem if that’s the client you’re targeting. However, I’m going after the young trendy bride; those are the ones with money to spend and who love photography. If I were to showcase traditional poses on my website—but have a cool site with a cool new logo—I’d be sending my potential clients mixed messages. And they’d more than likely look elsewhere.
Posing is a tough thing to figure out. Do you direct your clients or do you just let them do their own thing? When is there too much direction? Every photographer has a different style of directing. There’s no right or wrong answer here. Just be consistent with your posing and make sure you’re targeting the right clients.
Today’s client is becoming more and more tech savvy. This is a trend that will continue as time goes on. Kids are exposed to iPhones, editing tools, and a host of plug-ins at a very early age.
I have moms asking me to use “the skinny tool” on them. They understand HDR, vignette-ing, and a host of other techniques that were once only understood by the most technical of us. We have to adapt or die.
Sure, we have to create a good image in camera. We have to understand exposure, lighting, and composition, but we can’t deliver printed images in an unpolished fashion. We color-correct, soften skin, and use a host of plug-ins to create a unique and artistic look for our images and our clients. Without this, our clients are going to have a tough time looking at our images and seeing them as “art” when they truly believe they can go buy a camera and take the same images on their own. Editing techniques allow my studio to stand out from the crowd.
Closely related to editing are your lighting techniques. The easiest way for a professional to stand out from the weekend warrior is to use off-camera flash. This strikes fear into the heart of the average photographer. New photographers—and not all of them—typically grab a camera, slap that bad boy into “P” for Pro, and they’re off to the races, basking in all that glory we know as natural light. Awesome, but what happens when it gets dark? You done for the day? What happens when you can’t shoot during that gold hour? You go home?
I shoot 12 hours a day in nearly any lighting situation. Not because I’m great, but because I’m a professional and committed to my craft. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than natural light, but take some time and practice, practice, practice, and you’ll get the gist of it. Soon, your images will have a distinctive look and feel that separates you from the crowd.
There’s a never-ending supply of lighting toys available to us, from reflectors to continuous lighting sources. Use whatever works for you. Get out there and play! And most of all, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
If you want to be a high-end studio or brand, then you have to offer the appropriate products to your clients. All too often—typically because you aren’t charging enough—studios offer the cheapest prints, the cheapest canvas, and the cheapest albums. Well, guess what? You’re never going to be able to charge a premium until you start carrying products that command premium pricing.
Again, we don’t have to look far to see this in practice. Think about something that you’re into. A hobby, for example. I’m into golf. I love it. I don’t play enough, but I love it nonetheless. I can buy a set of clubs for $89 and I can buy a set for $1,999. I guess to a certain extent they all do the same thing; they allow me to strike the ball. However, there’s a plethora of features that make the more expensive line, well, more expensive. Bigger sweet spot to allow me to hit the ball off-center. Strong club shaft. Better grips, custom fit to my height, and so forth.
Maybe golf isn’t your thing. What is your thing? And what do you like about one product line offered by a company compared to another? Your potential clients are going to be asking the same thing. And if you find that sweet spot, you’re going to be able to charge a premium for that product or service.
Albums are probably the number one product we offer that allows us to stand out from the crowd. And you could make the argument that a book is a book is a book. Well, when you come to our studio and you get to see and feel our books, it becomes something a bride has to have. The leather is like no other. We offer crushed-velvet liners versus a standard black paper liner. The covers are something most other studios won’t carry because it’s more expensive to get samples. The sizes we offer are also unique. One of our most unique sizes is an 8x20. Clients love it!
If you want clients to perceive your brand as a high-end brand, you have to have products that are perceived as high-end and exclusive to you. What makes them unique?
Ah, yes. Pricing. The archnemesis of almost every artist around the world. This can make or break you and your brand. Charge too little and you risk being perceived as just a guy/gal with a camera. Charge too much and you risk pricing yourself out of the market. Though we won’t explore pricing models and strategies here, I will tell you that how you price your work will have a profound impact on the success or failure of your business. We try to price our session fees and products so that we appeal to the middle through higher end of the market.
Don’t underestimate this part of your business. Every time I sit with a photographer, they say the same thing. “I can’t raise my prices. The clients I have now are already complaining I charge too much!” Right. That’s because you’re going after the wrong clients. You’re priced too low and therefore attracting the client who wants quantity versus quality. Trust me—raise your prices, and you’ll start attracting a different caliber of client.
Pricing is directly related to the perception of your brand. Within our local community, people know we’re a high-end studio and they treat us differently because of that. They treat us like, well, artists.