Branding is often one of the most confusing topics under the umbrella of marketing. In this episode, we look at the first step of creating a breakthrough author brand.
Other Episodes in this Series:
- Step 1 – Look in the Mirror (Who am I)
- Step 2 – Look at Your Readers (Who are my readers?)
- Step 3 – Look Through Your Readers (What do my readers say about me?)
- Step 4 – Look in Your Reader’s Mirror (What does my brand allows readers to say about themselves?)
Thomas Umstattd Jr: In this episode, we are going to talk about branding. We’ve been teasing it. We’ve promised it. We’re even planning on doing a – like a conference on it at some point in the future.
But finally we are sitting down, and we are going to talk about branding, and the good news is we have a lot to say. The bad news is, it’s not all going to fit in one episode.
James Rubart: Yes. The topic, the branding topic, which is something we could probably do – I don’t know, Thomas. What? We could probably do 16 episodes on branding if we want to. But I think what we’re going to try to do today is lay a basic foundation. We’re going to come back next week and do another episode on branding and we will try to wrap up this series with a third episode, and I think by doing that, we will be able to cover most of it.
Thomas: We have a pretty cool three-step process to help you create a brand. But before we get into the nuts and bolts, we should probably answer the question, “Why is a brand important?” Like, why bother?
Thomas: Just write good books.
James: Exactly. Because branding, we should talk about why branding is important because branding what I found is often one of the most confusing topics under the umbrella of marketing and we get that. Every conference I’m at – and Thomas, I know the same for you. People will come up and say, “Well, what is branding? What exactly is it? How do I do it?” So let’s start with why is a brand important. Thomas, why is a brand important for authors?
Thomas: Well, a brand is your promise to your readers. It’s what people see you as. The word “brand” is a new word. It goes back to the cowboy days, maybe a little bit older. But the concept of a brand goes back to bible times.
The Book of Proverbs talks about branding a lot. What are you talking about? It does actually. Every time they talk about somebody’s name, whether they have a good name or a bad name, they talk about the brand. It’s not like, oh, if your name is Gertrude, that’s an ugly-sounding name. That’s not what Solomon was talking about. What they’re talking about is if you have a good name, everything in life gets easier. Sales become easier. Marketing becomes easier. Making negotiations becomes easier because that is your reputation.
“Brand” is essentially a big fancy word, a marketing sizzle word for reputation and, “Having a good reputation is more valuable than rubies,” King Solomon said.
So we’re going to be talking about how to develop your reputation, how to develop your brand.
James: So let’s start off by saying what a brand is not. A lot of people will say, “Hey, I came up with a tagline. That’s my brand,” or they will say, “Well, what genre do you write in?” Well, I write thrillers, so that’s my brand. That is not a brand. A brand is what? It’s you. Like Thomas was saying, your name represents you. So you are the brand. OK?
Thomas: If your brand is just a category that you live in, there’s a word for that and it’s called “being generic”.
Thomas: You go to the store and there’s a can of peaches and it just says “peaches” and then there’s the can of peaches that has a name of it. That’s a promise. There’s a brand there that is more than just that category. Maybe the company that makes the peaches also has other products. Because you trust that brand, you’re more likely to buy that product.
James: And what Thomas said earlier about a name is worth more than rubies and gold is true. But that I guess illustrates the point that what a brand is, real simple, is a brand is what people think of you. When your name comes to mind, what they think about, that’s your brand.
So let’s use a brand that everyone knows. Mercedes. What do you think about when you hear the name “Mercedes”? Well, you think luxury. So that’s their brand, right? Volvo, what do you think about when you think Volvo? Well, you think safety, right? So that is their brand.
That is what they have developed. That is what they have become. That is what they’ve been forever and ever. So that’s where a brand comes from. I guess what we’re trying to say is you cannot create a brand. You can’t go out and go, “I’m going to develop a tagline, and that’s going to be my brand.”
What a brand is essentially is what you already are. So let’s stop on this point for just a minute. You can’t create a brand. All you can do is discover what your brand is and then certainly you can enhance that once you discover it. You can promote that once you know what it is. But branding is discovering the different unique person you are that nobody else in the world is.
