We thought we had said everything we wanted to say about branding. We were wrong.

Initial Branding Steps



    1. What does my brand let my readers say about themselves?
    2. What tribe does this brand give me access to?

Not all author brands have the potential to get to this place, and most authors never get there.

This is where you ask. What do people think my brand says about them? It is about insiders as much as it is about outsiders.

How to do it:

  • Define “outsiders” when everyone is welcome, no one is at home.
  • Create opportunities for your fans to interact with each other.  



James L. Ruabrt: And in this episode, we are going to talk about branding. Now, we’ve talked about branding before, actually in three specific episodes. And we thought we had the subject covered. Certainly, we can go into more depth in the three levels of branding that we talked about. But Thomas and I were chatting the other day, and he says, “Jim, you know what? I think there is a fourth level of branding that most authors and most companies don’t ever reach but we should talk about it.”


So today, we’re going to talk about exactly that.


Thomas Umstattd Jr.: But before we talk about step 4, the ultimate step, you could say in branding, and I do think this is the ultimate step. I don’t think there is a higher step. And you will realize why I’m saying that when we get there.


Let’s quickly summarize the first three steps. And you can go back and listen to these on NovelMarketing.com.


Step 1 is look in the mirror. This is asking the question who am I as an author. Who am I as a brand? You can listen to that in episode 41.


James: Yes. Step 2 which is in episode 42 if you want to go back and relisten to it is to look at your readers. In other words, figure out who these readers are, what they are about, what they’re like.


Thomas: And then the third step which is in episode 43 is to look through your readers back at yourself. This is asking the question, what do my readers say about me? And we thought this is the ultimate bubble because it’s your readers talking about you and what resonates with them about your brand is the most important thing.


But there is an even more important thing.


James: No, say it isn’t so.


Thomas: It is true. This fourth level is – we’re calling this step four, look in your readers’ mirror.


James: OK, Thomas. I like that. I like that. Look in your readers’ mirror. But what exactly do you mean by that?


Thomas: So this is – looking in your own mirror is asking who am I? Looking in your readers’ mirror is asking the question, what does this brand let me say about myself or what does this brand say about me if I’m a part of it?


And the easiest way to think about this is in clothing, someone who wears a certain brand of clothing that those clothes say something about them. Someone who is wearing Nike shoes is different from somebody who is wearing Reebok shoes. Those are two different groups of folks. But when someone walks into the store to buy sneakers, they’re not trying to decide between Reebok and Nike typically especially for basketball shoes. Those are very different factions, very different kind of person. It’s going to be putting on Reeboks.


But it’s not just with clothing brands that have this, people wanting to express themselves through the brand but it’s even more than that.


James: Well, because people ultimately want to have an identity. We are all searching for identity, where we belong, where we fit in, what tribe members do I want to surround myself with. And by doing this, by creating a brand section that they go, “I want to identify myself with this brand.” That is the ultimate. I belong because I wear a Nike t-shirt. I belong because I wear Reeboks and I’m going against the grain a little bit. That’s ultimately where we want to get to.


Thomas: And yeah, and that’s the second question that’s a part of this. The first is, what does this brand let my readers say about themselves? And then the second question is, what does this brand give my readers access to? What tribe does it give them access to?


So, not a lot of brands have the potential to get here. If you’re writing romance, you’re unlikely to create a brand about your romance book. But although there maybe someone who will tell you how to get to this level and what people have done to get there and maybe you can be the first. But we are going to them, and we’re like we can’t think of any examples of a romance author who got to level 4 where they have a tribe that emerged in this sense where it was a self-identifying and granting tribe.


So to give you a couple of examples real quick and then we’ll give you some tests that you can use. One example is the Bible, best-selling book of all time. You would think in marketing books, people would talk about the Bible more. It’s like what is the Bible doing to cause it to be the number one best-selling book every single year for the last 500 years?


It’s like we invent – the printing press was invented to print the Bible. And it does these things very well. It creates that sense of identity and that sense of community where there’s a certain kind of person who is going to read the Bible every day or have a good feeling about the Bible and buy it regularly and another person who is not going to read the Bible under any circumstances. There’s nothing you can do to convince that person to read the Bible because they have made up the decision that they are not that kind of person. I am not a person who buys an iPhone. I’m the kind of person who buys an Android or vice-versa.


James: And these people who do read the Bible, since we’re using this example, these are people that for the most part are very passionate about it. They have very clearly defined themselves as this tribe. The same thing with Nike, there are people, “I am a Nike person. I will never wear Adidas or Reebok. I’m Nike all the way.”


So we see this again and again and again. But Thomas is right. Why we don’t use the Bible as an example of creating a tribe more often is surprising.


Thomas: But you’re going to be like, “OK. Well, the Bible, that’s not fair because the Bible is a religious book. Any religious book will be like that.” OK. Fair enough. But it doesn’t just apply to religious books.


So Twilight, people either love or hate Twilight. Fans of the Twilight books gather together with each other to talk about Twilight. There are …


James: And dress up as their characters, right?


