Creating a successful “brand” as a photographer

September 8, 2016

Successful photographers are very careful with their brand — and with good reason! Everyone praises the Apple’s brand (which has a value of $145 billion USD) and agrees that Jared Fogle’s sex crimes were bad news for Subway’s brand. But if you ask any three people what the word “brand” really means, I bet you’ll get 3 different definitions. Worse, though most agree that branding is important, very few can explain why it is important.

What I hope to do here is turn the definition of branding upside down for you so that, from this new perspective, your understanding of branding is deeper and more actionable.

An Upside Down Definition of Brand

The word “brand” is old and originally meant fire, flames, and touch. Think of the old (and insensitive) practice of branding a cow with a heated iron in order to identify ownership. Unfortunately, branding one’s photography business is not much more sophisticated than this process. If the cow is their business, the iron is their logo and slogan.

This unrefined approach to branding results from the common misconception that branding is something that one does to their business. A website is established, colors are chosen, a slogan and a logo and done up and slapped on.  Defined this way, a brand is all the stuff that is tacked on to your photography business — it’s a brand-aid applied to a wounded enterprise.

It’s more useful to define brand as what your client perceives and believes about you. Brand is not what you do, it’s how you’re viewed.

When Forbes magazine declares that Apple’s brand is worth $145 billion, this means that many are aware of the brand, many trust the brand, are willing buy from them (over competitors) and pay premium, and spread the word. Notice that the value of the brand isn’t about how cool the logo is, or how their slogan, “think different”, is persuasive. Of course, all this stuff is important for shaping how people view Apple, but it’s people’s collective view that is the brand.

The brand is firmly anchored in the psychology of customers. It’s how others feel about Apple.  If this is our definition of a brand, then creating a brand is nothing other than making an impression on people — not only that, but a powerful impression that converts the right people into clients. Some photographers have absolutely mastered this skill, so let’s take a few case studies.

The Stories They Tell

As you may already know, Two Mann Studios blew up the wedding photography world when Lanny and Erika Mann (the husband and wife duo who make up Two Mann Studios) won 1st and 2nd place for the 2015 FearLess awards. If you visit their website, you’ll see that they have many awards and accolades noted there, from very prestigious sources. Looking at the photography they display online is startling. It’s extremely contrastive, the colors are heavily saturated, the compositions and lighting are unconventional and photographers struggle to figure out how they did it, and the content of the photos is often risky, cheeky, playful, or emotionally charged. They name their workshop “Balls Out Wedding Photography” and “The Art of Getting Lucky”.

Two Mann is telling a story. If Apple’s brand tells a story about innovation and good taste, Two Mann tells a story about mind-blowing, award-winning photographs of your wild and epic wedding.

Sam Hurd is another photographer whose brand is obvious and effective. Like Two Mann, epic is part of the story he tells, but a different kind of epic. His “epic portrait series” are in one sense conventional: they’re a well-lit headshot (albeit of celebrity-status people). He shot them epically, however, by using the brenizer method with off-camera flash from a very close perspective to create very interesting images.  When shooting, he often holds prisms up to his camera lens to create unusual reflections and light flares.  The technique, “prisming“, is now associated with Hurd. He’s also known for “freelensing” — using a broken lens to create unique photos. His photos are subtle, pretty, painterdly, mysterious, sometimes grainy and disarming. There’s something mythic in his images. Navigation of his website is equally as unusual (I’d been to his site many times before I realized how to navigate his personal work section!).

Sam Hurd is also telling a story.  It’s about artistic expression, visual refinement, using the camera creatively — about pushing the limits of optics and light and making mystery.

To understand this aspect of branding better, it’s useful to try to do this for yourself.  Look at the Todd Laffler’s website and, using his photos, what he says about himself, his logo — everything — describe the story he’s telling. Then figure out the story of your biggest competitor. Then, begin asking yourself what kind of story you want to tell.

Stories to Believe

Ashley Madison tells the story that extramarital affairs are a good idea, and that they can help you do it discretely.  Of course, it’s awfully hard to believe them because they got hacked and the data was leaked. When you see a real-estate agent’s face and slogan (“#1 trusted and knowledgeable property specialist in the city!”) plastered on a park bench, do you believe him? Probably not. The real-estate agent hasn’t told a compelling enough story, and Ashley Madison hasn’t kept its promise.

To tell a compelling and believable story these days demands authenticity — telling true enough stories. Two Mann Studios doesn’t position themselves as bold, daring and mind-blowing because they’ve analyzed the market and saw an opportunity there. They did it because they are bold, adventurous and sporty individuals — if photography were a sport, they’d be playing the extreme sports version. Sam Hurd doesn’t photograph in a way comparable to sports, I don’t think. But similar to Two Mann, his refined, experimentive style isn’t just market-positioning either — it’s what he genuinely likes and feels compelled to do. I truly believe that if he couldn’t make a living as a photographer, he’d come home after his day job and still shoot with prisms and broken lenses. It’s in him. Neither Two Mann nor Sam Hurd are going to follow Pinterest trends or do traditional wedding photography because it’s not them. And if they did it, we’d be let down, wouldn’t we? If they posted a bunch of photos that conformed to Pinterest trends, it would weaken the stories that surround them, and thus, dilute their brand

To tell your story, you have to figure out what your story is. Ask yourself the tough questions and let yourself struggle with them. What do you love shooting? Why? How do you want your images to look? Does your photography make people look pretty? Dignified? Unusual? Funky? Mysterious?  Do you want to shoot wild weddings? Intimate ceremonies? Are you award winning? Do you have a talent for connecting with clients? Do you want to specialize in outdoor hippie weddings? Are you a master at off-camera flash or working really well with natural light? Are you the cheapest photographer in town? Do you have the best albums or the fastest turnaround times? What are the things that are really important to you? Get curious about yourself as a photographer, and then tell your story.