Thomas: You have to be consistent at that. So in a sense, the brand is the story that you tell about yourself and the story other people tell themselves when they’re thinking about you.
So if you’re an obnoxious jerk, you need to be consistently obnoxious and consistently a jerk. So you own that space, and if you’re the jerk that’s on the side of the people that you’re writing for, there’s a lot of people who like to read stuff written by obnoxious jerks. But you can’t then go out and do something that’s inconsistent with that brand.
James: Think about – and let’s use two extreme examples of what Thomas is talking about because this is important, Glenn Beck is a jerk. A lot of people go, “Oh my gosh. This guy is so obnoxious.”
Thomas: But he’s my jerk.
James: Yeah, exactly, and people like him for it. Howard Stern is obnoxious, and these guys are two extremes, right? Howard Stern is pretty obnoxious in his way. But people love that, and I haven’t listened to Glenn Beck a lot. In fact, I never listened to him until I heard – saw him interviewed. I knew the reputation, and I saw him interviewed on this TV show. It might have even been Barbara Walters, and I heard him interviewed. I thought, “Oh, this guy is soft-spoken. He’s a pretty nice guy. I don’t get the controversy,” that I tuned into his – I thought, “Oh, OK. This is the real guy. This is the persona,” and Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, any of these guys would say, “I’m an entertainer, and this is part of my persona. I’m entertaining. This is my brand. They get that.”
So, Thomas, you’re exactly right when you say if you’re a jerk, you got to continue being a jerk. If you’re a great guy, you got to continue being a great guy.
Thomas: So we talked a little bit about what a brand and why it’s important and the – we talked about why it’s important. But let’s talk about what happens if you don’t have a brand. You become generic. No one wants to read a generic thriller author. No editor wants to buy a generic manuscript.
So you’ve got to find what makes you unique, what makes you special and I will tell you. It’s not being Glenn Beck. And you know why I’m certain it’s not being Glenn Beck? It’s because we already have a Glenn Beck who’s good at being Glenn Beck and you’re not him.
James: That’s right.
Thomas: We already have a Randy Ingermanson. We already have all these other folks. So you can’t find a brand by copying somebody else who has already found their brand. Now we will share some examples of how people discovered who they were and what their brands were. But we’re not sharing those examples so that you can have that same brand. We’re sharing those examples so you can go through that same process to develop your brand.
James: Let us tell you a little story of an author that some of you may know and that might help put some real practicality to this. I will go around, and I will teach branding at writing seminars, and I will ask people, “Have you heard of Ted Dekker?” A lot of people have heard of Ted Dekker. He’s a New York Times bestselling author, and I will say to them what’s – well, first, I will start off, and I will say, “OK. What’s John Grisham’s brand?” Oh, he’s a legal thriller. OK, great. What’s Stephen King’s brand. Oh, he’s a horror writer. OK. What’s Ted Dekker’s brand? And they kind of look at me stumped because Ted has done fiction. He has done non-fiction. He has done fantasy. He has done thriller. He has done quite a – quite a few different genres.
So they can’t put him in a category. So I ask, “OK, What’s Ted’s brand?” After a while, after they stare at me for a while, I say, “Here’s Ted’s brand. Literary rock star.”
James: And everybody goes, “Oh, yes!” They get it all of a sudden. The way he dresses, the way he talks, the photos he has taken. Everything about him says he’s a rock star. So I was at Thriller Fest. This was back in the summer of 2010. They went up to Ted’s brand manager Kevin Kaiser, and I said, “Hey, I just want to throw this theory by you.”
I think you’re branding him as a rock star and Kevin looks at me. He gets a little smile on his face. He goes, “That’s pretty interesting because what I’m modeling, trying to model him after is Bono.”
Thomas: From the band U2 for those –
James: Yeah, from the band U2 if you’re not familiar –
Thomas: A small band out of the UK.
James: Yeah, small band. Yeah. So Kevin and I had this nice conversation about that, and a couple of years later, Ted and I became friends, and I was at his house just talking about everything having to do with being an author, and I said, “Ted, this is what I think. I think you’re a literary rock star. That’s your brand, and that’s what you’re trying to do.” He looks at me, and it was real interesting his response.
