Chip MacGregor

August 7, 2012

Do I need to have a writing “brand”?


I’ve had several people ask me for my thoughts on branding (currently a hot topic among authors and publishers). Some folks wanted it defined, others were looking for how-to’s, and still others are trying to weigh various interpretations of what branding means for authors. It seems like most of the information writers share about branding is a bit vague, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to clarify the topic a bit.

1. Make sure you understand what a “brand” is. In simple terms, a brand for an author is “what you are known for” or “what a reader has in mind when he or she walks into a bookstore and sees your book.” I once met with a branding consultant to talk about his doing a book, and when I asked him to define a brand, he said to me, “In many ways, a brand is nothing more than a series of perceptions people have about you.” So think about that for a moment… What perceptions do readers have about your from your books? If they were to read three or four of your books, what images/themes/messages/genres would they come away with?

2. A brand is like a promise. That branding specialist told me that one of the common phrases used by marketing consultants is that “a brand is a promise consumers believe in.” If you make them a promise to readers that you’re always going to deliver a taut action thriller with cheeky heroes and conspiracy overtones, you have to deliver that every time. So ask yourself… Are you ready to do that? Do you want to focus your writing so that book buyers know what to expect when they see your name on store shelves? Can you clarify what your brand is right now?

3. A great brand makes selling easier. A brand establishes a comfort level with readers. It fosters a relationship with loyal customers by creating trust with them. For example, I like Seattle’s Best Coffee. I trust the taste, look for it in stores, and am willing to pay a bit more to get it. You might be that way with a Mac, or with Godiva Chocolates, or Toyota, or any other strong brand. But think about that… If you haven’t heard of Seattle’s Best Coffee, the company has to work harder to sell you. Why spend extra on coffee you’ve never heard of? You have to be convinced it’s better than Folgers, and that it’s worth the extra time to locate it. But once you get it and love it, you’re a customer for life. Now move your thinking from “coffee” to “books” — If an author doesn’t have a brand with her books, each sale takes extra time and effort. And the author is counting on retailers, who have thousands of titles for sale, to promote and sell her books. On the other hand, if the author is known for a brand, she’s already got a following that will help her promote the books, and retailers can easily figure out who her potential readers are. A brand is key to marketing and growth, and thus to profitability.

4. There is a fallacy taking hold among writers that branding is nothing more than making a declarative statement. Let’s say an author declares herself “America’s Fitness Expert” or “The Queen of Cozy Mysteries.” Saying something doesn’t make it so — it’s on par with me declaring myself “the sexiest literary agent in America.” My stating that doesn’t make it fact. And if nobody else believes that, the statement isn’t going to do me any good. Experience trumps messages. So as an author you must reflect on whether or not you have a brand, or if you’re even ready to declare a brand. What do readers like about your work? What are you known for? What sort of books do you write? What’s the consistent message? As you think it through, you may start to clarify your own brand.

5. The first step in the branding process is to define it. What’s your voice? What’s your genre? What do you do best? What do people like about your work? What gets noticed? What “look” do your books have? Who is your audience? This research takes time and reflection — it can’t be done in a day, nor can it be done by asking your spouse and your critique group. You need field work — getting honest answers from those who don’t already love you. And part of having a brand is working closely with your publisher, making sure they’re on board and referencing the brand in everything they do for you.

More on branding tomorrow…

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  • Jan Dunlap says:

    Good points to ponder, Chip. It’s only now with my fifth Birder Murder mystery set to debut that I feel I’ve developed a recognizable brand as an author. I think the brand is the result of the writing, successful delivery of the ‘promise’, readers who tell others about the book, and nonstop marketing on the part of the author. It is certainly sweet for me now to have potential readers say to me – “Oh yes, I’ve heard good things about the Birder Murders.”

  • Very right, and very tricky for pre-published authors trying to set up an attractive and accurate blogspot! I think the key is to identify a theme that runs through your writing, regardless of genre. For example, I’ve written a paranormal and now a Viking historical (that one’s out on submission). The theme running through both those books is something like “love AFTER marriage.” So I chose “Living Beyond the Vows” to go on my blog header.

    But what happens as I toy with other genres, like YA? Well, I’ve concluded that I’ll work some married romance into those, as well, even if it’s only the parents who have a solid marriage. This may or may not be the best strategy, but it’s the only one I have at this point! And it’s definitely something I feel very strongly about. That said, I’m hoping to stay with historicals for now.

    Great post!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Heather. And I agree with you — as I noted elsewhere, I think a brand is “discovered” as much as it’s “created.”

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I think the first step in branding is developing your writer’s voice; the rest is build upon that.

  • Julia Reffner says:

    I don’t have a “brand” yet and your post seems to confirm that as I’m in the beginning stages and writing my second novel, its not time to worry about it. Brandilyn also stated this on the ACFW conference loop. I do see a few central themes that emerge from the two novels, but I’ll have to see how it continues as I become more prolific.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      My guess is you’ll be more comfortable with that, Julia. (And, to be fair, there are some authors who know immediately what their brand is — but I think that’s more rare.)

  • Tim Osner says:

    I would think that strong voice and distinctive style of storytelling could help establish a brand that can cross genres.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It can, Tim, though we more commonly see it within a genre (and it’s easier to talk about within a genre!). 

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Thanks for clarifying!  Most helpful.  But, which comes first; the chicken or the egg?

  • Lennyrats says:

    When an
    author writes his/her memoir, what is there to “brand”? As it’s their
    life story, who can question their authenticity? I wrote my military memoir,
    and have yet to publish it. As I’ve read other military memoirs, their authors
    don’t confirm their authenticity with their DD-214’s. This document does give
    us military memoir authors an advantage related to other memoir author writers.
    I have my DD-214, but don’t intend to include it to my story. My readers will
    have to accept the fact, as written, my non-fiction story is my brand.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      You lost me. Sorry — but yes, a memoir writer is known for their story and skill.

  • Jean Willett says:

    “Saying something doesn’t make it so — it’s on par with me declaring myself “the sexiest literary agent in America.” “LOL-Now I am sorry I missed the opportunity to meet you at RWA-Anaheim. 
    Thanks for all the informative blogs you and Amanda have provided. I’ve enjoyed and learned from each one. Branding is something I won’t rush.  A lot goes into the effort and getting it wrong in the social media of today can be hard to undo.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate your compliments. And you’re right, Jean — don’t rush the branding stuff. 

  • CoreyMP says:

    Excellent post. I agree with everything you said. I think the importance of branding too is consistency. Most popular and successful authors have consistent book cover designs and themes. 

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