Monday, August 31, 2009

The primary focus of your brand message must be on how special you are, not how cheap you are. The goal must be to sell the distinctive quality of the brand."
-- Kerry Light, Brand Strategist

Friday, August 28, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge Profile: Nader Khouri

Nader Khouri has been in the position of many of my readers: Former newspaper staffer, passionate about his work, took a buyout and is now trying to make his way as a freelancer in this economy.

Khouri, a photographer, has morphed his impressive photojournalism credentials into corporate and other photography work, and he has a brand to prove it. Here's how he did it. Oh, and do yourself a favor and check out his heart-rending photos at his Web site. I especially recommend looking through the "Picture Stories" tab. There you can find some of the photos he refers to below.

Tell me about your career trajectory. You used to be a newspaper photographer. When did you leave that job?

I worked for 10 years as a newspaper photojournalist at the Contra Costa Times. I left the Times in early 2008 and my departure was part of a buyout. Much of the shakeup at the company originally started when the shareholders of Knight Ridder (who used to own the Contra Costa Times) decided in 2006 that the newspaper business wasn't profitable enough. Knight Ridder, the second largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. with 32 dailies, sold all of its papers, and it was downhill from there. Right now I am running my own business as a commercial photographer. I couldn't be happier now that I am working for myself. My success is much more in my own hands, whether the economy is good or bad.

Before you went freelance, what did you think of when you thought of branding? Is it a new concept for you?

I knew branding only from the point of view of a consumer. I had no idea about how branding could be developed for my business. I now see it as a process of identifying what I love to do and then researching the market(s) to see how it connects with making a living. It's a combination of my passion and the market's needs.

How long have you been working on creating your new personal brand?

Since leaving the paper in early 2008. I took a semester-long class in marketing through Berkeley City College that helped me narrow down my focus and set goals for myself. It was geared toward helping each student prepare a strategic marketing plan, which included a mission statement, core values, goals and objectives and strategic infrastructure.

Tell us what your brand is.

My brand is photography that helps support a healthy planet and economy. It consists of subject matter that has anything to do with supplying healthy food, sustainable energy and business. My brand also includes my style of shooting where I put value on composition different from your average straight shooter. Many clients value a developed sense of seeing.

How did you come up with your brand? Was it difficult?

No, not at all. It was easy to come up with because it was a fusion of the causes I care the most about: food, energy, and business. Some people have argued that it isn't focused enough, but I am happy with it. I don't think that marketing oneself solely based on subject matter (i.e. shooting food, fashion, autos, etc.) is totally necessary. Having more than one thing to focus on is okay.

I have three life experiences that have helped fuel my motivations for photographing food and helping preserve the right to eat healthy food. First is the connection that started after I photographed Palestinian olive farmers. They still use the same farming methods passed down from generation to generation. It is there where I became most connected to the land and where I also began to worry about how that way of life is becoming endangered. Also fueling the food passion was my experiences photographing all of the farm communities here in the California delta. I spent a lot of time photographing in the fields of both small and large farms where I gained a lot of respect for immigrant laborers and learned about the different issues farmers face. Lastly, my food passion comes simply from the love of eating healthy food. I have seen how a healthy diet really can make a difference in my own life.

The energy part comes from seeing the conflicts in the Middle East that have such a direct effect on our lives here in the U.S. I would love it if the U.S. did not have to exploit other countries for their natural resources. That is why through my photography I support causes that would allow the U.S. to be dependent on its own resources for energy while also cutting down on the burning of fossil fuels.

The business component of my brand comes out of my desire to help businesses get through this difficult economic climate. Websites these days are a necessity for any business and I have seen too many businesses with websites that are either unprofessional looking or severely outdated. I think good design and photography are crucial for any business whether new or established so I work with branding firms to help businesses develop a look that fits their character.

What steps would you recommend other creative freelancers take to create a brand?

Start calling yourselves entrepreneurs and start thinking more about the big picture. Then, start networking like your life depends upon it. You've got to make solid connections with people in other professions and start saying the words "collaborate" and "partner." Hang your goals on the wall and start to convince yourself that they will happen. Keep them in your site as much as possible. The more you see them, the more you become them.

Photo courtesy of Nader Khouri.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Build brands not around products but around reputation.
--Richard Branson

Photo of Richard Branson by tobybarnes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: It's not as hard as you think

I'll confess: I thought branding was for cattle when I started freelancing.