The Story You Tell

Remember: you can tell your story, but your brand is what others perceive you to be. You can tell the story that you care deeply about your clients, but if your potential client has to wait too long for a reply to their email and when it does come, it’s a generic response, you’ve probably lost their trust — they’re telling themselves a different story about you. If you claim to have the best albums and then you cut costs by providing the cheapest China-made albums you can find, then those flimsy pages and mediocre binding will shape your brand in the minds of everyone who sees your album.  If your clients are upset enough, she might say something on Facebook and further lessen the value of your brand. The story isn’t in your control except when clients interface directly with you. Consistent storytelling demands that you make promises that you’re fully prepared to keep.

The only way to do this, is to live your story, to be authentic. In other words, Apple’s slogan, “think different” was something that Steve Jobs embodied, and he attracted the right people when he told his story. It was beautiful marketing because for him, it was true.

As you tell your own story, you may find yourself feeling anxious. This is a good sign! You’re really putting yourself out there to be accepted or rejected — and some people will reject you. But the people who find you because what you live will resonate and love you. If you adore movie-themed weddings, go for it. You will find your people. Very few niches are too small!  Allebach photography has reached enormous success by focusing on tattooed brides.

As you tell your story, it’s important to remember that every point of contact that a customer has with your business is an opportunity to tell your story. If part of your story is friendly professionalism, then all points of contact (email, phone, website, blog posts) should embody this. Then, when a past clients tells her friend that you are ” OMG, so friendly and so professional!”, that becomes part of your brand, and it is spreading.  When a potential clients receives an email from your Gmail account instead of a more professional-sounding email server, that also becomes part of your brand too. If you’re trying to tell a story of luxury, the quality of paper your business cards are printed on will either reinforce your story or undermine it. The font you choose tells a story.

Noteworthy Points of Contact:

  1. Your website is, in many cases, your first and most powerful impression on a potential client.  Unless you’re either an experienced coder or you’re paying to have your website built, WordPress, is your best option by far, for website creation. It offers the most flexibility in terms of branding (as well as many other features, including SEO control).  Many themes are available for WordPress, enabling you to achieve precisely the look and feel that tells the story you want to tell.  Themes are available to give your site a funky flavor, an edgy mood, a pretty pastels vibe, or whatever else  etc. Once you achieve exactly the look and feel, there are plugins that further expand the capability of your website. One plugin particularly relevant here is my very own Sunshine Photo Cart, which allows photographers to extend their brand/story to more points of contact for their clients, specifically, the clients’ galleries.  Instead of hosting your client galleries on a 3rd party site (like SmugMug, for example), which directs clients to a different URL with a different design, Sunshine allows photographers to keep client galleries within their own site, with their own URL, and contained within their own branding.  The main benefit of this is that if your brand is vintage (for example), your clients galleries will maintain your brand integrity.  Another advantage is that it allows photographers to side-step transaction fees.
  2. The way you pose and light your subjects, and your subsequent post-production, all give a look and feel that ought to be consistent with your brand.  Sensual posing doesn’t necessarily fit into a story about fashion-forward stoicism. Grainy, matte, and desaturated images don’t lend themselves to a bold and modern story. CreativeLive offers wonderful courses on how to sharpen these skills.
  3. Upwork, Fiverr and 99Designs are great places to have design work done, as well as copywriting.
  4. Design Aglow is cornucopia of ready-made customizable templates for marketing, welcoming packages, price lists, emails, blog, printing, and more.
  5. The products that you offer to your clients — albums, canvases, prints — all create a strong impression on your client.  Unfortunately for you, it’s not easy to judge whether a particular company offers exactly what you’re looking for (ideally, you want to hold an album in your hands to judge its quality), and buying albums from all the companies that you’re interested in can quickly become extremely expensive. If you get yourself to photography conventions, like Mystic Seminars and WPPI, lots of vendors also attend and you’ll have a chance to get your hands on some of their work, to educate yourself, and to offer your clients products that fit seamlessly into your brand.

Conclusion

To create a successful brand, like Two Mann, Sam Hurd, or Mike Allebach, it’s best to do it through stories. We humans love stories so much that if you don’t tell a story, we’ll make one up about you.  The best stories are those that come from a place of authenticity. Consumers are used to be being marketed at — through TV commercial, Facebook ads, Youtube ads, everywhere — and they’re good at ignoring, and they’re suspicious of people trying to make a quick buck. An authentic story is consistent, and people can resonate with real stories. You’re telling it because it’s you. From the case studies provided, hopefully your wheels are turning now on what your story is, and how you can best tell it.

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