Branding Your Photography Business: A Realistic View

Branding for Photographers: A Realistic Approach

Branding Your Photography Business: A Realistic View

Brand. Branding. Words that we hear a lot about. “Brand Yourself” we hear from some quarters. “We specialize in Branding” we hear from others wanting to sell their expertise. And consultants want us to describe our ‘brand’ to them.

OK. Let’s talk about that thing called ‘brand’… one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the business. In the image above there is an old Mustang. No one refers to it as a Ford. It is a brand that still captivates a segment to lust for that car.

Coca Cola is a Brand. Scotch Tape is a Brand. Brand with a capitol “B”. People at restaurants may say “bring me a Coke” when what they mean is a brown fizzie cola, some other label may suffice. “Where’s the Scotch Tape” may actually mean, do we have any clear tape for this torn page? The original clear tape becomes the defacto term for all clear tape. “Get me a Xerox of this” means a copy of it, even if made on a Toshiba or Canon. No one says, “get me a Panasonic copy of this paper…”

Google is a brand. Yahoo is a brand of sorts.

And then we have the lesser brands… most of the other large companies we think of as being leaders. Nikon, Canon, Apple, Microsoft… all brands, small b. Well known, and powerful, they lead the industries they are involved in. But few people refer to all cameras as “Kodaks” or “Canons.”

We go down further to look at the micro brands of photographers and designers. We will never be household words, and rarely will someone refer to a photograph as a ‘Giannatti’. I’m cool with that (while maybe being a bit disappointed, but I’ll live.)

We have to create brands that work in a niche, or across a niche/market/channel to deliver something a bit intangible to those considering hiring us. And that ‘brand’ shows in how we look, act, and deliver. It runs the gamut from what car we drive to where our studio is located, or even whether we have one, to the colors and feel of our stationary. It’s how we answer the phone, our email, Twitter followers and FaceBook friends.
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Some important links from around the web.
Why I Photograph (Eugene at Erudite Expressions)
There are no snapshots anymore (Robert Wright)
Andrew Hetherington has a Week in the Life (start here and go forward)
Daron Shade explains CMS for photographers here on Lighting Essentials.
“A Passion for the Image” and all about “About Me” pages for photographers.
And don’t forget you can save $100 (1/2) off Selina Maitreya’s incredible audio program by entering FOSLE at check out. Our gift to our readers.
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If you are looking to get a workshop experience, take a look at the 2010 schedule at Learn to Light. We have the first half of the year all ready to go. I am also preparing some new web sites for photographers that will be online soon, so if you are looking for a website, send me an email and we can get something out to you right away.

Before we get into some specifics, lets look at what ‘Brand’ is not.

It is not your logo, even though your logo is part of the overall brand. It isn’t that gold foil on your business card or the 7-color, diecut, embossed and hand folded mailer… although, they can be part of the total brand. A part of the brand, but not THE brand.

Your brand is so much more than that.

And at the same time, it’s so much simpler. While you surely have to have a good looking presentation, you won’t be hired based on your collateral material. Your logo will not lose the gig for you. Picking the ‘wrong’ PMS color for the back of your business card will not lose you the job. And what is the ‘wrong’ color anyway? Wrong how? Wrong to who?

Font choice as well – does it matter? Of course. Is it a deal killer? No.

Toolbox:
45 Fonts for Modern Design
40 Fonts for Design from Smashing Magazine
50 High Quality Fonts for Professional Design

As long as you don’t choose Comic Sans, or Papyrus (hey, Adam) and choose a relatively good font for what you are trying to say about yourself, then it should be fine. I suggest working with a designer if you are not 100% sure that you have the chops to make something good. Great even. (Not every font is a winner, and the choice should be made with some long term planning as well as knowing what the font says about you. Consult some typography sites for good insights and information.) Be bold, but also be aware that font choice can reflect lots of personality and ‘brand’.

Does a nice paper for your ID matter? Sure it matters, but it won’t keep you from getting a job as a photographer. As a designer, maybe… but not photographer. Choose something nice, get your ID printed and get out there. You can change the paper stock later, but waiting to get out there while choosing between 40# and 50# is wasted time.

Am I saying that ID and collateral tools don’t really matter at all? That they can simply be crappy printer paper cards turned out on a home inkjet? With soda spills on the edges? Nope. They must rise to the level of professional. But they don’t have to be expensive or over-the-top to get noticed. They should be as good as you can get within the budget you set. A realistic budget, not an open ended budget.