He says, “Jim, yes and no. In other words, I get that. I understand why you’re saying that. But here’s the reality of it. I’m not trying to be anything except to be myself,” and what Ted has allowed himself to do is simply be himself. You go to Ted’s home. He dresses the same way he does when he’s in public in his home. He talks the same way. He is the same person on stage and off stage, and he has allowed himself, which a lot of us have trouble doing because we’re trying to fit in. We’re trying to be like everybody else. We’ve still got the peer pressure of high school and college and junior high and all this instead of just being ourselves.
So Ted has allowed himself to be his unique, interesting, fascinating self and I contend that all of us are unique and fascinating if we would allow ourselves to be. Even people who don’t – you don’t think you are. You are.
Thomas: And you have to embrace that. So getting into step one of our three-step process of discovering/developing your brand and that first step is simply to look in the mirror and this could be looking in an actual physical mirror and Ted looks at himself and sees that he’s a rock star and so he’s like, “Maybe that should be my brand.” But I’m speaking more of a metaphorical mirror here.
What are your unique strengths? What is different about you? What do you have unique to add to the conversation? Or put perhaps a stronger way, why should I read you instead of everybody else? What’s the one thing unique or different or exotic?
Sometimes that can be hard to answer when we come to strengths. What are your unique strengths like? Well, it’s hard to say. But the second question, may be more helpful and that is, “What are your weaknesses? What are your unique weaknesses?” because it’s often overcoming our weaknesses that give us the uniqueness of our lives. It’s the challenges that we’ve overcome or not overcome, but hopefully overcome, that define us as much as the successes and the victories define us.
So looking at yourself – this is kind of like know yourself and above all, to yourself be true and if you can be true to yourself, you can’t be false to any man. I’m butchering some Shakespeare there.
James: I like it.
Thomas: But I think Shakespeare had it right, that you have to be true to yourself when it comes to your brand, and you need to find what’s unique about you and your brand and then capitalize on that and focus on that. So what is unique? What is different about you?
James: The next question that helps people, when Thomas and I consult with individual authors, one of the best questions we can ask them is, “What is the theme of your life?” because that’s a clue to your brand. I had a pastor say to me years ago. He said, “You know, every pastor has one sermon, and they just keep that same sermon over and over and over again using different applications.”
That resonated with me. Filmmakers are the same way. You look at Christopher Nolan who is a well-known filmmaker, and if you don’t know who he is, he did Inception. He did the Batman series. He did Memento which was a groundbreaking film. He did The Prestige, and if you look at those movies, you can see this theme going through all of them.
If you look at a novelist, you can see a theme running through each of their novels, and I’ve done this with novelists where they go, “I don’t see a unifying them,” and once I get to them a little bit, I say, “This is your theme,” and they go, “Oh, I get it. I get.” So you might not even be aware of it, and that’s OK. But you have a theme, things that you’re passionate about that maybe no one else is passionate about.
One of the other things that I do –
Thomas: To jump in real quick around passionate because that is a real key and a lot of folks don’t realize where to look for what you’re passionate about. So often when we use the word “passionate,” we’re using it as a placeholder for enthusiastic. The word in passionate means suffering, so the passion of the Christ is the suffering of Christ. So if you want to find out what you’re passionate about, what are you willing to suffer for? When does the blood start to flow? When do the tears start to flow?
That – where your suffering kicks in, that’s where you find that uniqueness because a lot of people may be enthusiastic about a lot of things. Some people are just genuinely enthusiastic folks, and they’re enthusiastic about everything. But they’re not willing to suffer for very many things.
So once you find out what you’re willing to suffer for, that’s when you are beginning to know who you truly are.
James: Oh, that’s such a great point. That’s such a great point. In fact that ties into – I had a recent consult with a gal, and she didn’t know what her brand was, and one of the things I like to do is I like to – it’s fun to say, “Tell me your three favorite movies and I can tell you what your theme is.”