Thomas: And dress up like their characters. They are people who drive to the various places. They go on Twilight tours in Washington and want to visit all of these gloomy places that are the parts of the country that have the least amount of sun of the entire country.


James: I grew up in Western Washington. It’s not that glamorous.


Thomas: But it is though.


James: To them.


Thomas: In that tribe, yeah.


James: Yes.


Thomas: If there could be a sparkly vampire behind the tree.


James: If you’re not in the tribe, those areas near the coast are not going to fall on January [0:06:06] [Phonetic].


Thomas: This is giving you hints of where we’re going regarding how to get here. And here’s the hint. If your tribe is for everyone, no one will feel at home. What identifies a tribe is as much by who the outsiders are is by who the insiders are.


And most authors are trying to be too inclusive to get to this fourth level of branding. And you don’t have to be successful to be at this fourth level of branding. There are many books which sold millions of copies that have not gotten here.


But some other examples, Lord of the Rings. Do Lord of the Rings fans gather together? Yes. Do they identify themselves based on their fondness for the Lord of the Rings? Yes. In  fact, going back in the ‘70s, it wasn’t uncommon to see spray paint graffiti in New York City subways that said, “Frodo lives.”


James: Frodo Lives, right.


Thomas: Which, I wasn’t alive for that. But I studied about in history. The Frodo Lives meme, Dr. Frodo memes that were spray painted. People sprayed it on walls, which I’m not advocating that your fans graffiti and vandalize. But it’s an indication of that passion.


Other examples are, Hunger Games has done a really good job. Insiders and outsiders people passionately like it and passionately dislike. Less of an identity.


And then Brandon Sanderson has also done a great job with this, and he has probably done the best job of doing it with him as an author. So all of his books or a lot of his books are in this Cosmere, and that Cosmere has a brand that has passionate fans who gather and discuss and will dress up at conferences, wear t-shirts, et cetera.


And then for you non-fiction folks, we have a book for you too.


James: Getting Things Done. Now, Getting Things Done is not epic like a lot of these books we’ve been talking about. But still, the core message of that resonates so deeply with people that they want to gather with other people that say, “I get this book. This book has changed my life.” I resonate with you because you understand what I’m talking about when I reference the book.


Thomas: Getting Things Done is a book that has evangelists, like people who preach the gospel of Getting Things Done to everyone around them.  So every time they interact with someone who is inefficient or is wasting time like, “Oh my gosh! You got to read this book.”


You can go on MeetUp.com right now and search for Getting Things Done, and you will find groups meeting in your area to discuss this book. It has had that much of an impact. And if you’re having trouble getting stuff done, maybe you should read the book, Getting Things Done. It will help. I read it once or twice. I consider myself to be a GTD person and I try to practice Getting Things Done whenever possible, and I enjoy hanging out with those kinds of people. So I’m not an insider or core insider, but I’m also not an outsider.


James: OK, Thomas. So what – talk about – let’s give some examples of test that show whether you have reached this level or not.


Thomas: The first test is the short test. So step one is, would someone wear a shirt with your logo on it, your brand on it, your book cover on it or imagery from your book? But the ultimate test is, would someone pay to wear a shirt with your logo on it? So you’ve probably seen people walking around with Hunger Games little Mockingjay logo and wearing the pin from the movie, but it’s also from the book.


And for other brands, the short test is more helpful because you don’t see a lot of authors with imagery that can be put on shirts but you also don’t see a lot of authors creating imagery that can be put on shirts. So is this a problem of authors just haven’t done it, and that’s why we don’t see it or that it doesn’t work? I suspect it’s because authors haven’t done it because these techniques work in all these other industries, why wouldn’t they work with authors?


James: It’s interesting. Some of you are probably familiar with an author by the name of Ted Dekker. And Ted had a series called The Circle Series which was a trilogy Red, White, Black. And he created pendants. He created these wooden pendants, and for a time, you could buy them on Etsy. You could buy them from Ted. And so it actually – that’s an example, Thomas, of Ted did go to the effort of creating these symbols or jewelry and people did buy them.


Thomas: Yeah. Another test is the bumper sticker test. Would someone put your logo on their bumper sticker, on their bumper? So Apple is a great example of this. People, especially back before Apple became mainstream. So now that Apple is bigger, you see fewer cars with the Apple logo on the back, which is fascinating.


It used to be that getting that Apple logo was very difficult. You had to pay $2,000 for a computer that then as a part of the computer you got the sticker to put on the back of your car. It’s an invitation to join the tribe. Not everyone who bought the computer put the sticker on their car, but everyone who put the sticker on their car had bought the computer.


Now, that with iPods and iPhones and iPads and all the other I devices, you can get – you can join the tribe for $200 or free with a contract. And that lower barrier to entry has reduced the value of the tribe. People are less willing to identify with the tribe because it’s too easy to get in. It doesn’t feel …


Thomas: It’s not as exclusive. How many times have you gone to a restaurant and thought, “Wow! This is a cool restaurant. I found this hole in a wall place.” And then you find out, “Oh, it’s a chain, or it has got four or five restaurants. It’s just not as special anymore.”


