There is an enormous amount of confusion about the topic of self-branding, and much of it, until recently, has been in my own head. I’ve delayed writing this post for over a year because I knew that “self-branding” was important, but I didn’t understand how or why. Lately I’ve come into some clarity on this topic.
“Self-branding” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how your website looks, what clothes you wear, or how you are perceived by the general public. In fact, you don’t even have to have a public personae to effectively self-brand.
Self-branding simply means clearly showing the decision-makers in your career(s) what you do, and that you do it well. Since many of us have multiple careers, this is a strong possibility we each have multiple personal brands, with varying degrees of overlap.
For example, in terms of my freelance database consulting, the decision-makers are potential clients. Since most of my work comes through word-of-mouth referrals (based either on my own work or the work of the company I subcontract with), self-branding is fairly simple. If I deliver high quality applications to my existing clients, on a timely basis, at a reasonable cost, I prove easy to work with, and together we successfully implement the project, then I’ll get positive referrals.
I’m not against setting up a website for my consulting work, but I’ve got enough work as it is. Being “too flashy” or too public could actually work against me (for example, most people would be suspicious of an infomercial for a database developer).
Those potential clients could easily find this website and read some of my posts, or listen to some of the music I’ve produced, but those things probably won’t affect their decision making. What those potential clients care about is someone they trust telling them what I do, and that I’m reliable, competent, personable, and affordable. That word-of-mouth activity constitutes my brand in that field.
A different brand is the brand of this blog. Just recently I asked myself the question “What is this blog about?” For over a year I wrote blog articles, and enjoyed writing them, and thousands of people read them, but a new reader coming to this blog wouldn’t have had a clear idea of what the blog was about. After some soul-searching, I added the blog subtitle “Systems for Living Well” (which gets at the heart of what I like to write about, and also meshes with my life purpose). While not perfect, it gives a new reader some idea of where I’m coming from. It improves the blog brand (which is a kind of “self” brand).
In terms of music production, we (myself and various collaborators) have struggled at times to keep projects “on-brand.” Even though we’ve always tried to put out only quality music (and leave the rest on the hard drive), at times we’ve put out tracks and albums that confused and maybe even alienated our existing fans (because of our desire to experiment and explore new spaces). I think the second Momu album Momentum was too much of a departure from our self-titled debut album (instead of gaining momentum, we lost it). Of course it’s good to explore new space, but as an artist you have a responsibility to bring your fans along for the journey, and to evolve in a direction that remains coherent.
The Jondi & Spesh project has had similar branding issues. We’re known for groove-based progressive house, but a legion of young Dance Dance Revolution fans also knows us for frenetic trance productions. To confuse matters further, we recently put out an all-ambient album.
I’m definitely going to be more cognizant of artist branding for future music releases, it’s just kind of messed-up to your fans to radically change it up all the time. Luckily, many have stayed with us for the ride.
For people interested in becoming a “star,” appearance and attire become more important in the self-branding algorithm. A significant part of what you’re selling is the way you look. For actors, models, and performers of all types, the “look” is just as important as the skills. If you add an iconic “look” to an impressive body of work, it can act as a force multiplier (Deadmau5’s mouse head, for example).
For the rest of us, appearance is important as well. It helps if the way you look meshes with people’s expectations. People don’t expect personal trainers to be overweight, so an overweight personal trainer might have a harder time attracting clients. This doesn’t mean they’re less effective (maybe they lost 50 pounds of fat and gained 30 pounds of muscle and can teach their clients how to do the same), but it’s still a handicap.
We all have aspects of our appearance that we can and can’t control. Investing in physical fitness, dressing well, and other aspects of personal presentation will benefit any career (because people are positively biased toward people who look good, or simply because of a recognizable or iconic look), but for most careers and pursuits appearance isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is showing the decision makers (who could be potential employers, clients, customers, readers, or fans) what you do and that you do it well.
