Writing Discussion

Branding and Authenticity

I’ve been mulling over Nathan Bransford’s post on There is no such thing as a brand recently.

The talk about ‘building a brand’ and ‘you are a brand’ in the writing community makes me feel uncomfortable. I once ran an online business, and building a brand was one of the things I need to work on from the get go. It was about customer experience, and whom I wanted to attract to the shop. It was tied to the product, and selling it. The brand was not about me. This is why the focus on branding bothers me. I don’t enjoy thinking of myself as a commodity to be pushed and sold.

I think we need to take a look at what branding means in marketing terms: brand is a way of showcasing the value of a product to a potential customer, and differentiating why your product is better or different from every other similar product on the market.

What is a brand if you are an author? How important is it?

When I look at the blogs that stand out in my memory, I notice that they fall into several categories a) have a wicked sense of humor, b) are honest and relatable, or c) are full of  info that I need at present. In most cases it’s authenticity, or the author’s voice (a & b) that keeps me engaged in the long term.

I think it’s more useful to think about which aspects of your personality you feel comfortable showcasing to the public, rather than artificially creating a brand for the web. People respond to authenticity. It’s easy to see who’s only trying to sell something (turns me off), and who’s faking it (those bloggers usually don’t last).

I’ve got no books out in stores right now. I really have nothing to sell to you, and if I ever do, I hope that my personality doesn’t taint your reading of my work. I think that sometimes knowing less is better than knowing more. That being said, I still think I censor too much. I’ve got to rethink what I’m comfortable sharing.

Those are just a few miscellaneous and rambling thoughts. What do you think about branding?

26 Comments

  1. Your last paragraph = me too.

    I worked at a branding/design firm, so I have some additional insights into branding as a concept/practice, but it’s very different to brand a person than to brand a product or even a company.

    I used to worry about “my brand” a lot — and still sometimes the doubts and fears creep in — but mostly I try to remind myself that a good story will always have a readership. If I have to use pen names to work in all the different styles/genres I want, then so be it. Or maybe I’ll find a way to bridge it all under one umbrella — to grow my brand so that it represents all my interests.

    Whatever the solution, that’s not my job. (At least not right now, and hopefully not ever.) My job right now is just to write good stories. And that’s hard enough.

    1. You’re right, it’s very different, and almost confining, to brand an individual. It sure is hard to write, good stories, and even harder to know whether they’re good or bad, but branding is not much use if my writing sucks.

  2. Wow, right on. “I think it’s more useful to think about which aspects of your personality you feel comfortable showcasing to the public, rather than artificially creating a brand for the web.” Thumbs up for this insight!

    I dunno about myself. I guess I’m pretty authentic online. For instance, I DO actually talk about my plants in real life. 🙂 But like you said, I don’t talk about my little obsessions, or post pictures of my face, etc.

    What parts of your life do you want to show…Very well put. I like that. 🙂

  3. “My job right now is just to write good stories. And that’s hard enough.” That’s how I feel.

    I don’t really think about my “brand,” but I do think about my blog. I want it to be interesting, and well-organized (I put a lot of thought into the tags and categories, and linking from one post to another when it I think it would be useful, and even occasionally adding little postscripts to earlier posts when things change). I update at least once a week (hey, for six years now), on the same day. I write pretty consistently about the same general topics (writing, books, movies, occasionally web technology, self-publishing, etc.). I try to make sure I don’t have typos, and that the punctuation is correct.

    I do have a book for sale, but the purpose of the blog is not to sell the book (I have another blog for that). I have a commodity, as you say, but I am not a commodity, and I give the writing away whenever I can. If I had a million dollars, I’d have a form on my website where you could enter your name and address and I’d send you my book for nothing.

    1. It is hard enough!

      If I had a million dollars I’d do the same 😉 I’d just write whatever I wanted and not care if it sold. I still don’t focus on the ‘selling’, but a day job makes it harder to focus on writing as a whole.

  4. Brands are in a funny category of things. They don’t exist like a dog or bicycle does. But that set of notions in people’s heads that they share, relating to a product, company or company are real, even if they don’t physically exist. Whether or not you want to call it a “brand,” I think it’s a dodge to simply say it’s not there.

    His argument that you might not be able to control it, or that you are not synonymous with a brand, are apt. I was pretty disappointed in all the arguments beyond that.

    1. Not to put words in his mouth, but I don’t think he was saying brands aren’t real. He was saying that you can’t *construct* a brand if a large part of its presence is based online/in social media — you can only *shape* a brand based on something authentic.

    2. The key thing that stuck to me from the post is that people tend to respond to authenticity, and that brands can’t be completely artificial (all pretense) or they tend to fall apart over the long haul.

      I suppose your brand is really whatever impression I can glean of you online, deliberate or not.

      Still, the thought of professionally constructing a personal brand really gives me the heebie jeebies. We once had someone come in to work to speak about doing that for our careers. I was horrified.

      1. Constructing a brand bothers me, too. I’ve never been comfortable selling myself. I’m too much of a self-loather and, honestly, not much of a salesman to begin with.

        Another part of his argument I don’t buy is the narrow focus on authenticity. Now, when I sense authenticity in a brand, I do respond to it. But really what I’m responding to is what I think is truth, not what is truth. We get scandal after scandal possibly invalidating some celebrity’s public face. To use a horrible example, in high school I remember when two NFL players were accused of rape. The public opinion was that of course those rich, cocky jocks would do that. It was read as authentic. A week later, when the charges were found false, they didn’t get many apologies. And from our distance, we’d actually never knew the truth even after the charges were dropped. She could have been intimidated into silence. All we have is fairly blind opinion. I suspect that runs for our opinions of brands all the way up to the most seemly.