Of course all the peripherals of ID matter, but in the end it is the imagery that really carries the day. That isn’t to say that throwing a bunch of inkjet prints into a folder and sending it to an Art Buyer will do the trick. There is a certain level that must be maintained, but it shouldn’t be something that holds you back.

I see too many photographers hanging back while they look for that ‘perfect portfolio’ or I see websites that are ‘coming soon’ for months while the photographer is having iteration after iteration of their sites designed. Never liking any one enough to pull the trigger and get on with it. And that is a shame. Those days lost cannot be gained back. Assignments were handed out, shot and delivered by photographers who in many cases have less cool websites as the ones that were nixed by the guy in search of perfection.

Were they assignments that could have been done by our recalcitrant photographer? I dunno. Maybe, but we will never know because he wasn’t out there showing his work. You will remember a few articles back I stated that the best way to become a successful photographer is to make really-really good pictures and show them to as many people as you possibly can. I didn’t say, “oh, and make sure the kerning on your phone number is tight and perfect.” There was a reason for that.

Now let’s look at creating your brand. And doing it with an eye toward the pragmatic and the other eye toward expediency.

1. Work with a designer on trade. This is a time honored way of doing it. Find a designer who will do your design work based on a tradeout deal where he can recoup his/her design fee by you working a gig for him. He bills for the photography and you are out only the time (think of it as interest) that it takes to do the gig. Make sure there is a contracted amount so you don’t get upside down. Trading a logo/ID for a 10 day AR shoot may be a little lopsided, so agree on a fee that you both can live with.

Show the work you are doing with the designer. Be prepared to discuss what you want to do, where you want to go, what kind of clients you are currently working with and what kind of clients you want to be working with.

It is important to make sure the work matches what you want to do. A grungy, “hip” ID and site may not work for a corporate/annual report shooter, where something more ‘buttoned down may not work for a celebrity/hiphop shooter. Knowing what you want to do can help you refine your approach, and give the designer something to work with.

2. Let’s say you have no idea what kind of look you want.

OK, that happens sometimes. Sit with the designer and look at the work, develop several rough, conceptual directions, look at and embrace/reject aspects of the people who are in the same groove as you are. Put all that into writing, something I refer to as a ‘Brief’ and study it. Many times the answer to where you want to go will reveal itself to you by simply doing the exercise.

3. Be realistic with your budget. If you did a million and change last year, it may be just possible that you shouldn’t be bothering yourself reading this… !! But if you are an emerging photographer who is getting settled into a rising groove, budget may be important… hell, it better be important these days.

You don’t have to spend a ton of money to look great. Concept and execution will carry the day, not expensive paper stock and handfed printing. Choose wisely, order quantities that make sense to you, and get the work out there.

4. Well, you say you have no designer friends, tried to find a designer on Twitter and FaceBook and Plaxo and LinkedIn and … OK… I got it. You are going to go about this on your own.

Well, be prepared to do your research. Spend a month pouring over design blogs, design books at the local Barnes and Noble, and design monthlies. Look at sites that you love, and the annuals that feature design. Communication Arts, and Print are two that I know my local library keeps.

Toolbox:
11 Tutorials for Business Card Design
A huge list of links to Business Card Design

I hope, actually insist, that you have some experience/skill in design, or you could fall below the base line for what is acceptable. Remember, the point of this article is that while important, collateral materials and the ‘brand’ they project are not as important as the images that lie behind them, but that doesn’t mean those items can be treated lightly or not reach the base level for a professional photographer. There is a line that they cannot cross. If you don’t know where that line is, it may not be a good idea to do this without some design consulting.

Once you have your ID/Collateral stuff figured out, and by that I mean business cards, invoice, letterhead, envelopes and delivery slips/envelopes, stickers, it is time to work on the website.

