Author Branding Bootcamp, part 1: you don’t know jack about branding

You don’t know jack about branding.

This isn’t just the name of the upcoming Creativity Loft boardgame. If you’re reading this, it’s probably a fair assessment of your knowledge about branding, but no fear, my dears, by the end of this week, we all will be upper-crust (my new favorite word), branding snobs.

We’ll get together and laugh at authors who think branding is just coming up with a catchy tagline and a neat logo.

So what, exactly, is branding?

You may want to get comfortable, because this is gonna be a long one.

Way before we all were hypnotized by witty modern branding techniques, branding was used to identify livestock. Livestock owners would use a branding iron to permanently stamp their livestock with a recognizable symbol to indicate their ownership.

Branding, in that sense, was used to simply identify the product. Cow. Sheep. Goat.

It didn’t speak to the characteristics of the product–whether it was good, bad or okay. It simply stated what it was.

This practice is still used today with some creative businesses and brands.

Companies slap a product with a logo or make their employees wear their company logo and think their branding work is done. And for some companies, once you reach a certain level, it may be– as long as the product/service quality that’s associated with that logo is there.

Effective branding, for newbies, however, is much more than slapping on a label, a logo or a tagline. Yes, these can be important elements of your brand, but you gotta dig a bit deeper.

Branding is a very volatile recipe. It is an imperfect concoction of three basic elements:

-What you believe
-What you portray
-What other people believe

Each element wickedly influences the other by some esoteric algorithm that I can’t even begin to try to figure out, much less explain. But in laymen’s terms- because I’m a laymen’s terms kind of girl:

What you believe (about yourself) directly influences what you portray to the world, which directly influences what others believe about you or your product.

I put emphasis on the “what you believe (about yourself)” element because I think it’s an important part of effective branding. And an important part in running your creative business. If you don’t fully believe you are an author of mind-bending erotic thrillers, chances are, if you’re trying to brand yourself that way, it won’t work effectively.

This may seem very frou-frou, but it’s important. And we actively embrace the frou-frou here.

Now, this branding concoction is spiced by things like: the elements with which you use to brand yourself (your logo, your communication avenues, your products, etc.); brands with which you associate yourself; and other things which can either work to sweeten or bitter your brand.

To some extent, you only have control over two of the basic three elements mentioned above: what you believe and what you portray.

I’m still beta-testing my mind-control ray, so I can’t do much about what others believe about you right now. Sorry.

What you portray to the world shapes your brand awareness.

Brand awareness is just that; a reader’s ability to recognize or recall your brand when given cues.

“Hey, who should I read if I want  children’s fiction with an ancient Greek mythology influence?” Probably this guy.

What you portray to the world and what other’s think about you creates your brand equity.

Brand equity is your street cred. You have to earn it, homey. It’s the characteristics of your brand created from marketing, products and consistency- or in some cases, inconsistency.

Brand equity can be positive or negative.

Why is branding important to authors?

I guess the real question is why is positive brand equity important to authors.

Well, do you want to sell books? I mean, really sell books?

Brand equity is the thing that tells me to buy one author’s book over another, because “Author A” has a track-record and reputation for delivering awesome books.

Brand equity is also the thing that tells me NOT to spend my hard-earned dough on “Author B” because they leave a million plot holes open.

If you look at authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown and Sabrina Jeffries

They aren’t hitting the best-seller list because they are amazing writers.

OK, OK, so they may be amazing writers and they have to deliver books at a certain quality level each time, but, at this point in their careers, a lot of that “bestseller juice” is because they maintain a positive brand equity.

Their brand equity helps them sale.

Their brand equity tells people: “Buy every book in this series, because, who are you kidding, it’s Sabrina Jeffries, she’s going to be a good read.”

Now, they had to BUILD this brand equity with consistency in marketing and product. Let’s not forget that, people.

Let’s look at a couple more author brands.

Now, I’m a fictionista, so I apologize to any non-fiction fans.

Let’s chat about John Grisham, Nora Roberts and J. K. Rowling.

John Grisham is a #1 New York Times Bestseller of modern legal thrillers.

Nora Roberts is a #1 New York Times Bestseller of contemporary romantic fiction.

J. K. Rowling is a #1 New York Times Bestseller of children’s fiction.

These statements alone hold a lot of brand equity. Why do you think authors are so quick to stamp a bestseller label on their books as soon as they make a list?

Because it’s validation for their brands. By associating themselves with the New York Times list it says “Hey, look. I must be better than the book I’m sitting next to on the shelf that DOESN’T have this label.”