James: Right. And so, trying to create scarcity or putting barriers between your readers and your brand actually can help. So I know high and fashion brands where you can hardly buy the handbag. They hardly have them in stock. And that’s a real challenge to buy it, and that’s the one that everybody wants. You can’t start there, but it’s a great place to try to get if you want to be an aspirational brand.


Thomas: And then the final …


James: OK, Thomas. So what is the ultimate?


Thomas: The ultimate is …


James: The ultimate test.


Thomas: The ultimate test is the tattoo test. Is someone willing to tattoo your brand on their body? So this is Harley-Davidson. This is brands like Disney. Disney gets tattooed all over people, Disney characters. Even Apple gets here.


That’s the extreme example. But think about – so let’s talk a little bit about how you can do this, how you can make this happen.


And let’s look at Harley-Davidson. Why is it that Harley-Davidson has such a passionate following when other motorcycle companies that make motorcycles that are just as good as Harley-Davidson or a little bit better? But they’re not 30 times better. It’s not like a Yamaha drives half the speed of a Harley-Davidson or that it’s twice as uncomfortable.


In measurable ways, it’s not that much better of a vehicle, and yet, it has this passionate following. And part of the reason is that Harley-Davidson has done a great job creating opportunities for Harley-Davidson fans to gather with each other. And this is another reason why a lot of the examples we shared were from fantasy and science fiction. Why do those have the better kind of fourth tier brand? It’s because there are lots of gatherings of science fiction fans. Science fiction fans love to gather with each other and talk about science fiction.


When was the last time there was a romance writers or book conference? Typically, everyone there is a writer, not a reader. But these science fictions fans are active with fans comic book conventions, gaming conventions. They also attract fans of these books.


And so, create opportunities for your fans to interact with each other. Ideally, in real life. So like Getting Things Done uses MeetUp.com which is a free service and regular people are creating MeetUp.com events. You can also do this online now, creating opportunities for your fans to chat with each other, which is where a Facebook group might be a good way to do it. Facebook pages don’t work well but groups can.


James: And just to be totally candid here. This is something that Thomas and I have stumbled on and realized there’s a lot of truth in this, and we’re still figuring out as well. So, our intention is to have a follow-up so maybe a couple of months, maybe six months down the road where we can give you specific examples that we have tried or investigated and seen that work so that you can try it as well.


But in the meantime, we’d love to hear your ideas on what you’ve attempted, what has worked, what hasn’t worked. So you can shoot us an email and describe what you’ve done so far.


Thomas: Yeah. Regarding how to do it, the two tips we have for you is to one, define outsiders and who is in and who is out. And then secondly, create opportunities for the people who are on the in to gather with each other. If you do those two things, you may find that you can emerge a tier 4 brand which is incredibly powerful.


We hope this has been helpful. Oh, real quick. Some examples of books which have not done this, To Kill a Mockingbird, sold 20 million copies, no tribe. You don’t have to have a tribe to be successful. So don’t feel like you have to do this. There are lots and lots and lots of authors who have written excellent books. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the best book of the 20th century. You can send hate mails to Thomas at ThomasUmstattd.com.


But of all the books that came out in the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird, in my opinion, was the best. But it doesn’t have a tribe. You don’t see To Kill a Mockingbird fans gathering together. You don’t see people tattooing Mockingbirds on their shirts or their bodies. It doesn’t have that sense of identity, but it doesn’t mean it is not a good book.


But if you do get to this level, you can sell tons of copies even with a bad book like Twilight.


James: What? What? Thomas, you’re not putting that up next to – oh my gosh!


Thomas: Yeah.


James: Wow!


Thomas: Yeah. Send your hate mail to – Twilight wasn’t terrible but was it really good enough to justify the tens of millions of copies that sold? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But what it did do and what partly generated that was that people saw the havoc. They saw the haters and the inside folks, and the controversy about Twilight made them curious and they either wanted to be on the inside, or they didn’t. And some people wanted to be on the inside, and they choose to read those books, and it was very effective marketing for Twilight. So go and do likewise.


James: And then tell us about it. We’d love to hear it.


Thomas: Yeah. If you like to hear your name and book mentioned on Novel Marketing, all you have to do is leave a review on iTunes. We would appreciate it. If you put your name and book title in the review, we will give you a shout-out here on the show even if it’s not a positive review.


James: Wow! How can you turn down an offer like that?


Thomas: And this episode of the Novel Marketing Podcast is brought to you by MyBookTable. And some exciting news. We’ll be talking about this later, but we are about to launch a Kickstarter for MyBookTable 3. It’s a brand new version of MyBookTable, the best version yet. It has got a whole new interface. It has got a whole new landing page mode, beautiful page mode, audiobook mode. It’s amazing. You should check it out at MyBookTable.com.

Liked it? Take a second to support Thomas Umstattd Jr. on Patreon!

Want more?

Get a weekly email with tips on building a platform, selling more books, and changing the world with writing worth talking about. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!