It’s likely that Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson would have scratched their heads in bewilderment over the term “personal branding.” And yet each established a strong personal identity to their readers based on those communication channels available at the time. Today, writers strive to satisfy the fickle appetites of social media, an ever-hungry beast that compels creatives to distinguish themselves in a noteworthy way, accrue followers, or otherwise embrace irrelevance.
Developing a personal brand as a writer is a difficult quest in a world in which the slick, over-commercialization of most things surrounding us mock of the notion of authentic communication. And social media itself increasingly has a slippery grasp on honest communication. As an author, how do you build a brand in this kind of environment? How do you present your book, your writing, your personal brand image amidst the flood of blatant hustles that saturate media channels?
The Paradox Of Personal Branding
It used to be easier in an era when conscience was less of a concern. In an article on the LinkedIn site, The Paradox of Personal Branding, Dan Wallace writes,
“Years ago I worked as a freelance copywriter for ad agencies in the last puffs of the Mad Men era. You see a lot when you enter through the servants’ entrance. Along the way, I heard some choice quotes. One was from a Mad Man to a junior executive. Said the Mad Man, ‘Son, this business is all about sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’”
Wallace also equates how in an earlier age—when face-to-face trade was the norm between neighbors—reputations were earned and maintained over a lifetime. English surnames often reflected the crafts and skills being offered: Carpenter, Shoemaker, Miller, Cooper, Baker, Tailor, Fletcher (arrow maker), Weaver, and so on. These trades spanned generations and sometimes involved entire families.
Unbranding, De-branding, and Anti-branding
With sharpening public awareness of corporate gluttony and a growing focus on the perils of environmental destruction, many large corporations are soft-peddling their branding initiatives or squirming to reshape their identities in line with perceived social justice or globalization issues. Since 1992, Kalle Lasn, co-founder of the magazine Adbusters, has slyly and playfully pulled the curtain back to expose corporate malfeasance and the rank excesses of consumerism and advertising.
Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Sam Thielman traced the history of Adbusters and highlights the aesthetics and ideas surrounding the publication. Thielman’s article quoted a graphic designer who contributed to Adbusters, Jonathan Barnbrook, who offered a trenchant critique of mainstream corporate unbranding techniques, saying,
“I remember when BP changed their logo to a green flower and spent more on their identity than they did on actual environmental work.”
Naomi Klein burst upon the scene in late 1999 with her book No Logo, reporting on the myriad ways that superbrands have captured and dominated our cultural lives and reshaped the dynamics of commerce on a global scale. Revisiting the book twenty years after its publication, Dan Hancox, writing for The Guardian, said,
“What strikes me, rereading the book now, is not that Klein was wrong in her diagnosis, but that the changes she was documenting are so much worse than we could have ever predicted—from PepsiCo exploring the idea of broadcasting its logo into space to KFC buying festival DJ slots for Colonel Sanders, We have reached an audio-visual climax of total brand dominance as if Piccadilly Circus or Time Square were simply laboratories for how our world would look in the 21st century.”
The perimeters of branding and unbranding can easily blur and merge in the churning dynamics of the digital world. Thielman noted, “Unbranding, too, gets co-opted and reworked into branding; there’s no escape from capitalism. But that doesn’t invalidate the criticism, either from activists focused on social justice or from anti-globalization anarchists.”
The Aesthetic Values You Choose Shape Your Personal Brand
A book is perhaps the deepest form of personal expression easily available to an individual, especially since electronic publishing has eliminated the need for a middleman to accept, print, and distribute titles. This technology gives authors a unique opportunity to reach readers around the world directly than at any time in publishing history.
But, with this opportunity, authors face a formidable obstacle: discovery. Although you can determine the content of your book down to the last semi-colon, at some point, you have to compete in a market that is saturated with millions of books. Interestingly, despite the fierce competition and brutal effect of COVID-19 on many different retail businesses, booksellers and publishers largely did very well in 2020 (check out the figures in this New York Times article, Surprise Ending for Publishers: In 2020, Business Was Good. With lots of people at home, it was a good year for reading (or, at least, for buying books).
The Art Of Communicating Brand Identity
The aesthetic values you choose to reflect your personal branding have a huge impact on how you are seen in the market. These values can range from extreme (consider Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy), the edgy, altered-communication approach used by graphic artist David Carson, the polished, exploratory design championed by Communication Arts, or the stark simplicity of minimalist design (discussed here in Layers Magazine). Or, consider any number of schools of design that you feel best captures your individual personality, leanings, ideas, and the nature of your writing.
Here’s the tough part. Integrating cohesive design elements into a unified branding approach requires coordinating the diverse media content (both digital and physical) that will be the engine of discovery across the Internet or other traditional media channel. Some level of consistency is key, something that helps spark identification with your brand in an instant.
If you’re an author intent on capitalizing on the multiple venues available these days for reaching an audience, the choices could include the fonts you use on your web pages, in email, in your book; the color palette that defines key visual elements; an engaging musical intro for your podcast; a familiar sign-off phrase for audio segments; a distinctive narrator whose voice becomes associated with your audiobook releases; and on and on.
If you’re considering producing a cinematic-style book trailer as another discovery vehicle, you have a tremendous combination of elements to work with for communicating your personal brand. The cinematic style chosen, the background music, the titling, the pace, the color palettes to set the mood, voiceovers used to tell the story—all of these elements can make a strong impression on a prospective reader of your book.
Working With A Professional Branding Service
Unless you’re an accomplished graphic designer, book designer, web professional, video professional, media strategist, audio narrator, and/or photographer, odds are you’re going to work with one or more pros who are skilled in these specialized tasks. Clearly communicate your intentions—the brand identity you want to establish—to those agencies or individuals you choose to work with. Ideally, you can find willing, collaboratively-minded people to help carry your vision across the digital media or physical formats that will be used to increase the discovery of your book.
If a professional tries to forcefully steer you away from your personal vision to choose their own favorite approach or adopt pet preferences, find someone who listens and builds on your ideas, rather than trying to imprint their own style. If you’re paying attention, you’ll know within the first ten minutes you begin the conversation with a professional if they’re inclined to accept and support your ideas.
Storytelling with Integrity
Part of your brand identity as an author is the openness and integrity of your own personal story, which will be judged and evaluated by those who hear it. Fortunately, in this digital age, you have an incredible variety of media technologies for reaching audiences and communicating with them. Take advantage of the opportunities and approach your prospective readers without guise or pretense. As C.S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
Lee Purcell started out doing technical writing in the heyday of Silicon Valley innovation and ended up in a small town in Vermont, telecommuting, surrounded by 200-year old white pines. More about his technical endeavors can be discovered at lee-purcell.com.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out Why Book Trailers And Cinematic Author Videos Are The New Book Launch!
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