Both J. K. Rowling and John Grisham write within one genre and dominate those genres. Their branding can be credited to consistency in books and affiliated projects (movies, toys, etc.)

Nora Roberts also writes suspense under the name J.D. Robb. It wasn’t until she’d published a dozen books under the name did her publisher publicly confirm J.D. Robb was Nora Roberts.

Could she have written her suspense books under the name Nora Roberts? Sure.

Would that have permanently damaged her brand? *slow shrug* I don’t know. What do you think?

Would she have had fans complaining that the suspense books “just weren’t the Nora they were used to”- despite any outrageously expensive marketing tactics used to distinguish the two genres? Yes. Because at Nora’s point in her career, her brand equity is all wrapped up into two words: “Nora Roberts”

People buy the name, because the name equals “classic contemporary romantic fiction.”

So what does this mean for you?

Chances are you aren’t a New York Times Bestseller with movie deals and hoards of adoring fans who will show up at midnight to watch the premiere of your newest book-to-film project.

And that’s OK, I’m not either, but branding is still important to you, right? Right.

Branding says “Hey, potential reader, this is what I’m about. This is why you should buy my book.”

The above authors are lofty examples to show you what proper branding can (eventually) do for you.

Just to beat a dead horse*, I’ll reiterate this point: You don’t brand yourself with one project. Consistency is the key.

People want to see you deliver over and over again. You gotta gain their trust before you can build brand equity.

Starbucks wouldn’t be the brand it is today if it only made one cup of extra amazing, crack-like, coffee.

How can you possibly brand yourself as “the next Robert Jordan” with one manuscript under your belt? But it’s great you have that aspiration.

Now that you have an overview of what branding is, maybe you’re asking: how do I brand myself?

Tomorrow’s lesson can help:

“target your brand. p.s. don’t use a shotgun.”

In this post we will teach you how to create a targeted author brand. We’ll get all frou-frou and help you create a branding roadmap to take you from the unbranded flub you are now to a branding diva, or whatever the masculine equivalent of diva is- I’m thinking pimp, maybe?

Sign up for my blogfeed to get the lesson delivered to your inbox. At the end of the week, subscribers will get access to a handy, dandy eBook of all the materials from the Author Branding Bootcamp, so sign up today.

Have a specific question about branding you want answered this week? Feel free to leave a comment or you can ping the content minions at henchmen (*at*) creativityloft.com.

DON’T FORGET: At the end of the week we’ll pick one lucky author from our visitor/subscriber pool to do a case study on.

Subscribe to the blogfeed or comment (be sure to leave your author website information) by Wednesday, December 1 to be considered!

*-No horses were harmed in the making of this post.

23 Comments

  1. Wow! This is very cool–I’ve become fascinated with how creatives build successful brands. I’d pretty much decided that a brand is an emotional promise to the audience–which sounds pretty close to what you’re saying as well.

    How would you approach a writer whose novels are cross-genre? My current series of medical suspense/thrillers/women’s fiction from Berkley is ending and I’m beginning a new non-medical series that will also combine women’s fiction/thriller/suspense with environmental themes and is co-authored with Erin Brockovich.

    Plus, I have standalones that are straight medical thrillers and some that are non-medical thrillers….(I’m a pediatric ER doc, so the medical part was where I began my career)

    I myself call my books “thrillers with heart” because they’re more about the relationships and less about the whodunnit–they’ve been universally praised for their fast pacing and well developed, 3-d characters, especially the strong women protagonists. And the target audience for all of them is the same: women who enjoy character-driven thrillers.

    But I’m having a hard time figuring out my brand so that it’s not too generic and doesn’t promise something I don’t deliver (like romance–some, not all, of my books have romantic elements, but they aren’t traditional romances, others focus on family and friendship relationships rather than romantic ones) PLUS how to translate my brand into visual images (I’ve done half a dozen websites this year alone, trying to strip the medical elements down and focus more on the women fiction ones with the new series coming out)

    Any advice would be most helpful!!! Thanks in advance!
    CJ

    CJ Lyons
    http://www.cjlyons.net

    1. Hi CJ,

      Branding is definitely a type of promise to your audience. Great way to put it!

      It sounds like your books have the common thread of being thrillers/suspense for women. I’ll be talking a lot about writing cross-genre and developing a brand identity tomorrow, but I definitely think you have the right idea.

      “Women who enjoy character-driven thrillers” This statement alone proves you’re ahead of the pack. It encompasses your audience and, possibly, your brand identity. It’s targeted, but offers you flexibility because it doesn’t say medical or romance. I don’t think that is generic at all.

      It sounds like you KNOW what your brand is, you just gotta own it. Own it, CJ!

