by Philip Martin
“Earn a character first if you can, and if you can’t, then assume one.”
—Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
Let’s take a quick look at your personal brand as a writer.
What is a brand? It’s different from pitching a specific piece of work, and it’s different from developing a marketing platform.
A brand is more like a flavor, a style, an expectation of you and your work, based on what you choose to write about but also on how you present yourself – your name, favorite images of you, your bio, your hobbies and passions and what they say about you as a literary personage.
Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, was one of the first American writers to become a celebrity. He practiced many aspects of personal branding. He wrote in a distinctively sardonic, conversational style. His writings and talks presented a down-home persona, a homespun narrator full of folk wisdom and tall tales. He assumed the trappings of brand image: a white suit, a cigar, a distinctive mustache, tousled hair. He got out on the lecture circuit, testing and honing his best stuff. He developed a knack for the “sound bites,” the short, quotable epigram (such as, “Man is the only animal that blushes—or needs to.”)
In addition to his novels, he published many brief pieces: speeches, articles, short stories. And most notably, he adopted a pseudonym: Mark Twain, a wonderfully punchy, memorable, plausible name, imbued with a folksy, easily spoken resonance (taken from a Mississippi riverboat call).
Clemens/Twain knew the secrets of personal branding. Creating a brand involves, as he noted, both earning it and assuming it. You don’t develop a brand without some active involvement in creating its form.
What is Your Personal Brand?
Your brand image is not how you see yourself, but how others perceive you—quickly, clearly, positively. What comes to mind when they think of you as a literary professional? Prompt? Reliable? Humorous? Thoughtful? Broad-ranging? Laser-focused?
Do you deliver the goods in a friendly or fun or factual manner? How do others describe you if they recommend you to another person?
Think of today’s major writers with a brand image, from Dave Barry to Stephen King to Suze Orman—writers whose names appear in bigger letters than the titles of their books. All serve up products that are consistent and recognizable, in style and content, and strongly identified with their writing personalities.
In a smaller vein, when someone like you or me turns in a piece of writing, do editors and readers expect it to be a “Philip Martin” or [fill in your name here] product? Can they rely in advance on your work having valuable and unique attributes, with your own version of writing that is useful, entertaining, thorough, or in someway identifiable?
A brand, says branding guru Tom Peters, is “a promise of the value you’ll receive.” In other words, it is an expectation, in advance of the product itself.
You can and should develop your brand consciously. And by being consistent, others will begin to recognize it. (It’s not a brand until it’s recognized by others.)
With a few easy steps, you can better define how others see you. To stand out from the crowd, take some time to strategically develop your brand.
Identify Your Attributes
Tom Peters suggests: “Start by identifying the qualities or characteristics that make you distinctive from your competitors—or your colleagues.” Pinpoint what colleagues or customers say is your greatest, clearest strength. What is your most notable personal trait?
Take a few moments to write down a few attributes about your personal brand. Attributes need to be clear, quick, positive . . . and true. Trueness or authenticity is essential. Brands are not invented willy-nilly, they are identified and reinforced. It won’t work to pretend to be something you’re not.
In my own case, as a person who helps others with writing, publishing, branding, and blogging, I focus on a few core concepts: I’m Midwestern (practical, down-to-earth), zen (calm, focused on steady practice), nurturing (like a gardener, looking for the right place and nutrients for your creative work), holistic (embracing the entirety of what is needed to succeed). It comes out in a phrase I like to use: the proof is in the pudding. (Or in the Midwest, maybe the proof is in the hot-dish.)
But is that Midwestern practical sensibility how others see me? What can I do to build and reinforce that?
What are your chief attributes?
1. Combine text and visuals . . . with attitude.
Look again at your website or blog. Can you paint a quick picture (in words, images, and attitude) of who you are? Dave Barry’s home page shows a photo of him with a sledge hammer looming over a toilet with the words: “If you leave this web site, I will kill this defenseless toilet.” Suze Orman’s home page immediately pitches her products, but uses not one but four pictures of her (two of them on product covers); all feature her distinctive hairstyle, smile, and in the largest one, the cocked finger of admonishment. If you look at her bio page, it gives her philosophy: “People first, then money, then things.” That’s memorable enough to remember a day later.
For many writers, the brand image is a literary one. Check the website of novelist Joshua Henkin (www.joshuahenkin.com) as a thorough example. Clean design, professional bio photo, artsy photos from a recent book cover, blog, contest, events, reading group guides, video interview, and quick links to booksellers.
Check the websites of topflight romance, mystery, or thiller novelists for themes, images, style, contents that relate to brand image. Look for unique aspects. If countless romance writers’ websites all feature red roses as a typical motif . . . what can you do that’s different (in a positive, memorable way)?
2. Where do you live?
As you may know, I’m a big proponent of developing a sense of place as a way to distinguish your writing. This can be true also for your personal brand. Stephen King is known as a writer from Maine, the setting for many of his stories. Sure enough, on his website, he includes a map (under Miscellany) showing the state of Maine with real towns (names in green) and fictional places from his stories (in blue).
Dave Barry is known as a newspaper columnist based in Miami, something he mentions often in his writing.
To distinguish yourself from others, a sense of where you live, without needing to be too specific, gives a flavor to your brand. Look for the positive connections. Yes, Wisconsin is known for overweight beer- and brandy-drinking cheeseheads. It’s also the birthplace of John Muir, the home territory of conservationist Aldo Leopold and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. Guess which way I went when looking for a quote?
3. Your name.
Suze Orman selected a variant of her first name, one that reflects her “girlfriend, let me give you some advice” brand.
Some writers naturally have memorable names: Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier come to mind, for some reason. But some of us have a name that’s hard to remember, or for others, hard to spell. Others (like me) have a name that’s incredibly common.
Consider ways to present your name. You can use initials (R.L. Stine) or a nickname (Bill Bryson, born William McGuire Bryson).
You can add a middle name or other identifier, or even choose a pseudonym. Many have gone with the middle-name solution, like Arthur Doyle. Who? You know him better, and unforgettably, as Arthur Conan Doyle.
4. Brand as voice.
In fiction or nonfiction, you seek to develop your voice; in marketing, your brand. The concept is similar. Look for what comes naturally to you (authenticity), while pushing forward what is different in your writing (a recognizable uniqueness).
Blog writers are savvy to this. Some blog names are descriptive (Problogger, etc.) while others go for cool, goofy names (Boing Boing) — like the strategy used by alternative rock bands with names like They Might be Giants or Barenaked Ladies. Or consider the books by marketing guru Seth Godin, author of The Big Red Fez, Purple Cow, All Marketers are Liars, Free Prize Inside, and Meatball Sundae. The pattern of titles is intrinsic to his “think outside the box” brand.
It’s harder to brand diversity, but some writers do it successfully. Linda Formichelli, author of many articles and several books for writers, including The Renegade Writer, leads her website with fun photo and a friendly welcome: “Hi, I’m Linda.” The next line: “I wear more hats than your old Aunt Millie.”
Once you’ve developed your brand and its descriptive elements, do what you can to disseminate it. Build an online web presence to present your professional profile in a consistent, brand-conscious manner. It’s not hard. It takes only a few steps, a few moments now and then, to keep things shipshape.
Remember, it’s not a brand till it’s visible to others. To make that happen, you have to assume the trappings. Earn it and assume it. You’ll be in good company, with Mark Twain and all the other successful authors who knew how to create an image and don the white suit, cigar, and tousled hair of success.
This article is by Philip Martin, director of Blue Zoo Writers and Great Lakes Literary (www.GreatLakesLit.com) and author of How To Write Your Best Story and A Guide to Fantasy Literature.