People kind of smile at me. It’s like, “Oh, yeah. How are you going to do that?” and this gal told me her three favorite movies and each of these movies had a character in there that was looked down or derided or made fun of. That ended up being triumphant, and it ended up coming through. It ended up overcoming these difficulties, and so I said, “OK. That’s – I bet that’s the theme of your novels too.”
She goes, “Well yeah, I kind of guess it is,” and then as I drilled down further into her, right? What is her uniqueness? What is fascinating about her?
It turns out – I’m not going to say her name because I don’t want to embarrass her. But it turns out that she had polio as a kid. So she has no use of her left hand except her thumb, which she can hit the space bar.
So she writes all her novels with one hand, and it’s like – and I said to her, “Are you kidding me? Do you tell people about this?” Oh, no, no, I don’t. I kind of hide that from people. It’s like do you understand how inspiring that could be to your readers? Do you understand how inspired I am just listening to that story?
Now does it make sense to you why – because you were teased growing up and you were derided growing up. Does it now make sense that all your novels have this person in them that – and why you like these movies with people in them that –? And this light bulb went on.
So, Thomas, you’re right. What have you suffered through? What have you overcome? What are our three favorite movies? Can you see a theme in those?
Thomas: All right. So I’m spending all this time. I’m looking in the mirror, and I’m looking at my strengths and my weaknesses. Now what? What is the next step? What if everything is still a little murky? What advice do you have for me?
James: Well, I would go even further. You’ve done all this research. I would go back to childhood because we get all these filters coming in on us once we hit junior high and high school and college and adult years. We get all these filters coming in on us. So I would go back to childhood and go, “Wow. What were you passionate about in childhood? What made you come alive in childhood? What do you look back on and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I just love that.’”
I was working with one gal who was an athlete, and she hadn’t been an athlete for years. But once we drilled into it, we realized her being an athlete was part of her brand, and we brought that out. So after you’ve done all that, what do you do next? Well, as I’m fond of saying, it’s almost impossible to read the label when you’re standing inside the bottle.
You need to figure out how to get outside the bottle and here’s how I suggest doing it. You need to ask people. You ask friends. You ask acquaintances. You might even have friends ask friends because people aren’t going to want to hurt your feelings. But I was consulting with an author recently, and I said, “I want you to send out ten emails. Five to people you know well and five who are just acquaintances and ask them. What comes to mind when you think of me? What comes to mind? What are the phrases? What are the words that come to mind when my name comes up?” That is incredibly valuable feedback because they will tell you what’s on the bottle.
Thomas: That’s good. And another thing that can help us is talking with experts. You may not be here at this point yet in your career, but sitting down with a branding expert and filling out worksheets and taking personality quizzes, that sort of thing, can be useful in helping to do that self-evaluation.
James: And then the final thing and we’ve gone long here, so we want to wrap up. But what we said earlier, give yourself permission to be yourself.
James: Which could be the hardest thing to do of this whole lesson.
Thomas: Easy to say.
James: That’s right, that’s right. Easy to say, hard to do. But inside you is a fascinating, unique, compelling person. Allow that person to come out.
Thomas: There is a – there’s something that my dad says about my mom that’s a compliment, and I’ve started kind of stealing this turn of phrase and to describe certain people. But he will say that she is so much the way that she is. It’s like she’s a fully actualized person and that’s one of the things that’s appealing to us about good characters and novels is that they are so much the way that they are. They are who they are, and that is attractive. It’s one of the things that’s attractive about animals quite frankly because they don’t have that insecurity. They are what they are. They are who they are, and they’re not ashamed about that. They embrace it. In fact, there’s almost this kind of obliviousness that they have because it’s just so much a part of who they are. The more that you can allow yourself to be like that, the clearer your brand will be to yourself and the clearer your brand will be to everybody else.
James: And before we wrap up, one more comment and that is this whole idea. Some of you are going, “I don’t want to send out a letter asking people what they think of me. That’s scary.” I get that. But I guarantee you will get people responding back to you and going, “You’re kidding me! Really? You see me that way?”
There is more glory in you than you realize and that’s part of the excitement of about finding out what your brand is because when you realize the impact you have on people, it will free you up to do it even more.
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