Time for a little controversy ... Ready? Here it comes. Your brand doesn’t matter. Did I get your attention? Is your blood warming for a fight? Good. I know what you’re thinking. This was just some cheap tool I’m using to get your attention. “Jim doesn’t really think that ... he’s just trying to stir the pot.” Actually, it’s not. I’m really saying your brand doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. At least no where near as much as you think it does.
I’ve been in the business of serving small business for pretty much my entire career. In all of these years I’ve never seen so much attention paid by my customers to things that will ultimately make very little difference in their personal success/failure equation. I was speaking to a photographer the other day, someone I met in NYC, and he sent me to his new site so I could see his new branding. I went and checked it out. It’s cool. I told him so. He sent me this long email ... essentially disappointed that that’s all I’d said. I called him up and asked him what he thought I was going to say.
He told me that he’d been working on it for months. That he’d paid a branding consultant (photographer come seminar leader) thousands of dollars to help him dig in to who he is and how to present that, and then spent thousands of dollars more having the site developed. He was banking on it changing the direction of his business. He was sure it would work. Just a few more changes and it would be online. “How did I feel about this color green?”
I wanted to tell him, but didn’t (so I guess, sort of am now), that his site and his brand matter very little in the grand scheme of things. Don’t get me wrong. They need to be creative, professional and 100% error free. The fact is that there is one common element that successful photographers share. It’s not a brand. It’s this: almost 100% of their business comes from referrals. Their site, and their brand by extension, are simply tools that reinforce those referrals. It’s not the other way around.
In an age where we can get almost everything we need online it seems counter-intuitive that we can’t do everything we need to do online. I need socks. I can get them online. I want a new lens. I can read reviews, check pricing and buy online. I can even date online. Or - well - at least those of you who are single can. Until it’s time to meet the guy - gal. And then you better hope that your branding and theirs are accurate. Right? See, here’s the thing. All of the SEO, SEM, site gizmos, flash (shudder), blogs, cute sayings, etc., don’t matter a hoot if you aren’t actually out there doing the business of photography. As much as we might want it to happen entirely on screen, it can’t and it won’t. It’s not on your screen, it’s outside the window. It’s not ether, it’s flesh.
My friend in NYC doesn’t seem to understand that it’s way more important that everyone he knows knows he’s a photographer - and a damn good one. (He is). He doesn’t seem to understand the importance of connections; with event planners and florists and venues. He doesn’t understand the criticality of reconnecting on a regular basis with the clients he’s worked for, constantly reminding them of the experience they had and in doing so reminding them to tell their friends about this great photographer they know. Missing out on these activities is going to have a much bigger negative impact than his cool new site can overcome.
I think a lot of times we look at the folks around us and wonder at their success. “Why is she successful after so short a time?” “She hasn’t earned her wings!” In these moments ‘experts’ come along and point at the stuff they do and say, if you do this you will succeed. Trouble is, they point at the wrong stuff. See, it’s not about the pink paisley site or the cool logo. It’s about the connection their enthusiasm drives with their customers. They may pack their deliverables in cool, branded boxes, but those are meaningless if the person behind the brand isn’t meaningful to the client. The “secret of their success” isn’t their graphic designer, it’s their effort, and most importantly it’s the effort they put out throughout the entire customer experience. From start to finish they kill themselves to make sure their customers are happy. There is no branding that can take the place of that effort, and it’s the principle driver of their success.
Sometimes I think the gurus just tell us what we want to here. What is easy to fix. What is easy to address. (What they can charge us lots of money to fix for us). They don’t tell us what we don’t want to hear. That we’re getting fat (and that appearance matters). That we’re lazy (but wait - I spend all day every day editing!). That our sloth and our laziness is showing up in our work product, and that we’ve lost our edge. Our work no longer displays the creativity it once did because this has become a job and not a passion. Want to have a more successful business? Hire a personal trainer.
Here’s my simple success formula:
- Master your craft.
- Make sure every customer you ever have is as happy as you can make them.
- Make sure every customer you ever have will recommend you wholeheartedly.
- Make sure you constantly work to improve yourself. (Your fitness and your appearance are an oft-overlooked part of your brand).
- Make sure your marketing materials professionally reflect your personality and your business.
- Never stop.