Friday, September 18, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: Brands you already understand

Most writers will tell you they don't know anything about brands: That brands are the Warhol soup cans--devoid of any real substance, all style. Brands, in other words, have nothing to do with what you do.

Think again.

It's not that writers are lying. It's just that we can't think of anything we respect that's part of a brand.

Here's something that I hope will change that thinking: If you've been a newspaper reporter or worked at a magazine or trade publication, you know all about a brand. You've lived it. It was your publication.

Think about it: The New York Times has a very different brand than the New York Post than The National Enquirer than The New Yorker than Body + Soul than Ladies Home Journal than Slate than Gothamist.

We get that intuitively. But what's the difference, really? They're all publications. They're all words printed on paper or splashed across a Web site.

It sounds like a dumb question: What do you mean what's the difference between the National Enquirer and The New York Times? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

But why? Because the New York Times is "all the news that's fit to print" and The National Enquirer supplies information for "inquiring minds." But they both purport to tell stories about people that are true. They both make corrections. They've both been sued for libel. (And, of course, some would argue that there's not enough of a difference between the Old Grey Lady these days and gossip magazines, but that's another conversation.)

The difference is that they both purport to do something different and they approach what they do with a different style: The New York Times spends a lot of money on very good editors who spend lots of hours shaping stories that are up to their standards. They fact-check. The National Enquirer--well, I don't know much about the National Enquirer, but I'd be willing to bet that they don't spend their money the same way and they don't want deep, thorough stories. Their Web sites look really different from one another: The New York Times looks closest to a newspaper of almost any newspaper Web site. The National Enquirer has huge photos and splashy headlines like "The Grace Kelly Curse Strikes Again."

Those are not mistakes. They do these things on purpose. The New York Times isn't competing directly with The National Enquirer, though I'm sure they share readers.
What this means for you

Likewise, you are not competing against every writer out there. Obviously, you aren't competing with business writers if you're a parenting writer. But you also aren't necessarily competing with every other parenting writer. If you focus on tween issues, you aren't competing with pregnancy and newborn writers.

But your editors only know that if you don't have a brand:
  • If you spend money that backs up what you like to write about--learning more, attending conferences--and you pitch stories based on the topic areas you want to cover.
  • You write in a fun, lighthearted style if your vibe is intimate and informal. You write a web site with moving copy if you write narrative nonfiction.

The examples go on. The point is that The New Yorker's brand is not a coincidence, and it's also authentic to what it excels at. I'd hate to see The New York Times do any more gossip than it's already done. Doing so would confuse the heck out of its readers. And I shudder to think what the National Inquirer would do to thoughtful healthcare reform coverage.

So what are you? How do you show it?

Photo by Terje S. Skjerdal.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

“A brand is no longer defined only by advertising-driven perception. Rather it is defined by the customer’s experience in buying the product; satisfaction in using the product; and the services wrapped around the product with positive consequences.”
Andrew Cohen, Founder, Exposed Brick

Photo by AleBonvini.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: Authenticity and transparency as brand

Most of this video is this guy ranting and advising people to quit jobs and start something new (spoken like a trust fund baby), but if you scroll to minute 10:50, you'll start hearing some interesting things about what a brand is really about.

Here's the essence: Your brand is your passion--what you want to do forever--plus being yourself. Don't imitate other writers you love. Be the best version of yourself as a writer.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: Your personal life and your brand

How much of what you do in your personal life should be part of your brand?

It's an important question to ask yourself as you craft your brand. Since you're writers, I think I have an analogy that you'll understand.

I'll start with a story.

When I was in college, my journalism professor taught us to do a "letter from"--a combination of a first person essay and reported feature. In teaching us about the writing voice to assume, he was very clear. In essence, he told us that none of your readers care about you as a person, not really. They don't care what irritates you personally, what you think is funny. You aren't famous enough or charismatic enough--probably--for that to be compelling. You are, most likely, the generic first-person.

The only personal stuff you share in your story is stuff that advances the story. So if it advances the story for you to be funny, share the bit about the funny behavior of the bell hop in the hotel. If is advances the story to talk about your childhood raised by a single parent, share that part of yourself.

But not everything belongs in the story.

Likewise, not everything about your personal life belongs in your brand. But if you are a financial writer, talk on your Web site about working on the stock exchange. If you're a real estate writer, talk about your experience as a landlord or a renter.

If you look at the bio on my Web site, you'll see that I write openly about having lost 85 lbs. in the past five. I also write about my decade-long love affair with yoga. But I don't write about other parts of my life--parts I'm going to keep to myself even now.

I'm a health writer, and I excel at stories about regular people taking charge of their health with small but important changes. Guess why I include that stuff in my bio? Plus, the vibe I go for on my Web site and with my clients is friendly and personable. So I don't mind sharing parts of my personal life. I also don't mind showing myself dancing around on this blog, apparently.

