Your brand is essentially the character profile of your business.  Here are some "brands" that you may already have come across in your travels.  Before you read them there is a disclaimer: these are fictional companies, conglomerates made up from a number of things that those of us in the biz will recognize in ourselves as places we've been, where we are, or where we want to go.  Don't judge others, and don't feel judged if you recognize yourself below - building a business (and a brand) is a process.

Brand A claims to specialize in children and pet portraits but their Facebook page features little more than a collection of selfies and on-camera flash photos of their own kids and the neighbour's dog when it had puppies.  While you can see some evolution in the level of creativity over the last 18 months, their underdeveloped skill and style at this point could be best described as "Pinterest fails."  They aren't on Instagram or Twitter, the link to their domain is a 404, and what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm - they belong to (and participate in) every photography group ever invented and offer to shoot every referral that shows up regardless of whether they have the requested skills or experience or not.  They write in texting shorthand and struggle with (or don't care about) spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  They brag about being self-taught and feel they know enough already, so they do not like getting advice or feedback even if they ask for it.  When they decide they're ready to expand into weddings, they invite you to Tim Horton's closest to their place for the consult, show up (late) in yoga pants, and then scroll through their outdated FB page on their cell phone with you because they do not have anything else for a portfolio.  They also carry basically every product ever invented from magnets to canvases to sippy cups, but they don't have a price list because signing up for their WHCC account and printing off the catalogue was what made them late.  When it is time to leave, they ask to split the bill.

Success source:; Pinterest fail source: unknown

Brand B has a functional (albeit free) website in addition to a Facebook page that has been recently updated with images from recent sessions.  Content on their blog, Instagram and Twitter accounts is well-written, their images show they are consistent with their style and skill, and they've been accepted for online publication from one small wedding blog.  They attend every conference and class they can and have an extensive network of colleagues with whom they interact daily, but often it's to argue about photographers who don't value themselves cutting into their profits with low prices and to complain about cheap clients.  They invite clients to Starbucks for a wedding consult and ask for the drink order ahead of time.  When the client arrives, their half sweet full fat decaf frappe are already on the table in the far back corner.  They pull out four albums to display their portfolio and when the client signs the contract they get to keep the branded pen, but the final price they agree on is less than half the photographer's list price on their website.  Also, they are usually right behind Brand A replying to every possible referral that gets listed, though most of their clients are referrals from previous clients who told everyone what a great deal they could get.  Ergo, brand B runs low-cost minis every other month (and for every holiday) just to make ends meet, not realizing that people aren't booking regular sessions because they know the minis will come if they just wait.

Brand C has a slick website with cool interactive thingamajiggers because their day job is web designer.  The banner on their personal Facebook profile is a picture of every piece of gear they own.  Their style, though dated, demonstrates proficiency and skill but lacks creativity and flow.  There's content added every couple of days, but more often than not it's recycled work from older sessions even when it's not #tbt.  They don't do Instagram on principle alone, and the primary thing they do in photography forums is brag about their gear and berate "the industry" for lacking technical knowledge and ruining the way things were by not honouring traditions and the good olds days when a photographer was a luxury.  They usually back up Brand B in an argument about the "newbs" but in the next conversation will attack Brand B as being a part of the problem, too.  Brand C has lots of advice to hand out but little to back up their self-professed expertise, and (though you're too nice to say anything) you can't help but wonder if they've ever actually been paid for a shoot.  The one thing that stands out about this company is how effectively they drive a fundraiser for a wonderful local charity, raising tens of thousands of dollars year in and year out.  This comes with what should be the "perk" of being a bit of a local celebrity to bolster business, but unfortunately due to a few questionable outbursts on social media, affiliation is sometimes more of a hindrance than a hot commodity.

