Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Are they Seeking You? Part 4 Your brand doesn't matter.

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:

  1. Master your craft.
  2. Make sure every customer you ever have is as happy as you can make them.
  3. Make sure every customer you ever have will recommend you wholeheartedly.
  4. Make sure you constantly work to improve yourself. (Your fitness and your appearance are an oft-overlooked part of your brand).
  5. Make sure your marketing materials professionally reflect your personality and your business.
  6. Never stop.


Claire said...

Great advice, Jim!!

Betsy, La Vida said...

Good stuff, Jim, as always! You're so great at making us all think about what we're doing in every part of our business!

Debi said...


Sarah Hodzic said...

I don't think I could love this post more Jim!!

I found myself thinking about the whole brand thing a year or so ago, and I too had been pulled onto the bandwagon of I MUST update my brand, it must be FRESH-HIP-COOL-Unforgettable!! But then I waited.
I waited before moving forward, and what I realized was exactly what you pointed out, "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."

I suddenly realized that the fire that was stoked by me wanting to update my brand, was actually, instead passion for my work and wanting to please my clients and that in turn was what got me bookings, NOT my actual logo and the colors I chose for my website.

I can't tell you what a HUGE relief it was to understand that. The time, effort and $$$ that go into creating a whole new brand identity is much better spent on fueling my passion, pushing my creative mind, and learning better customer service.

Awesome post Jim!!!

ARMIN said...

Good post about good business acumen! I agree with most of what you mentioned here, especially the branding "salesperson" pitching to unsuspecting photographers. It's jaw dropping to hear some of the things consultants are saying and charging for these days. Your title threw me off at first because I believe that in the wedding photog industry "YOU" are your brand (we've heard that a lot), so I believe that "brand" does matter in that sense, but you did explain that in so many words, especially towards the end of your post and in the final bullet points. I still do believe there needs to be a good amount of thought going into a photographer's website design, colors, brand, etc.. But only as an extension of their personality and image that will speak to the right clients. The fact is that a cool website alone will not bring in business, even the coolest marketing materials will not bring in business, it will just represent your brand and personality so the client can identify with it or not. Referrals & happy brides are the ultimate source of my business and traffic, no doubt. I need to expand my industry connections with more event planners myself. Yeah I like my branding and cool business cards, but it's not the only tool in my box. Good stuff Jim, thanks for sharing this.

B Kirker said...

Wonderful points, Jim! Because we, as photographers, ARE the brand! Every single point of contact, everything we put out there, and everything we do (whether good or bad) for our business is an extension of our brand. You can't buy that. It's important to have consistency and professional materials, but like you said, it's even more important to LIVE your brand. That's what people will remember, and that's what matters.

AndreaM said...

Sarah H has it right. Somehow it's become too easy for photographers pay a marketing "expert" to help them do what they can and should be doing on their own. Even when it's hard.

As a photo lab owner I've worked with lots of photographers over the years. What I see the best of the lot doing is staying focused and flexible about what they need to do to earn money. Here's an example: high end wedding photographer gets married herself, has a baby. Now she's still busy, even with the economy tanking, but less busy. Does she redesign her web site, start Tweeting like a crazy-woman and lower her prices? Nope. She looks around at what else she could do and voila: baby and pregnancy portraits are her new products.

Making money is your goal - stay focused on that. Move sideways when you can’t move up. Listen to the chorus of your customers telling you what you can do for them. And go there.

peter bang said...

agree whole heartedly! thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Once again Jim, you nailed it!

René Tate said...

Couldn't. Agree. More.

You always nail it, Jim Collins!

Hope Walls said...


Steve Coleman said...

Jim a brand does matter, but people dont understand what a brand is. A brand is not a logo or a design. Your brand is what your customers and potential customers believe you to be. I dont by a BMW because of its logo or its web site design. I buy a BMW because of what I believe the car will do for me. How a design looks is just the attempt to capture and express a brand.... which most people get wrong anyway. Dont confuse a brand with branding, which everyone does. They are very different.

Here's an explanation.

Jim Collins said...

Hey Steve,

Thanks for the comment and the link to the Livebooks blog. I think if you take a step back and blur your eyes a little you'll understand that as a career marketing professional I'm probably actually making a point.

In fact, I think I actually hit the underlying elements pretty well in the piece in paragraph two and in point number 5 in the success formula. I'm sure you also agree that if you don't do the rest of this, all of the branding in the world probably doesn't matter ...

and that of course is my quasi-hidden point.


Scarlett Lillian said...

Perfectly said!

Steve Coleman said...

Jim you are still confusing a brand with branding. The premise of your article is that Your brand does not matter but you discuss it in terms of branding. They are different. Your brand is who you are, its what makes you different, its why people talk about you and why they will refere you to there friends. Your brand does matter.

I would agree that your branding need not matter under some circumstances eg where word of mouth can be leveraged as a powerful marketing tool. But what will drive word of mouth is you as a brand.... your creativity, your hard work, your personality etc etc... these are all the things which go to make you a unique, differentiated and ownable brand. ie the tings which people talk about.

Terry Richardson is a photographer who has a very strong brand but has no real branding to speak of.

Here is a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzysNP48xLk

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