So think about this: What in your personal life motivates your work? If there isn't anything in particular, don't feel like you have to come up with something. But if something authentically makes you passionate about the work you do, celebrate it, and tell your editors about it.

Photo by tiffa130.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An image is not simply a trademark, a design, a slogan or an easily remembered picture. It is a studiously crafted personality profile of an individual, institution, corporation, product or service.
--Daniel J. Boorstin

Photo by

Friday, September 11, 2009

"A brand that captures your mind gains behavior. A brand that captures your heart gains commitment."
Scott Talgo

Photo by aussiegall.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: Reflecting your brand in your queries

Yesterday, we examined how the queries you send can help guide the creation of your brand. Today, we'll talk about branding the opposite direction:

How do you put your brand in every query you send?

Yesterday I touched on one way: In your "why I should write this story" paragraph (and if you don't have one of those, you should create one for every query), you should include one sentence that cogently explains your brand. You create it by finishing this sentence:

I specialize in...

For example, "I specialize in simple changes that make a big difference in one's health and relationships;" "I specialize in moving and in-depth investigative stories that make a difference;" or "I specialize in upbeat, quirky stories that revel in my subject's humanity, not their flaws."

Whatever it is, you should know it and you should be able to express it.

But you should also be able to do that time-honored writer thing: Show don't tell.

And you show your brand by pitching stories that are consistent with it. For Jen Miller, she markets her brand by pitching stories on the Jersey Shore. You can do this by pitching stories on quirky people you want to profile, or by pitching investigative pieces.

There's a side benefit to this kind of brand development: This is an opportunity not only to embed your brand in your clients' heads, but to get closer to the type of writing you love to do.

So take a few minutes and free write: What do I love? What do I specialize in? What am I great at?

If you've won any awards, this is one way of telling what you do well. And if you've won those awards doing writing you're good at but are burnt out on, then it's a chance to refocus your querying toward work that feeds your soul.

And then start coming up with vague ideas for stories. Any little kernel that's been fermenting in your head, write down. If it fits with your brand, give it a top priority with your querying.

It's not that you can't query short or simple stories that might bring in money while you build up a practice that supports your brand and your passion. But you should be querying every week or every month stories that support your brand. Make it a goal to send at least one query before the month's end that reflects your passion and your strengths, and then you're marketing your brand.

Photo by Valeriana Solaris

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge: Using querying to refine your brand

Jen Miller said something great in our Q&A last week: "I feel that pitching articles, too, is a form of branding."

I love this idea, as it brings together two things I'm passionate about: Marketing and branding.

I wondered if she could explain more of what she meant, and here was her response:
Sometimes I send letters of introduction instead, and then follow up with a pitch or two. I want them to see me as the expert so that if they have a shore idea, they'll think of me.
That last sentence is the essence of branding: You live in your client's head as the perfect person for X, Y, or Z story.

And it's an interesting thing for us to consider as writers: Do our brands reflect what we're querying? If not, it's a good opportunity to refine our brands, or better direct our marketing. Here's how:

Refining Your Brand

If your stated brand is that you write upbeat service stories and love helping people, but you're constantly pitching and interested in long-form narrative fiction, then maybe your brand has outlived its usefulness. So take an inventory:

Go back through the last month and look at the queries you've pitched. Rather than asking yourself what the subject matter was--health, real estate, business, etc.--ask yourself what type of story it is:
  • Is it an upbeat inspirational story?
  • Is it a serious piece of investigative journalism?
  • Is it a profile driven by your source's quirky personality?
  • Is it a snarky short?
  • Is it a service piece?
Now, tally it: Is there a pattern here? Do you constantly pitch quirky profiles? Do you always pitch service pieces?

Ask why:
  • Why do you pitch service pieces? Is it because they sell more easily than in-depth features? Or are they your passion?
  • Why do you gravitate to profiles?
  • What is it about short, snarky pieces you love?
Once you have the answers to these questions, take a look at your stated brand. If your stated brand, like mine, is to focus on inspiring regular people (thus my tagline "Writing with a human face"), compare that to what you're pitching.

You may find that your pitching is right in line with that: Person-centered stories of overcoming challenges. Or you may find that you prefer to pitch service pieces.

If that's the case, it's a chance to tweak your brand. You don't have to abandon what you have. You can simply clarify it--for yourself and your clients. Maybe your love of person-centered writing extends to the reader. Maybe the reader is the person you draw inspiration from and therefore you want to help with service pieces.

How do you express that on your Web site? How do you express that in your queries? In your "why I should write this story" paragraph of your query, do you have one cogent sentence that explains that you "specialize in stories that..." Fill in the blank. You should have one sentence in there that clarifies and highlights your strengths and interested. It's part of your brand, so editors have an easy time matching you with stories you'll be best at. That's what Jen has done, and it's worked really well for her. Every time they think of the Jersey Shore, they think of her.

