Branding for Creatives: Making it Less Uncomfortable
As a creative, it’s at first hard to think about (let alone talk about) the idea of building your “personal brand” without feeling like you’re full of bogus. It has something to do with a fear of conveying an inflated sense of self-importance, only to have someone tell you hey, you’re not as good / interesting / talented / cool as you think you are.
Doing the work is already hard enough, without the pressure of needing to constantly prove and promote yourself. While creative work originates from a deep place, the idea of conveying a “personal brand” comes off as superficial, salesy, and pushy. But it doesn’t have to.
In this post, I’ll discuss a few things:
Why we’re resistant to branding & how to overcome it
What branding is
Three steps to building a brand
The process of articulating your brand
Where the resistance comes from
Whenever I saw cheesy business books about personal branding, I felt uncomfortably obligated to flip through them. In an age where each person is potentially his or her own media company, we’re told that oftentimes “the work alone isn’t enough.” That other things— overused terms no longer meaning much, like networking contacts, a platform, a brand— are at times equally, if not more important in getting oneself noticed.
So where does this resistance come from? Here 3 reasons I’ve noticed in myself and in the creatives I work with:
#1) Not being confident about myself as a creative, or my work.
I felt the most resistance to branding when I wasn’t making a lot of work, let alone work that I felt proud of. When you don’t feel embodied as a creative - as in, doing the work that feels soulful and true to you - there is no point in talking about a brand story. There is no story without the plot, no house without the foundation.
Building this creative confidence is simple, but not easy. All you have to do is amass a body of work. Then you’ll have something to tell other people about.
2) Not being comfortable with selling and promoting myself.
You could say that this is a fear of “putting yourself out there,” fear of asking other people for help, fear of being judged and having your precious work judged, fear of persuading other people on your behalf why they should hire you / work with you / pay attention to you. This fear is completely normal, and the only way I’ve managed to get over it is by harnessing two emotions: determination and love.
Determination - I was desperately determined to only work for myself, so I accepted that I was going to have to learn to love the hustle. I accepted that I was choosing to be a creative professional, not just a creative. If I wanted to just be a creative, I could’ve kept my day job and fiddled on the side. As a professional, promoting and selling myself was part of the job description, and it was nonnegotiable.
Love - Selling becomes easy and effortless when you truly believe in the value of the product (yourself and your work). My creative work made me feel so much more like the whole person I wanted to be, and I started to believe in its capacity to bring value to other people’s lives. That kind of love is infectious, and you want to share it.
3) Not wanting to put myself in a box
I hear this objection from a lot of free-flowing creatives I work with, who think that by defining their brand and their niche, they would limit their mobility and freedom to do as they please. In response to this concern, I tell my clients two things:
Articulating a brand is about finding the deep anchors, themes, and threads running through your work. What feels true to you is not what confines you; it’s what will ground you in a solid foundation, while giving you the freedom to explore.
You’re a person/small-business, not a corporation. Embrace the agility that comes with this. Declaring a personal brand is not like putting yourself in a box; it’s like drawing a chalk circle around who you are, and what matters to you. Right now. And that can— and will— change.
What branding is
Your work is what people admire, while your brand is what people connect with at an emotional level. It pulls all the threads together to tell a story about who you are and why you do this work. It is a narrative; a set of values or beliefs about life, about art, about a way of working. A cohesive brand colors in the spaces between one piece of work and the next to communicate a clear sense of self, an anchor in the ground, a strong stance about a way of seeing the world.
Many creatives will have your skills, and perhaps even equally good (or better) portfolios, but your brand is the only thing that’s uniquely yours, and that’s what clients will be drawn to. It is the human element that people will remember.
Three steps to building a brand
Building a brand requires you to do three things:
Getting grounded - defining and understanding yourself
Targeting the right audience - and understanding them
Communicating who you are to your audience
Once you’ve done steps #1 and #2, you’ll have an anchor for yourself, and a compass for how to focus your body of work.
Step 1 - Getting grounded
You know how in college, humanities teachers all say, you need to have an argument; take a strong position, even if you’re wrong? How it’s better than no position, better than wishy-washiness? As a creative professional, it’s the same thing. You don’t want to be a wishy-washy creative; you want to be the kind of creative that people remember. Give them something to react to.
Getting grounded in yourself means a lot of introspection. When working with my clients, these are the kinds of questions I ask them:
What are your goals for your creative career?
What kind of work do you most want to do?
What kind of work you do best?
What are some qualities that are distinctly you?
What your values and beliefs for your work?