“Please notice that the subject of this post is not “don’t market”. The quote from the burnett art buyer is a reminder that we need to have our craft NAILED before we start making slick marketing materials. Because if you have slick marketing material and no real solid work to stand on you just won’t get hired even if you manage to get someones attention. Not only that, but if the visit ur brand because of some slick makeeting and your work is crap they’re NEVER coming back because they filed you as crap.”
Chase Jarvis in the comments on his post: Stop Worrying About Your Business Cards

The Web Site is so very important. Keep it simple. Keep it easily updated. Keep it focused on the imagery. Chasing navigation, trying to find the entry link, flying letters that spell out your name are all things to avoid. The vast majority of the clients want to see your pictures and know how to call/contact you if they like them. They are not looking for killer design, cutting edge navigation, or six different CSS switches to change the color. All that stuff is extraneous and gets in the way of getting to the images and making some decisions.

“And if artists or agents are planning their next direct mail promo: keep it simple! I have very little use for over-sized promos mainly due to space. I like to keep all promos together but when they are too large or cumbersome, they end up being filed somewhere that’s not frequently accessed.”
–Leila Courey, Art Buyer at Leo Burnett via Heather Morton’s Blog

Flash will not seal the deal. Neither will a fully CSS/HTML5/JQuery/Javascripted W3C compliant site. That is the architecture, not the product. Your pictures will seal the deal. Your website is the vessel to get them in front of as many people as possible. Your personal brand may have a lot of power as well, so make your site reflect you.

And the nice thing about websites is that they can be change quickly and easily as you grow and add images/clients.

Does that mean I am advising you to jump on over to some free service and ‘choose a template from the thousands we have’ or buy Dreamweaver and do it yourself? No, not at all. It means being aware of the architecture and control that you need to have to keep it fresh and bringing in as many possible clients as possible.

Make it nice. Choose a template if you must, but make sure it can be easily found by search engines, allows you the ability to update and maintain and is on a server that is up a lot more than Twitter, and doesn’t have that ‘free’ look about it. You know what I am talking about. (And if you don’t, it may mean getting that consultant in for some advice.)

Toolbox:
10 Photography Websites for Photographers (Use Flash knowing that it will NOT be found on Search Engines.)
Graph Paper Press has some great templates starting at Free. (More Blog than Website, they are still very nice alternatives to get you out there with a nice look – and they run on the power of WordPress.)
WordPress Websites for Photographers. We at LE have a line of inexpensive websites that are based on the power of WordPress. These are designed as Websites with a blog.
Daron Shade discusses CMS for photographers here on Lighting Essentials.

Then get your pictures on it and get it out there.

“External consistency is how you interact with clients on an operational level. This includes how clients can hire you, order photos, and how your respond to them. If I’m a client of yours and I refer my friend to you, I should be able to tell my friend the steps and procedures to schedule a session and purchase photos from you.”
How to Improve Your Branding with Consistency / FUEL

Two case studies:

One regards a client I had as a designer a few years ago. She was very professional, drove a very expensive car and had all the ‘right’ accoutrement that said ‘important’ and ‘business’. Her financial services company was poised to go on to a new level due to a rather serious infusion of cash. She came to us disappointed that another design firm had failed to meet her expectations. (This is always a red flag for me… Especially when the other firm/photographer is someone I know to be talented and professional.) I took a look at her design brief and we came to a deal. I would be on open ended retainer to create her logo/ID, Branding and Web Design. This did not include the production of the website.

Three months later and $12,000 into it we are still working on her logo. It was now getting stupid. Change the color, make this a little larger, no… make it a little smaller, move this, move that… wait, I saw this the other day…can we include something like this.

I fired her. I couldn’t keep working on something that was truly an albatross. It was never going to go anyway, and I was thinking about how incredibly difficult the web process was going to be.

Let me ask you… do you think that her choosing one that met her specs, looked great and played well in a focus group would have made or broken her financial service buiness? Would a change from PMS 123 to PMS 124 been the difference between being featured in Forbes or getting a free meal at the mission? Hell, Forbes is a 4 color magazine so matching her PMS would have been impossible in many ways.

She never got the business going, even though she spent nearly 60 thousand dollars trying to find the right look, and color to “really make the concept pop!” Personally, I don’t think she had any confidence in her product. A true entrepreneur would have made a decision and been on to round two of Venture Capital while she was still angsting over her logo.

Case Study 2.

After losing his job without warning, which led to his wife leaving, this photographer decided it was time to make his jump into what had been a weekend hobby and turn it into a full time business.

He had enough gear to produce the work that he had been doing (seniors, portraits, kids and families) and a decent enough portfolio. Looking at the amount of money he had available to him, he knew that spending it foolishly would be a mistake. He focused instead on what he could do to make himself more visible.