As a newspaper reporter, I cheered and high-fived colleagues when a story I wrote on consumer protection led to an advertiser pulling an ad. Advertising--and by extension, I thought--branding, was the problem, not part of the solution.

But then I found out the truth: I already had a brand, and it was based on these things:
  • What my clients/employers thought of me.
  • My writing voice.
  • My track record.
  • How I interacted with my clients.
  • My strengths, real and perceived.
  • My passions.
It sounds obvious, right? How we're perceived, our reputations and what we actually do. That's not a brand, you'll argue. That's just your reputation.

But reputation is a component of your brand. And it's really important to understand it, because without your reputation, all a brand is is something you're trying to convince people of.

This is why I tell my coaching clients that every freelancer needs a Web site, and every freelancer's Web site should include testimonials from editors. After all, you can say whatever you want about your brand. But until a client hears it from another editor or experiences it for him or herself, they won't quite believe you.

So if you're building a brand, go out and get some testimonials. Ask editors to share honestly what your strengths are, how they'd recommend you to a fellow editor who's looking for a kick-a$$ freelancer. And then feature them prominently.

Photo by benketaro.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.
--Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Monday, August 24, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: How branding can improve your integrity

To start off this challenge, I want to address one of the biggest barriers writers have to creating a brand: Integrity.

To most of us journalists, branding will always look like Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans--artificial, utterly devoid of meaning, designed to sell, to manipulate and to lie. It's a lot more Mad Men and a lot less The Wire.

So how do you get over the hump? Should you?

Consider it differently. Branding is not only about the message you send but also the message your clients receive. In other words, you could create a brand that, say, tells your clients that you're fun, outgoing, perfectionist and well-organized. And that may be the way you'd like to be. But if what your clients actually experience is that you're juggling a million assignments, scattered when you talk to them and drop facts, forget to follow up on things, you're delivering something different than they've been led to expect. You're out of integrity.

So if you're hesitant to work on a brand, approach it from a different direction. Working on your brand can help you find ways in which what you do doesn't live up to what you strive to do.

So take these steps:

First, create a mission statement: How do you strive to be in your business? What are your key words?

Here are a few of mine: Accurate, enthusiastic, professional, collaborative, inquisitive, prompt, thorough. These are all ways I strive to be with my clients: I give them an accurate impression of what it will be like to work with me. I act professionally and enthusiastically to bring my clients prompt, surprisingly good work that's of service to them and their readers. And I do it in a collaborative way, harnessing my inquisitiveness and writing skills.

Now you try.

Next, compare your mission statement to how you actually work. You can do this by asking yourself honestly these questions about how you behave at work:
  • Do you like talking to clients between appointments?
  • Do you ask questions of your clients or like to figure stuff out on your own?
  • How do you react to edits?
  • Do you fact-check your work or double check facts all the time? Do you have a system for this?
  • Do you take work that bores you to tears and that you struggle to complete?
  • Do you regularly file stories over word count, past deadline, or do you regularly ask editors for extensions?
  • How often do you like to update your clients on your progress?
  • Do you give clients a head's up on the sources you're planning to use or would you scoff at that?
  • Will you take source suggestions from your clients or does that violate a line for you?

Finally, compare the two lists: At least according to your estimation, are your goals in integrity with your behavior? If so, give yourself a gold star and move forward with your branding. If not, it's a chance to move your work in the direction of your goals. Start by identifying your weak spots and paying attention to them every day. Bring your support network into the issue, ask for help, make phone calls.

It's not about lying to convince your clients that you're better than you are. Can you imagine how much overselling yourself could kill your serenity? It's about giving your clients an accurate image of what to expect when they work with you. Branding is about the experience your clients have with you, not just the story you turn in.

How'd you do in this exercise?

Photo of Andy Warhol's soup cans by loop_oh.

Monday, August 3, 2009

It is decided: Branding Challenge. Send your questions

The votes were tied: Half for a recession survival challenge and half for a branding challenge.

Since I get to be the deciding vote, and send my coaching clients are working at various stages of branding right now, I'm coming down on the side of branding.

So! Send your questions here or email me at heather @

What do you want to know about branding?
What myths have you heard about branding?
What do you hate about it and in what ways do you think it doesn't apply to you?

Let me know and the challenge will start on the 15th.

Photo by Sarah Jane.