      Re: visual images on your site. (I just peeked at your site) Personally, I like the image! It says women and suspense, but have you tried a web design without a leading photograph or artwork image?

      The “show, don’t tell” thing doesn’t apply to author websites. *grin* It’s perfectly fine not to have a big image, if that’s what you want. And it may be better than switching your site design so frequently as this may confuse people.

      Maybe try having your new releases as leading images, as opposed to an image that “represents” your author brand. It can be hard to find something that is just right.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Hi, CJ! I’m excited about this boot camp, too. I’m just getting started in fiction and I write in two genres under two different names. I am committed to building two different brands because “Miranda” writes super hot stuff. I just wanted to let you know that you have been successful in building your medical thriller brand. I read mostly erotic romance but I’m aware of you – probably because of RWA and the workshops you have advertised.

  3. Wow, thanks, Miranda!!! I love teaching–you can take the girl out of pediatrics but you can’t take the pediatrician out of the girl, lol!!!

    I really appreciate that–am and looking forward to learning tons this week!
    CJ

  4. I love the humorous way this blog handles every topic. I’m having fun while I learn and that’s always a plus for me. I’ve been working on the branding aspect for several years, following pretty much what you’ve outlined here. I need to write more books in order to meet the goals I’ve set for myself. I’ll be here every day of the workshop.

    When you finished beta testing the mind-control ray, I have a few subjects I’d like to try it on. *waves hand Jedi-fashion* The fact that they’re related to me has no significance whatsoever.

  5. Thank you for such a great introduction! I’m really looking forward to what I can learn from all of this!

    Here’s a question, it may be a bit premature, and if it is, I apologize.

    I write LGBT contemporary fiction. I write my books in a way that they do translate to straight audiences (this has been proven, I’m not assuming it. I’ve had wonderful feedback from straight readers & reviewers). I’ll admit, though, I get a little nervous when openly discussing my genre (face to face is the worst. Who wants to hear, “Oh, that’s not what I like to read” to their face?). Does marketing or labeling myself as an LGBT writer help or hinder my (potential) sales?

    Thanks for “listening!” 🙂

    -Lauren

    1. Hi Lauren,

      It’s not “mainstream” fiction, so you’ll be working from a limited pool of potential readers. Is this to say you can’t make a living writing LGBT books? No! The market is there. It’s just not as big as the non-LGBT “contemporary fiction” market, but no one can target the whole contemporary fiction market anyway, so… *shrug*

      As far as branding is concerned, is the LGBT label a vital part of your brand identity? Maybe that’s your niche!

      It can be a tricky thing going “against the grain,” but if you write LGBT books, and that’s your desired niche, be upfront about it. Embrace it. Love it. Own it.

      If you’re not comfortable with the “Oh, that’s not what I like to read” rejection, market your books to the LGBT community only…either that or practice giving people the finger! *grin*

      Tomorrow we’ll be talking more about brand identity, if it’ll help you with “labeling” your works.

      HTH!

  6. My publisher, Kimberlee Williams-Vanilla Heart Publishing- suggested I take boot camp with you so here I am. She calls my books “Survive and thrive” stories about women who overcome obstacles and move on. Just like me. Send me in, Coach. I’m ready.

  7. Tivi! Thanks!!! I actually prefer clean, crisp sites that have minimal artwork but was worried (and have been told by past webdesigners) that readers find that too “cold” or “business-like”–love the idea of simply using my bookcovers as the featured art!!!

    Off to play around with the idea–can’t wait to see what you talk about tomorrow!

    Thanks again,
    CJ

  8. I’ve written an MG and YA paranormal romance, both unpublished so far. Is there a way to connect a theme to different genres?

    Thanks,

    Debbie

  9. This sounds like great timing. My first erotica is coming out next year and I’ll be checking in on this. I can but learn!

  10. Hi Kids,
    I’ve read and reread this post and it looks like a platform of books in the same genre is needed. So far, I have 3 published books this year, another to be released in January-all women who must struggle to build a life after divorce, death of a spouse, abandonment by a husband who left a note saying, “It’s not you, it’s me” after a forty year marriage, and now a remarkable girl. . .soon to be revealed. Survive and thrive.
    New to the business of writing, I’m like a sponge soaking up information on how to. That’s why I’m here.

    Thanks so much for your workshop.

    Charmaine Gordon

  11. I’m a little late getting started here because I’m fighting a very nasty flu, but I’d like to learn more about branding so that I may sell more books. My erotic romance books have rather unusual plots and they can be quite gritty. I’d like to find the right audience for them. Here’s hoping this workshop will set me in the right direction.

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