What does it mean for you to be a designer / musician / writer… ?
Why do you do this work?
How do you work best?
What would be a dream project for you?
Who are you NOT?
These questions often take a lot of time to explore, and especially for people early in their careers, it is a process of gradual unfolding. But once you have the answers, you’re empowered to shape any path fit you. It is freeing to know exactly what you want, because then you’re able to go after it, instead of sitting still in paralysis. Being grounded means you can start to be proactive about pursuing your ideal projects, rather than being reactive to client demands, fighting with other hired hands for pieces of scraps.
Step 2 - Targeting the right audience
When you draw a circle around who you are, by definition, you are drawing a circle around who you are not. These boundaries mean that you must give people permission not to like you; openly admitting that there are certain clients, people, and readers for whom you’re not the best fit.
When you try to please everybody, you end up pleasing nobody, not even yourself. The process of identifying the right audience varies depending on your profession, but usually it involves asking:
Who do you connect with and relate to?
Who do you want your work to serve?
What are their biggest pain points or challenges?
How do you want your work to serve them?
What can you do to better understand them?
What can you do to speak directly to them?
For service-providing creatives, the basic formula for positioning your brand is this:
I’m a [skill] who helps [audience] to [specialty] so they can [solution].
“I’m a designer who helps creatives brand themselves so that they’re able to do their best work, and thrive.”
Step 3 - Communicating who you are to your audience
Most people jump to step three, which making a logo and tagline, without doing the foundational work of steps 1 and 2. But really, step 3 is just a physical manifestation of the work you've done defining yourself and your audience. Without that, you would be without a compass.
How do you communicate your brand to your audience?
Components of your brand:
Visual identity - how your brand looks and feels, what it conveys visually
Essence - which words or feelings capture your brand in a succinct way
Messaging - what problem you're solving for your target audience
Values or Philosophy - what you believe in
Content - how you'll share your knowledge and expertise with your audience
Platforms and methods for communicating your brand:
Social media presence
Direct outreach (via email, social media)
In-person interactions (talking to people at a networking event, etc).
Starting from scratch: small steps
Okay, so it's a lot of work. But the good thing is, you can let it evolve slowly over time. (Or you can hire me and we'll work on it together over a few months). I see the process of articulating a brand as running in parallel with doing creative work that most speaks to you. Michael Port writes that when you’re feeling fully self-expressed, marketing will feel good, natural, and easy, rather than icky. The ick factor comes from trying too hard to be someone you’re not.
Your brand is true when the work you do is most true. For now, if you're feeling overwhelmed and not ready to articulate your brand, I would take small steps, just by beginning to shift your awareness.
Small steps to gather insights about yourself:
Start by doing more of the work that feels most true to you. Think about what that is - in what instances have you felt most in tune? What projects have you done that made you feel the most flow? What kinds of projects were they?
Push past your comfort zone, and see how you respond. This could mean taking a class, going outside of your genre, or trying new activities perpendicular to your main pursuit. By exposing yourself to different environments, you’ll gain insights about your creative vision and approach. Pay attention to any resistance that you feel, and ask yourself where that resistance comes from.
Pay attention to what you’re drawn to. If you’re a designer, what kinds of graphic styles appeal most to you? What new skills do you feel yourself itching to learn? If you’re a writer, which essays, novels, or writers do you admire most? What about them, specifically, do you admire? What commonalities do you notice about these works? By paying attention to your creative sensibilities and sources of inspiration, you'll start to refine a vision for yourselves and your taste.
Watch closely at the way you work. If you have current clients or collaborators, ask yourself: what do they most appreciate about how you work? It is your meticulous thoughtfulness, your professionalism, your warmth, your bold visions, your experimental approach? All of this, while not central to the work, defines the experience of working with you. Also important here is thinking about your process. How and when do you work best? What conditions are conducive to you doing your best work?
I like to jot down notes and observations about myself on a day-to-day basis, put it in a repository, and reference it later when I'm starting to do the deliberate work of shaping a narrative. The key here, once again, is paying attention.
Focus on process, not product
When working with my clients, I always tell them that branding is an iterative process. It cannot be static, because we, as creatives, are not static. It is not building a structure from the ground up; it is sculpting a statue from an existing block of stone, chipping away at it until it expresses a form that feels true.
The key is approaching branding with a sense of curiosity and openness - a desire to learn about yourself, to be flexible to change and adaptation. Because hey - you’re always allowed to change your mind. When the time comes to change form, you just sculpt the statue into something else.