Image of camera gear arranged neatly by Jim Golden via Petapixel

Brand D's website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all the same font, colour, and design.  They are fully integrated and filled with a perfect balance of witty banter, beautiful images, and interesting news and events for both clients and colleagues.  Leading wedding blogs regularly feature their work.  Brand D belongs to many prestigious online communities and and is a member of the local elites, a small tight-knit group of A-list photographers who are viewed and treated as celebrities.  They are friendly, and while they are most certainly not accepting new members, they may host local events or run workshops during which they advocate for finding or creating a similar circle.  They freely share their expertise on marketing and branding, but not their contacts.  Regardless of their style, skill, education, or background, they post the "cheap" clients online for Brand A and B to fight over while sharing the juicy referrals for clients with high 4- and even 5-figure photography budgets with one another exclusively.  The consultation is at a hip foodie restaurant where the owner knows the photographer by name.  After the contract is signed, the photographer gives them the pen and then picks up the tab for appies and wine.  In two years' time, Brand D will be a keynote speaker at a major conference or get a gig on CreativeLive and spend the rest of their career earning most of their "photography" income from teaching and public appearances.  They remember to thank the "little" people even after they no longer associate with them in any meaningful way.

sample branding package via Shake

The above "brands" above feature a number of characteristics (good and bad) that are found throughout the industry, in varying degrees, in all genres.  And the point is, in order to attract people who can and will pay you what you want you need to make conscious decisions about the kind of customer experience you need to create, the way you want your company to be perceived, the reputation you want to build, and the kind of professional network you might want to work towards creating for yourself.  So let's look at what I believe are the three most important characteristics to be aware of in your potential client: how much they are actually able to spend, what they are willing to spend money on, and how much they value the service you're providing.

Pick any combo and you'll quickly learn that when it comes to serving clients, it isn't one size fits all.  You're as likely to come across someone with a middle class income willing to save up for a famous photographer or a low-income family who invests in skilled photography as you are to find an affluent person who will hire an unskilled photographer if they have the cheapest price available.  

The client is:
  • Affluent, high 6- to 7+ figure income
  • Middle class, high-5 to low 6-figure income
  • Low income, low 5-figure income

The photographer is:
  • Inexperienced, unskilled
  • Experienced, competent, skilled
  • Famous

The value placed on photography services is:
  • Photography is overpriced and overrated
  • Photography is valuable within reason
  • Photography is priceless

In many ways, we are not only business-coached but culturally trained to assume that the ideal client is affluent, thinks photography is priceless, and will help catapult us to fame and fortune if we're not already there.  It's pointless (and foolhardy) to focus on solely the high end (or the 1% if you prefer) of the spectrum but it's also important to know that as your prices rise, so will customer expectations of the level of service and expertise you are offering.  This means that you need to have a solid understanding of how each and every action you take shows them what they are paying for, and all of this becomes embedded in your brand.  From the moment a client learns of your existence, you are telling them a story about who you are, what your values are, your style, your skill, and in some cases even your intelligence and sense of humour, so building your brand needs to be done mindfully - right down to getting someone to proofread your car decals...

But, how do you decide what your corporate identity is going to be?

I have some simple things to help put you in brand-storming mode.

1) Write up a top 10 list of words you would like people to use when describing your brand.  Mine are: quirky, fun, passionate, creative, straightforward, reliable, intelligent, consistent, nerdy, and humourous.

2) When people have a session or view your work, name 5 things that you want them to see and feel.  Mine are: love, joy, happiness, connected, fun.  I want people to experience laughter, love, contentment, confidence, and inspiration but my ultimate goal is for them to sigh when it's done, be a little sad it's over, and be super excited to see the pictures.

3) What are your three favourite colours?  Go find the hex codes for them right now.  Don't worry about whether they go together or not.  Just grab them.

4) Do you have a charity or cause that you regularly support or speak passionately about?  Is there an organization you've always wanted to get involved with?  Is there a topic that always gets you riled up so much that you wish you could become an advocate?  Write down a few ways you can become active in your community.

5) Think of a symbol that has personal significance to you - maybe it's a piece of jewelry passed down from a relative, an emoji you use all the time, an animal or mystical creature you identify with - whatever your symbol is, write down what it is and why.  My personal symbol is the heart, which I adopted shortly after my father passed away of a heart attack, but for some reason the unicorn has developed organically as the "spirit" animal for me though I have yet to figure out how or if I want to incorporate that into my brand formally or leave it as part of what makes me "quirky."

We've now set the stage for you to start digging in deeper.  Your goal now is to is to start making mindful decisions that will ultimately steer your company in the direction you want it to go.

What's in a name?