Without Demand, Self-Branding Is Pointless
The other side of branding is demand. Who’s buying what you’re selling, or who’s interested in what you’re saying or doing? If you ignore these questions, you’ll go broke as an entrepreneur, you’ll labor in obscurity as an artist, or you’ll fail as a do-gooder.
It’s not “selling out” to consider what people are actually interested in. In terms of artistic expression, if you want your work to be entertaining, inspiring, innovative (and/or other nice adjectives — take your pick), then you need to think long and hard about what your audience or possible audience considers to be entertaining or inspiring or innovative. They’re all moving targets. I’ve written more about this topic in my post The Importance of Like.
It’s possible to consider demand with too much specificity or granularity, and miss the target. If you started writing a paranormal romance of reasonably good quality, you might do very well, or you might be too late — perhaps tastes will have moved on by the time your book is written. How long can the demand for young attractive vampires and werewolves last?
Still, an artist or entrepreneur can look at broad strokes. It’s easier to sell a novel than a novella. It’s easier to sell a novel or script that fits into a clear genre than it is to sell a sci-fi/romance or a drama/comedy.
Entrepreneurs can run detailed tests to gauge certain types of demand. This post from Noah Kagan describes how to use Google Trends and other tools to see what people are searching for. Research can be misleading, ideas that “test” well can flop, and new ideas and products can connect with people in unexpected ways, but entrepreneurs can get a rough idea of how many people might be interested in their product or service with just a little research. To just guess or hope isn’t that smart.
Artists want to “follow their passion,” and they should. But most artists also crave recognition, a sizable audience, and the other trappings of “success.” To get these things, the artist has to visualize and deeply understand how their audience will interact and react to whatever it is they are creating. Not all people are the same, so the artist needs to consider who is interacting with their work. What have they read/watched/heard before? For example, it’s usually important to avoid cliches, unless you are creating stuff for young people (who have been exposed to almost nothing). Everything will seem new and original to them! On the other hand, if your audience is sophisticated, they’ll react better to subtlety, nuance, left-turns, out-of-the-boxness, bold experiments, and novelty.
In most of my own attempts at artistic expression (music and writing), I’ve mostly ignored the advice above, and just created what I felt like creating. A few times I’ve gotten lucky — the stuff I’ve put out there connected with large numbers of people. Going forward it’s something I’d like to consider more — how does what I have to offer overlap with what people want (and/or respond to), and how can I maximize that overlap? I realize it’s possible to over-think this area, but mostly I’ve been guilty of under-thinking about it, and that’s something I hope to change.
When we start trying to do something new (artistic or not), we’ll generally suck at it for at least few years. For artistic endeavors the experience of knowing what’s good, but not being able to execute it yourself, is especially frustrating. This Ira Glass quote sums it up well:
The same is true of being an entrepreneur, or really doing anything that requires any amount of skill. If you’re attracted to the field, it’s probably because you have potential. And for awhile, that’s probably all you’ll have — potential, and a string of failures or mixed results.
This can be awkward time for self-branding. We can’t really let decision-makers know what we do, and that we do it well, when we can’t do it well yet.
Still, if we are in the process of learning how to do something well, that can be integrated into a self-brand. People generally like to share their knowledge and resources, so we don’t need to wait for expertise or mastery before putting ourselves out there. Becoming or learning can be part of a self-brand, and in these cases commitment, enthusiasm, and persistence matter more than expertise. We may be able to attract the assistance and early opportunities that we need if we learn publicly (even if the process is potentially embarrassing).
Self-Branding Bottom Line
It’s crazy-making to attempt to develop some kind of overarching universal “self-brand” that covers everything you do. We each have multiple roles in the world the require the help, attention, money, and/or alliance of others in order to succeed. For each of those roles, we need to let the decision-makers (the people who can help us) know what we do, and that we do it well.
What are your own experiences with developing your own self-brands? What obstacles or issues did you encounter? Have any of your decisions in regards to self-branding been difficult to make? Have you ever “fixed” a brand that was “broken” (bad reputation or whatever?).
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