A BrANDING AND MArke TING exPerT SAYS ThAT DeFINING YOUr PhOTOGrAPhIC
NIChe AND WhAT YOU PrOVIDe YOUr ClIeNTS IS The FOUNDATION FOr ANY SUCCeSSFUl
MArke TING CAMPAIGN. BY COlleeN WAINWrIGhT
The ASMP Guide to New Markets in Photography (Allworth Press, 2012), edited
by the late Susan Carr, gathers insights from several authors on the influence
of technology on the photography industry, changing licensing models, sales,
marketing and writing a successful business plan. What follows is an edited
excerpt from one chapter by Colleen Wainwright, a freelance writer, consultant,
and speaker on marketing and branding. Her company, Communicatrix, provides
consulting to creative people.
We talk admiringly about someone’s branding—how slick their web- site is or how well it matches their business cards or how you can rec- ognize it at 50 paces. We talk about redoing our branding, or hiring someone to help us do our branding or perhaps how we’re putting
off doing our branding until we have more of a steady cash flow.
All of these thoughts, however well-intentioned, are wrong. Worse than that,
they are very costly thoughts to have.
Branding is not what you think it is,
and it’s not your fault
Most of the time, we confuse “branding” with one facet of branding—visual iden-
Continuity is great—as long as it’s
tity. We think of logos (or “logomarks”) that stand in for famous products and com-
panies, for example, Betty Crocker’s spoon, Apple’s apple, Nike’s “swoosh.”
There’s good reason for the mix-up. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, much of what it meant to “brand” something was treating it like you
would the cattle that were otherwise indistinguishable from your neighbor’s: Slap
something on the outside to make it identifiable as uniquely yours. Marketers got
a little fancier as time went on, promising life-changing effects and adding jingles
and smash cuts to the mix, but the song remained the same—and was distinctly
outside-in. It was a brilliant way to sell what were essentially commodity items, and
as consumers, we bought into it, both literally and figuratively. From shampoo to
cigarettes to cars, we identified with the brands we bought largely because of the
way they were positioned.
Before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, know that a strong visual identity
is still a valuable business asset. There’s nothing wrong (and plenty right) with having your marketing materials all visually aligned, especially if they’re well-executed
in a style that reflects the personality of your business. There are very real brand
(i.e., product or service) attributes that can be translated into branding we can see,
taste or touch. Apple does a terrific job translating their clean, spare, user-friend-ly approach to product design into print and TV ads with a wry sense of humor,
and that core message is reinforced by their packaging, stores and website. I’m no
But if the brand-with-a-capital-“B” behavior of a business doesn’t align with the
great promises their branding-with-a-lowercase-“b” is making, neither will the customer’s takeaway. Unless you’ve got consistent behavior to back it up—terrific customer service, an attitude that makes you easy to work with or even a website that
just works, period—all the beautiful visual ID in the world won’t help you much.
In some ways, this is terrifying news. It seems as though there’s no place to
hide, no margin for error. Any little slip-up can become a branding disaster, with
the potential to wreak havoc on our image, and eventually the bottom line. Also,
it strips away the opportunity to brand “up”—to position ourselves and our busi-
nesses as bigger/fancier/your-adjective-here than we really are. But it’s part and
parcel of the times. On the Internet, after all, people are only a few keystrokes
away from the truth. Customers share their experiences with all kinds of business-
es on social media, their blogs and websites dedicated to the topic. Witness the
alacrity with which certain heretofore highly regarded corporations will respond
after being pummeled on Twitter. Posturing doesn’t work very well when anyone
with a smartphone can pull aside the curtain to reveal the true identity of “the
great and powerful Wizard of Oz.”
This shift in how we define branding also holds really good news for photog-
raphers and other creative, high-touch businesses. As we’ll see, experience is now
weighted more heavily than window-dressing. You have more than a little control
over influencing customer perceptions, and you can do it without the kinds of big
financial expenditures required in the days before ubiquitous digital media.
Of course, this will require an investment of time. Nothing comes from nothing!
the first step: planting your flag on a hill
By now, I hope it’s obvious that good branding starts with a clearly defined niche.
What kind of photography do you do—exactly? The generalist photographer—even
the regional, semi-niche photographer—won’t cut it in an age when the average
civilian carries a camera in his or her pocket that will take excellent, high-resolution
shots. As [editor] Susan Carr discusses at length in chapter one [of The ASMP Guide
to New Markets in Photography], the digital age continues to drive prices down and
expectations up. The only way out is to specialize, and to do it in a spectacular way.
From a branding perspective, a couple steps of business planning are worth