What do you want editors to associate with you? Make that part of your brand. Tomorrow, we'll talk about how to market that.

Photo by striatic.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"If you don't get noticed, you don't have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally, without screaming or without tricks."
Leo Burnett

Photo by Indigo Goat.

Monday, September 7, 2009

30-Day Branding Challege Web Sites I like: Anne Ford

I spend a lot of time with my coaching clients talking about the need for a Web site. But when it comes to branding, it's not enough just to have a home page, bio, recommendations and clips. You need to have a site that presents you as a the kind of writer you want editors to know you are. And the best way to illustrate this is with examples. Today's is the first of what I hope will be a series of great examples of freelancers' brands. And if you have a recommendation of a Web site you love for writers, email it to me at heather at

[Full disclosure: Not only is Anne a fabulous freelancing colleague of mine, but she's a dear friend who's known me since my acid-washed jeans days in middle school. So I have great love for her as well as for her talent.]

Anne Ford is a freelance writer who excels at quirky, upbeat stories in the vein of This American Life. So when you land on her Web site, you want something that shows you that. What I love about her site is that she tells you that with so many words, but she also shows you that in the way her Web site is designed.

Land on her home page and you see a sunny picture of Anne, an bright and sunny orange-and-red color scheme with stylized flowers jutting up all around.

Visit her About page and you get a taste of her wit in the first line of her bio:
Writer or Nun: Those were the most memorable results of my high-school career aptitude test.
Her quips about being a decent square dancer and able to talk about highly-virulent strains of hospital-acquired infections--just not during dinner--give you the flavor of her writing and her personality.

And it goes on: The profiles she features meld well with her stated style, and even her health clips for a trade magazine--a genre not known for its adventurous voice--are even witty. And then she's got the recommendations that call her "an editor's dream" and say she "really knows what magazine writing is all about."

I don't have any money for her, but I'd hire her after reading her Web site.

This gets to a point about Web sites: You can't just say that you're a great writer--you have to show it on your site. I tell this to clients all the time. You want your Web site to read like your best article. It should:
  • Show off your writing style.
  • Illustrate your "voice" with the images and even colors you choose. Anne does this by choosing, bright, sunny colors to go along with her warm, sunny copy.
  • Back up your stated skills with clips that show it (and if you don't have any yet, clips that at least hint at your ability to follow through on your claims).
  • Provide testimonials that do the same--because editors will believe other editors before they believe you.
  • Be specific about what you excel at. Anne doesn't say she's great at investigative series, though I'm sure she could do one. That's not her chosen genre. She's specific and clear about what she likes to do and what she does with aplomb.
Thus, Anne leaves editors with a kernel of a vision of her before they call her or email her. She's planted herself in editors' brains without even talking to them. She now lives in them as a complete person and a professional. And her brand leads editors to believe that she's the right person for a specific type of story that Anne loves to write and at which she's an ace.

That's your goal. What can you do to bring it to life?

Photo © Charlie Simokaitis

Friday, September 4, 2009

Brand inside is more important than brand outside for sustained success.
--Tom Peters

Photo by The Wandering Angel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge Profile: Cynthia Alvarez

In an effort to share how other creative freelancers build their brand, I've done an interview with Cindy Alvarez, web strategist and startup aficionado. I think you'll find the steps she's taken to create a brand are things you can do as well.

Tell me about your career trajectory. What industry did you started in and what industry are yon in now? How do you describe your consulting business now?

I started doing web design in the early days of the web browser. As Web sites became less brochure-like and more interactive, I started realizing that visual design came too late in the Web site and product development process: I needed to be involved earlier to make sure the right thing was being built, not just making the wrong thing prettier. I've been doing interaction design and product management for the past few years.

I help companies use a customer-driven process to ensure that a) customers are interested in their product, b) their product solves specific customer problems and frustrations, and c) their product is usable. This involves interviewing real people and then an iterative cycle of showing them stuff, getting feedback, incorporating that feedback into new stuff--"stuff" being the very professional software development term.

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

I've actually been actively branding myself for probably eight years now. Both interactive design and product management are roles that mean totally different things in different companies.

It didn't take me long to realize that I have a very specific combination of skills: I don't have an MBA or MFA. I haven't worked in Fortune 500 companies. I don't have a lot of patience for formal process. I do have a rare combination of understanding technical details and design theory. I'm an excellent presenter and writer. I find a way to get the impossible done. This means that there are some companies and products where I'm absolutely the best person, and others where I'm mediocre at best. I want to associate myself with those areas where I excel, even if that means opting myself out of other opportunities.

