As a writer and a winemaker, I think a lot about branding. Branding is critical for selling wine, because it’s impossible to know what’s in the bottle until you buy it and open it. Branding builds a relationship of trust between the buyer and the winemaker: when the buyer knows the brand, he knows the wine inside will consistently be enjoyable. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the word “brand”, and how to use branding effectively not just as a winemaker but also as an author, so that your name stands out from the shelves in a positive way. Branding is the single most powerful way to sell a product. When your brand is strongly associated with an emotional idea – for example, Champagne wine with celebrations, or Stephen King with suspense and thriller stories – customers will turn to you and your brand when they are looking for that kind of emotional experience.
A “brand” can be anything from a shoe producer to a band to a wine region. It can be focused around a logo, a company name, an idea, or an iconic image. (Think of Audrey Hepburn with her cigarette holder, Andy Warhol’s multicolored photographs, or The Beatles walking down Abbey Road.)
Of course, effective branding is neither cheap nor easy. It took the Champagne wine region centuries to achieve its coveted status as a producer of consistently top-tier sparkling wine. It took Stephen King decades to make his name synonymous with well-written suspense novels. Corporations, who have the most to gain from effective branding, spend millions, if not billions of dollars per year investing in building and maintaining their brands.
In my experience, branding is a combination of three different factors. The first is having a recognizable symbol, name, or image that positively correlates with a certain emotional experience. Red Bull, for instance, has successfully associated its name with adventure, athleticism, and energy. In a society that is obsessed with productivity and activity, this is a positive sensation. Apple, with its iconic Apple logo, has similarly focused on productivity, by associating its products with an elite class of happy, productive citizens who use technology conscientiously to improve their lives.
The second factor is the way that emotion translates to a salable product. Champagne is again a great example: the emotions of pride, happiness, and celebration are backed up by the act of sharing bubbly, delicious wine with friends and family. Apple’s happy, productive worker quite naturally needs Apple products to achieve that level of happiness and productivity. And Red Bull promises to give you the very energy and adventure you crave when you see their commercials. “Red Bull Gives You Wings” is one of their slogans, and it strongly indicates that drinking their product will give you freedom and lead to new adventures.
Branding for authors is very different from branding for corporate giants. Google, Apple, and Microsoft use massive, international ad campaigns to shape the way consumers perceive their products. Authors don’t have the luxury of millions of dollars in advertising budgets, not to mention that billboard and commercial ads aren’t always the best way to sell books. So how can authors use sales and marketing tools to create a brand name that readers recognize?
One way to do so is to write books and stories that are all in the same genre and associate them with your name or a pseudonym. This creates a very strong correlation between a certain type of reading experience and your author name. Nora Roberts is a perfect example of this kind of branding. When writing as Nora Roberts, she writes romance novels that are heavily marketed to women. When writing as J.D. Robb, she publishes futuristic suspense novels about a female cop with a dark past. All her books sell incredibly well, but they are marketed to two completely different audiences. Nora and her publishers throughout the years have effectively used name-based branding to associate Nora Roberts with well-written romance novels, while J.D. Robb is correlated with darker, suspenseful mysteries.
An important corollary to this point is that you as an author have control over the images you use to create your brand. You can brand all of your books together by using cover designs with static elements from book to book. By using similar or identical colors, fonts, or design elements in all of your book covers – even if they’re not a part of the same series – readers who are already familiar with your books will be able to quickly and easily identify the book as yours.
But what if you write books in a variety of genres, or literary fiction books that aren’t linked up in a series? There are options for you, too. Another way to brand yourself is by associating your author persona, rather than your books, with a certain emotional identity. Think of Ernest Hemingway and the way he represented a masculine ideal. His author persona was a larger-than-life figure, and his life story was full of food and drink, tumultuous love affairs, and a wild sense of adventure. Even his tragic and untimely death fed into the mythology surrounding his persona. His books were the natural outpouring from his adventures, and his fans devour them because they are so rich and full of life. It was his personality, as much as his skill with a pen, that endeared people to his works.
While it’s true that not all of us can be Ernest Hemingway, we can all find a niche and use branding to associate ourselves with an emotional idea. Mark Dawson, for instance, an independent author with hundreds of thousands of followers, has successfully marketed himself as a generous and available writer who is always willing to talk to his fans. Even though his books are dark and full of suspense, the emotional idea he is associated with is more evocative of kindness and gratitude. His fans love his books, not least because they’re well-written, but also because he is always willing to reach out and connect with his readers. He has cultivated this brand by giving away many of his books for free, and by making it clear throughout his author platform that he is always available by email to speak personally with fans.
Another technique you can use to build your author brand is to emphasize what makes you unique. YA author Tahereh Mafi has done this exceptionally well, by using her Instagram persona to display her incredible shoe collection, sense of fashion, and vibrant, ever-changing headscarves. Hardly the picture of a reclusive writer bound to her desk, her dramatic clothing choices mark her not only as an author who is writing passionate, emotional young adult novels, but also as a fashion-forward trendsetter who can express herself on multiple creative levels. Chuck Wendig is another author who has built his brand up around his own personality. In his case, it is his blog that is the center of attention, where his dark sense of humor, affinity for swearing and hyperbole, and a take-no-shit attitude all shine through.
In all, author branding seems to be perfected when it meets at the confluence of three factors: personality, consistency, and quality. When authors are able to: (1) consistently update both their author platform and their available products, (2) provide top-quality writing and imagery that strongly associates the writer and the product with an emotional idea, and (3) back that up with a unique personality that makes readers want to learn more about them, then you have a powerful, salable author brand.