We hear a ton about it. That we need to do it. That our brand is our most important asset. That our branding differentiates us from other authors and offers the reader a clear, instantaneous value statement about what they’re getting when they pick up one of our books.
So what is it? Our cover’s look and feel? Our approach to prose? Our characters and stories? The totality of the reader experience?
The answer is yes. All of that, and more. It is the snapshot that comes to the reader’s mind when they see or hear our name, or the title of one of our books. As an example, James Bond is an incredible brand that instantly conjures up visions of sophisticated super spies, non-stop action, over-the-top plot twists, and malevolent, evil villains. It’s an instant association. That’s the value of the brand – how it immediately informs the consumer of an identifiable cluster of deliverables they can expect.
Once clear on what a brand is, we would do best to examine large corporations that have successfully created and maintained their brands, and how they go about protecting them.
Coca Cola and Pepsi are two classics. Both with eerily similar commodity products, and both mega-corps that have earned billions from their syrupy soft drinks.
They spend many millions each year to keep their logos and names in the public eye. They do this as an expense that must be borne by sales – it’s a necessary part of doing business. Even after a century, they still invest a portion of their revenue into branding, because there are always new customers to be swayed, and people have short memories and a lot of choices.
I got a tremendous amount of response to my last blog about advertising and the shifting sands of the Amazon landscape, which got me thinking about the value of branding. In most industries, you have to pay to brand. It’s that simple. Branding is a sunk cost, a part of the expenses that are required to remain in business. There’s no direct link between the money spent and a rise in sales, nor is there an expectation of one in anything resembling the short term.
But books are different. Or at least, advertising on Zon is different. Here, authors look at ROI on their ads, which is fine (I do). But that misses the big picture. Ads serve two purposes: to drive incremental sales, and to build a brand. The first is where we can measure ROI (return on investment) and tell whether our ads are “working,” but what about the second? Isn’t it curious that we expect that our brand building should post a return when in every other industry it’s a cost, not a revenue source?
My hunch is that our attitude has developed because of two things. First, few authors have real experience operating a business that’s in retail and has any scale. So they have no real context with which to view branding as an ongoing, necessary effort that spans years, and which costs money rather than instantly makes it. Second, they’ve been conditioned to think short term, as in how much did I make this month, rather than looking at the business as a year-over-year marathon where it’s not only about sales, but also defining and strengthening a brand, which will translate into sales and loyalty in the longer term…but not instantaneously.
I suppose my perspective is different, having in a past life worked for a Fortune 500 in marketing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that I can get a positive ROI on my ad campaigns, because it makes it palatable to spend money on what is necessary to build my brand. But I also recognize how lucky I am to do so, because 99% of all companies don’t expect to see any ROI.
Because of our little niche industry, we’re able to actually turn brand building into a profit center, which is unheard of in most segments. That rocks.
I’ve spent seven and a half years building the Russell Blake brand, and continue to invest in doing so. My goal is to establish it as a quality purveyor of differentiated content, that regardless of the genre, sets a high bar for prose, story, pacing, editing, and look and feel. I think I’ve done that with my readership, but the goal is to now expand my reach – the vast majority of readers have never heard of Russell Blake, so the challenge is to get visibility with that vast audience and slowly but surely get them interested in sampling my wares.
In time, the hope is that I provide an experience they can’t get elsewhere, which translates into brand loyalty, and which they trust will meet their expectations regardless of what genre I’m writing in. Advertising helps with that effort, because I’m now seeing new readers trying my books – readers who otherwise wouldn’t have known I existed. The hope is that by increasing my ad spend over time, even if it eventually becomes a break-even exercise, I will collect a larger and larger audience that will go on to read my backlist after finishing whatever book I snagged them with, which will in turn translate into long term success that builds on itself.
So far, so good.
If I have any words of advice for my fellow authors, it would be to read a marketing textbook and pay particular attention to the chapters on brand building, because if you’re to have a career that lasts longer than a toddler’s temper tantrum, without a brand that readers trust you’ll be interchangeable with a thousand others. If you can make money from your brand building effort, super, but even if you have to pay some to do so, you’re only doing what the most successful companies in the world already know they have to do every day…so don’t whine, and bear in mind that any revenue you see from doing it is icing.
In summary, measuring advertising dollar ROI is important when evaluating whether a campaign is generating directly attributable sales, but misses the point on brand building, where it’s also delivering value that isn’t immediately evident or measurable but should have an accretive impact over the longer term.
My grandmother used to say that quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. A relevant pseudo-corollary is that branding is remembered long after the sale is forgotten. So there’s a short term objective, and a longer range goal that’s more important to a lengthy career than how your last month did. As retail marketers/publishers we have to be sensitive to both, and grin and bear it when we’re not hitting lofty ROI goals but we’ve increased our reach.
Those are my thoughts, such as they are. Everyone have a happy holiday, and if you missed my blog on advertising and my recent revelations as I navigate the Amazon ad waters, refer to my blog from a few weeks back for more info.