Working with a local designer he put together a logo, ID, Collateral piece and an ad to run in local media. His first market was to expand into what he had been doing, but on a more aggressive schedule.

His business cards featured a logo, website address and phone. The reverse side featured one of his best portraits. He had it run 4 up and had a different portrait on the back of each card. Shuffling before putting them into his wallet and presentation case. Each person would get a different portrait if he was handing them out in a group.

A simple website was created, a blog built and on he went. The website cost him about $1500, and the blog was free. He would feature images on the blog to drive clients to his site and pretty soon he was getting a lot of visitors. He poured every waking hour for months into producing great images. Some were of his clients who paid, and some he would do of strangers he would meet on planned short sojourns around his area. He was, in the minds of his friends, somewhat possessed.

His decision to move into more commercial came when he was contacted on his blog by a local designer. She was looking to get some environmental portraits shot for a large capabilities brochure she was working on. She saw his blog and wanted to see some more images. In person. He didn’t have a print portfolio that he felt was commercial enough so he ordered an inexpensive portfolio case and had it sent priority to his home. Assembling some images that he thought would fit the bill he made the appointment and got the job. He contacted some commercial shooters that he had met through social media and got some ideas on pricing and preparing the quote and got the job.

He got the job.
From his logo?
From his over-nighted and not custom portfolio?
How about the images on the back of his business cards?
His choice of fonts and the careful kerning of the capital letters?

Nope… he got it because of his pictures. The pictures he had been obsessing over. The work. He had the opportunity to show those images because he was doing it instead of sitting and kvetching over what font to use. He had used his limited capital to create images, not on a die-cut, fancy folded leave behind. Was his collateral nice and professional? Sure, but it wasn’t a design competition winner, it is simple, effective and presents a professional look for his images.

Were they of no use then? Heck yes they were of use. The ID/Brand gets you noticed. It opens the door… then you gotta dazzle them with the work.

Since that first brochure job, he has managed to build a pretty solid commercial business and is doing assignment work all over the region. (Santa Barbra area).

His stuff was nice, clean and professional. And it presented his work without getting in the way. Remember, and I have said it a few times to make sure it sinks in, there is an expectation of a certain level of sophistication. At the point where photographers are soliciting work in the commercial realm, there is, of course, a level of design and sophistication that must be reached. That does NOT mean that it the work must exceed all expectations of design and presentation and start to become ‘totally awesome’. Sometimes that happens anyway, but focusing more effort on the package than the product is not the way to build a brand.

And the ‘Brand’ of being professional, showing up on time, sending immaculate bids, perfectly assembled billings, answering the phone – with a smile, sending out thank you cards instead of emails, remembering to send a production still or two for the AD to share on her FaceBook, and more… much more – will do more for your business than a $2000 custom case for your portfolio. I cannot stress that more. Your personal brand of ethical and business like demeanor may mean the difference when two photographers are on the line for a gig.

So if you are sitting there today trying to decide which color your business card back should be, or whether you will have enough money left to add to the savings account to get that baddabing portfolio, remember my friend. He is out there showing his work and talking to clients. What are the chances he will get that job you may have been perfect for instead of you?

Pretty good, I would bet.

Toolbox:
Heather Morton discusses portfolios here (part one) and here (part two).

“And it’s a whole package: the quality of the portfolio itself and it’s case is part of this equation. Likewise the image reproduction- beautiful paper please and no more plastic sleeves!

Think of your portfolio as a unique new tool, figure out the best way to show only the best of your work and start making some phone calls.”

At Black Star Rising this short article on Branding hits all the high notes.

“You might think that visual branding — a logo and associated design elements — is not as vital for you as it is for other kinds of businesses. After all, your work product itself is visual, right?

But of all the channels that you use to interact with clients, how many of them actually display your product? Do you include examples of your work on your invoices or contracts, for example? Probably not.”
Wayne Ford – @ Black Star Rising.

Most of the things that can be done to help create your brand are no-cost to little cost. Adding images to your invoice, and making sure the paperwork.

Thanks for coming along on this ‘Branding’ discussion. There is more to consider as well. What you wear, how you present yourself, the ‘personal’ side of branding. But that will wait for another day. There will be a second ‘Branding’ article to come. Once you do get to a point where the business is sustaining. A change of Brand may be in order to move into new regions or client levels. We’ll talk.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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