Friday, April 08, 2011

To Brand or Not To Brand

Frankie here. Sorry I’m late posting. I spent last evening gathering up my scattered receipts and preparing myself for my yearly date with my tax preparer (a lovely woman named Helen who has been doing my taxes for twenty years and works for the company with the letters in its name). What I dread about tax preparation day is seeing how little I make from writing compared to how much I invest (in time, travel, and actual dollars).

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing and would, have and probably will again, write when no one pays me a cent. However, the fact that this tax season coincides with the upcoming publication of my fifth mystery reminded me about my marketing dilemma. Like many writers, I am an introvert – much less so than when I was a child because I spend my days in a classroom and I have had to go out and meet people as a writer. And, in truth, there is another part of me that is a bit of a ham.

But I do have a day job, and serious-minded criminal justice professors have to remember that they don’t want to end up as a viral YouTube video for an ill-considered marketing stunt. On the other hand (do I have three hands now?), I study popular culture, love commercials, and am fascinated by the concept of marketing. I’ve read a few books about branding and thought a bit about my “brand.” As the author of one of my favorite books on the subject points out, if you don’t define yourself, other people will do it for you. I’ve tried to make sure this didn’t happen in my academic career, where I might have been pigeonholed. So why not give the same attention to my career as a mystery writer.

Yes, I know some gurus have moved onto other post-branding discussions in the world of marketing. But what I like about branding is the idea that a brand that works is one that is based on the core values of the company or the individual. Successful individual brands are authentic.

The advice from consultants on branding is to begin by thinking about what you’re passionate about. What turns you on? What do you love doing? The answer for a writer is obviously that we love writing. The question is what we each love about writing – and the answer to that question is more complex.

For example, I love writing for the same reasons that I love playing with colors, whether I’m decorating a room or deciding what to wear in the morning. I love writing for the same reasons that I loved playing dressed up as a kid, would love to be transported back in time and attend a ball at Almack’s, and hope one day to be a volunteer at a historic site where everyone wears period dress. I love writing because it allows me to use my imagination, be playful, and be creative. You will notice that the word “play” keeps appears. But I also love writing because when I’m writing, I can connect the dots.

Figuring this out did not help me develop a clear sense of my brand.
But I’ve been thinking about my brand – about that “tag line” about who I am and what I do. Thinking about it for a couple of years.

Last night, I stumbled on what I do as teacher, researcher, and writer. The answer came to me as I was doodling, jotting down words, as I thought about my brand. What occurred to me was that I’ve been trying for months to find a way to explain in 25 words or less why a criminologist is doing research on my new passions (that evolved over a period of years) -- clothing and food.

Last night I had my breakthrough. I realized that the word I was looking for was “discourse.” That word is the key to my brand – as criminologist or mystery writer. I know it’s a concept that I’m going to have to turn into user friendly language – my tagline for the elevator. But I think I’ve finally got it.

So I am going to argue here that writers should explore the concept of “brand” as an opportunity. An opportunity to think about what you do, why you do it, and how you want to present yourself to the world.

And in tax season, it is a diverting exercise that will distract you from the pain of cash-out versus cash-in.

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