Chanel.  WalMart.  Cristal.  Baby Duck.  Nike.  Skechers.  Red Lobster.  McDonald's.  Tim Horton's.  Starbucks.  Swarovski.  DeBeers.  Hilton.  Trump.  Ford.  Porsche.  Dove.  Palmolive.  Apple.  Microsoft.  Air Canada.  WestJet.  Each of those names instantly conjures up an image in our minds not just of their logo but of the type of quality and customer experience you are likely to expect.  Over time, as you build your company, people will learn to associate certain things with your brand the moment they hear your name.  So it's kind of important to pick a name that reflects the brand you're planning to build, right down to whether you are a .com or a .ca domain kind of company.

As a child, my nickname was Gunky.  I played hard, got dirty a lot as a toddler, and so Gunky was fitting despite the fact I eventually outgrew that phase.  (Sort of.)  I *could* have picked "Gunky Photos" as a name for my company when I first started shooting children's portraits, but in my case I don't think the "whimsy" of using my childhood nickname would translate as well as someone whose nickname was "Teeter Tot."  Likewise, when expanding the business to include weddings and boudoir, even "Teeter Tot" would not translate as well as if your nickname had been "Starshine."

If you want people to think of you as sophisticated and elegant, calling your boudoir company "Booty Call Boodwah" might send the wrong message.  Likewise, as tempting as it might be to buy a domain called for SEO purposes, you are probably doing yourself a disservice if you want to be working with the agents hiring for architectural photographs of the estates and mansions they are selling.  If you're stuck, ask a small test market of trusted friends and colleagues what the language you intend to use implies to them.  If it's intentional, it's one thing, but if you think you're being cheeky and others are just finding it offensive then you may want to re-evaluate.

If, like me, you decide that your own name is all you need, there are three things to consider.  First, if your name is John Smith you will probably need something more unique than "John Smith Photography" to differentiate yourself from the other John Smiths.  Adding a middle initial John Q Smith) or using your middle name instead of your last name (John Quentin) can help, as can using a word like "Imagery" or "Portraiture" instead of "Photography."  You can also try mixing up the order of the words (, including your city or town (johnsmithYEGphoto) or trying for a clever play on words (John the PhotoSmith).  As soon as you think you have the perfect name, google it and see if someone already beat you to it, and keep trying until you find one that is unique enough to be memorable and uses language aimed at your target market.

What your corporate identity should say.

This funeral company's "Come a Little Closer" train ad has been alternately bashed and praised.  Some say while the humour is a little dark it certainly made the company memorable, while others found it incredibly distasteful.  Personally, I thought this was brilliant, and if I was in the market to buy funeral services this place would top my list.  My assumption isn't that they are trying to put the "fun" back in "funerals" but merely make themselves memorable.  Mission accomplished.

Personally, I love dark humour and playful language.  My company slogan is, "I shoot people."  This is not out of line with my desired corporate identity traits.  If we go back to the 5 questions I asked you to answer, I believe I'm actually pretty cohesive staying inline with those directives.  (No official pictureLOVE unicorn yet though - my black, white and red colour scheme would make him look a bit too evil, I think...)

What your online presence says about you.

If you are a photographer, you've probably fantasized about one (or more) of your posts going organically viral.  (Don't lie - I have, too!)  But realistically, even if one of your images does garner you 15 minutes of internet fame it's unlikely that it will be enough to catapult you to a lasting state of stardom.  People with huge followings on social media have to work very hard at creating and maintaining their online presence, and once you've built up that following, there's no stopping or people lose interest and move on.

Your presence on social media, if it is public or if you've got leaks from the inside, may show a different picture of you than you hope to portray.  It's OK to be passionately outspoken about a particular topic as long as you are aware that there is no "undo" even if you delete even if you would prefer to pretend it never happened.  Alas, some photographers will get (and enjoy) their 15 minutes of internet fame for the wrong reasons but I strongly suggest not adopting a "no publicity is bad publicity" policy as part of your corporate identity.  If you are mocking colleagues or clients in forums rather than asking for and offering constructive feedback, if you belong to public groups that are politicized, if you are retweeting or sharing sexist or racist jokes, if you are making a case for or against religion, if you are talking about your feelings on shared bathrooms, if you are supporting adoptable rescue animals or promoting owner's rights to dock tails - once you put it on the internet, you are as likely to be praised as shunned.  It's therefore best to manage your online presence as if you are your own PR manager to ensure that your tweets and 'grams (including the occasional rant and vaguebook status) align with your brand.
See the complete article accompanying this image over at Buoyancy Media