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

The most evolution has happened in the past 18 months or so. I've really focused what I want people to associate with me professionally, and what I can put forward to ensure that association happens.

Tell us what your brand is.

There are four elements that I consistently use across various channels:
Name: I'm always cindyalvarez and blog at
Icon: See above
Tagline: Serious About Launching Great Products
Content Topics: user experience, product management, startups, doing things quickly/pragmatically, experimenting/trying new things
Persona: optimistic, blunt, action-oriented

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

I brainstormed a list of phrases and topics that described what I am and what I aspire to, professionally. Things that are differentiated (i.e. everyone would like to be thought of as "smart") and memorable. I didn't come up with everything all at once - I kept discovering new brand contexts - oh, how do I describe myself in 100 characters or less? oh, what should my short bio be?

How do I know my brand works? When people I've never met face-to-face forward me articles that I'd be interested in, or introduce me to people or client opportunities that are great fits.

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

Take a stand. You are not good at everything, be upfront about that. It's easy to think, I need work, I can't afford to turn anyone away, but there's no advantage in branding yourself generically. Focus on a few things you do really well. It makes you more credible, and it makes you a more attractive consultant to the people who need your specific skills.

You need to care - you don't come across as authentic if you don't really care about the associations that make up your brand. It feels very natural for me to write about user experience design and how to be a better product manager and how to do user testing because I've done those things and it frustrates me to see them done badly.

Prove it. (and don't brand yourself on "unprovable" qualities). You want people to think of you as helpful? Proactively answer questions, share useful resources, educate others in your community. Put something out there - blog posts, case studies, tweets, endorsements - that proves that you are the things you brand yourself as.

Be memorable at a glance. I use the same blue+orange "c" icon everywhere - whether you're skimming through Twitter or comments on someone's blog or a professional social network, it's always consistent. Most people use faces or complicated logos - those are very hard to distinguish when they're shrunk down or in the midst of a sea of other little icons.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

30-Day Branding Challenge Profile: Jen Miller

If you're a writer looking to figure out how branding fits in with your work, you could do much, much worse than to take Jen Miller's example. The 20-something freelancer has written a book, regularly contributes to the New York Times and writes two blogs: Down the Shore with Jen and Book a Week with Jen. It turns out her high profile is no coincidence. Jen is a writer who knows how to work a brand. Consider her approach below.

For many freelancers I know, branding seems like an alien concept. Did it seem that way to you when you started? How so?

It didn't. I'd worked in medical PR before, so I had some idea of what it took to get something noticed. I also review books and write frequently about authors, so I knew how many books are published every year. I go to Book Expo America every spring and probably see less than 1 percent of all new titles! I feel that pitching articles, too, is a form of branding and marketing, so I applied all of that knowledge to attach myself to the Jersey Shore.

Why did you decide to create a brand for yourself? Or was it something you fell into?

I didn't set out for the Jersey Shore to be my "thing." I just wanted to sell books. So I started a blog, Down the Shore with Jen, while writing my book. I started my PR campaign two months after I turned the book in. Even though I didn't have galleys to send, I started reaching out to bloggers to see if they were interested in the book. I also interviewed people with shore ties on my blog, and they told their friends, which helped get word out there. When the book came out, I continued to write articles about the Jersey Shore. I started a twitter account as @jerseyshorejen. My editors realized that I was an expert, so they kept assigning. By November of last year, I was ready to take a shore break when the magazine editors came calling, wanting to secure my services for Shore 2009 writing.

I never expected the brand to work so well, or translate to more article assignments. I was shocked when the New York Times reached out to me with their Jersey Shore idea, even though I'd written about one of the shore towns for them before.

Describe for me your brand: Any catchphrase you have, and what its components are.

Down the Shore with Jen -- follow along with the adventures and misadventures of one gal down the shore, and her writings along the way.

What steps did you take to create your brand?

I took Sandra Beckwith's Book Buzz online book publicity course. That gave me an idea of how to get my book out there. I didn't realize that it would also build my brand. Once I garnered coverage of the book, I used that expertise as author and then clips of shore writings to pitch more shore articles. I share links of shore articles on my blog. I update people on facebook of what I'm working on. I have a high Google ranking for shore related search terms. The twitter account and a good facebook presence has helped, too.

What do you find to be the advantages of having a brand?

Editors know me or are referred to me sometimes when they have an idea but no writer.

What are branding's disadvantages for you?

Sometimes I'm seen as just a shore writer. I do a lot of work in health, fitness, home & garden, and personal finance, too!

How did you know it was working?

My bottom line. Each year, I am assigned more articles about the shore than the year before.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions of branding among freelance writers?

That it's not necessary. I still consider myself a generalist, but being known for one thing can be a big boost to your income.

Anything else I didn't ask that you'd like to add?

This is hard work!