There are so many places to be online, it's tough to decide where you need to be.  Remember mySpace?  Wonder what happened to Vine?  Ever heard of Meerkat?  Exactly.  Today's big players continue absorbing smaller companies an expanding their functionality, meaning that more platforms will offer more media (for example, you can livestream on multiple platforms now...) so rather than paying attention to how one-stop the media strives to be, you need to be aware of who is using what platform, for what purpose.  After you figure that out for your own brand, you can spend some time determining which social media platforms you will use for your different marketing campaigns, whether that's engaging with existing clients, cultivating new clients, or creating brand awareness.

Betty Gorham-Willer

I could write an entire post about nothing but social media, but there are tonnes of articles out there from social media gurus who track these sorts of things (like this 2017 one which is interesting to compare to this 2015 one).  You'll want to spend some quality time finding out where you're most likely to reach your ideal client and developing relevant content that will gain traction from users on that platform, rather than cross-posting the exact same message on multiple platforms, despite our urge to just be lazy about it, which can make managing multiple media accounts as tricky as spinning plates.  But I digress.  We were talking about branding, and my point is that regardless of how many online platforms you decide you want to tackle, your directive for your online presence is ensuring how and where you engage reflects your desired brand as you identified earlier.

Now, here's the final kicker about having an online presence.  Contrary to popular belief, while anywhere from 62% - 79% of people between the ages of 18 and 65 being on Facebook, you need a proper website - a clean, easy to navigate, professional-looking one that anticipates your consumer's FAQs while demonstrating your ability to meet their needs.  As this article claims, "It's better to own than rent!" because while you can curate your presence on social media, it is only on your own website where you ultimately control 100% of the content and context.  It is also where you are least likely to have your voice lost or misrepresented when the social media's brand fails to support or compliment yours (or they just cease to exist...)

Feelings matter.  Service matters more.

How you treat your customer and how they feel interacting with you, from the way you reply to their emails to the way you deliver their USB, is part of your brand.  If the list of traits you want clients to describe your company includes "professional" but your actions prove otherwise, "experienced" but your skills are not there, or you promise to deliver in 6-8 weeks but fail to deliver, the best case scenario might be that they just never hire you again.  The worst case scenario is of course that your reputation gets publicly slaughtered.  A good rule of thumb when you're trying to build and maintain your brand's reputation is to under-promise and over-deliver so that rather than you having to shout your corporate virtues from the treetops, your clients do it for you.  Advertise 20 images in 4 weeks, deliver 25 in 2.  When your clients feel like you are not only meeting but exceeding their expectations, they will openly and frequently endorse you and we all know that (with maybe the exception of pyramid schemes) there really is no substitute for word-of-mouth referrals from loyal customers.

Your call to action

Maybe you've got your brand in spades and this article was validation that you need to keep doing what you're doing.  But what if you've never considered what your brand is?  What if, after reading this, you realize you've outgrown your old brand?  What if you thought you were doing OK but now realize you've been making some mistakes in representing the brand you want to be?  Well, the good thing is, launching or rebranding doesn't have to be painful.  In fact, it can be a great opportunity for you to create buzz and interest!

Here are some ways you can put your brand-storming to use right away.

1) Pick a font you love for your company name and try it out in your favourite colours.

2) Start sketching up a logo (or get someone who can do it for you) that incorporates your meaningful symbol.  (Or, you can try this service even if only for inspiration.)

3) Get a slogan together.  Think different.  Just do it.  Because you're worth it.

4) Engage your clients and colleagues by asking them for feedback (which font do you like better?)

5) Figure out the most exciting or newsworthy aspect of your brand and start building a brand awareness campaign around that.  "Did you know that XYZ photos is moving to a new studio?"

I hope you're maybe a little bit excited about taking a conscious approach to your brand now.  Tune in next time when we are going to talk about... campaign development and management!  WHEE!