  5. Well, for me the importance of brand is different when it comes to a writer’s website and/or blog vs. their books, so it’s not so simple an answer, heh.

    For their websites and blogs, I agree: authenticity matters most to me, but also the content’s relevancy to my current experience as well as my own compatibility with the writer’s personality. (If I sense I’m gonna be clashing heads non-amicably the whole way, then there’s really no point in me corresponding with that person.) Having an attractive, solid brand–a visual one, anyway–online is nice and all, but not necessarily a deal-breaker for me (unless I just can’t read anything on the site, lol). I just need to be able to easily tell what the writer is about so I can assess whether they have to offer is relevant or right for me.

    As for books, however, well…the visual and conceptual aspects of authors’ “brands” are actually quite important to me; their personalities typically have very little to do with whether I purchase their books. I will likely walk away from or ignore a bad or uninteresting cover design, I’m sorry to say (even though most times this is not even the author’s fault)…unless I’ve already heard good things about the novel beforehand or specifically sought out a novel based of my own search criteria and am initially driven to purchase it based off one of those things. Though, catchy titles also play a role sometimes, but mostly it’s the visual aspects that have the greatest chance at capturing my attention–even when I buy online.

    So looking at both of these things together…branding is only important to me as far as being able to easily identify authors’ sites and products visually. Otherwise, I think it’s more important for writers to focus on sharing their thoughts and ideas in a manner that is true to themselves. I guess you can think of them together as being the complete “brand package,” but then that just blurs the personal side with the business–which to me are two very different things serving different purposes.

    Just because I read someone’s blog doesn’t mean I’ll buy and read their novels, and vice versa, believe it or not. Sometimes I just like to connect with like-minded people intellectually or read what they have to say online, even if the concepts behind their novels don’t necessarily interest me much. If I read someone’s blog a lot, though, and they have a novel(s) out, then I’ll likely buy one in the end because that’s the considerate thing to do. 😛

    1. Oh yes, I do the same thing. Following a blog does not mean I’ll end up buying the author’s books. It might help me remember their name, however, recommendations from friends/review blogs are more often the reason I’ll decide to buy a book, not the author’s personality.

  6. I’m going to have to disagree… particularly with Mr. Bransford, but in general with the idea that branding isn’t important.

    Bransford’s opinion seems driven by a fundamental misapprehension of what a “brand” is. He calls it “a cultivated fiction”, which isn’t an accurate statement at all. And he starts off his argument by stating “there is no such thing as a brand”, which is sticking-my-head-in-the-sand disavowal of the facts.

    It doesn’t matter whether an author wants to actively develop their brand image. It doesn’t matter whether they are trying to do anything about it or are ignoring it. The fact is, if they are interacting with the public, they have a brand image. It’s there, regardless of whether you want it to be there or not. Ignoring your brand image is an invitation to allow others to define your brand for you.

    Branding, historically, is primarily a way of signifying and identifying the qualities of a product or service. Originally, it was a mark that was burned onto the hides of cattle that identified whose cattle they were. Today, a brand is more than a mark, but the mark is a signifier of the brand. If you have your name on a book, then the book has been branded with your name. It’s not a matter of choosing to “brand a person” versus branding a product. The person is not branded – the product is branded. But in the case of an author and a book, a person’s name – the author’s name – is the mark by which the product is identified. And readers who encounter that name will have some presuppositions about the content and quality of that book based on their impressions of the author’s name. Those presuppositions will be built up by the sum total of the reader’s experiences with that author’s name – and those experiences will include past stories or books by that author that the reader may have read as well as any other media impressions (social or otherwise) that the reader has had of that author.

    Bransford’s point that the internet (and social media in particular) abhors inauthenticity is well-taken. But branding in general abhors inauthenticity, at least with regard to how a consumer is likely to interact with that brand. If a brand attempts to promise delivering a certain quality that the products branded in that way universally fail to deliver, that inauthenticity will be part of the impressions a consumer has of the product.

    The really pernicious aspect of Bransford’s argument, however, is that inasmuch as a large amount of social media is of a written form… that has a very powerful impact on how readers will perceive a writer, because it translates very directly into the form in which the reader expects to interact with that author’s products.

    So yes… ultimately, as an author, your work is the most important aspect you can focus on in developing and maintaining a brand, because that’s the primary object of communication about the qualities you want to demonstrate. If your books aren’t any good… that will be a powerful and potentially insurmountable impact on your brand. But how you interact on social media will inform reader’s impressions of your brand (inasmuch as readers are interacting with you via social media), whether you want it to or not. Pretending that it doesn’t doesn’t make it so…

    Maybe it’s comforting to pretend we don’t have to think about those things. But being a writer isn’t supposed to make us feel comfortable. Nobody owes us that. And it’s not someone else’s job. Only one person, ultimately, is responsible for the impressions readers will have of you and your name. If you cede that responsibility to someone else… well… you won’t get much say, then, it what others think of you. And that’s not a comfortable place to be, either.

    Anyway, that’s my take. Be authentic. Write well. But don’t ignore how you represent yourself online. Because it matters.

      1. LOL That is long enough for a blog post!

        Tangentially, does it have an impact on how you experience a book? As I was discussing with Tiyana, I may enjoy an author’s blog/public persona, yet usually have no inclination to buy any of the writer’s books. I have also found myself disappointed when I have picked up a book by a writer I discovered online via blog I enjoyed. Though both are written mediums, one has no bearing on whether or not I’ll find the other writing style enjoyable.

      2. It can have an impact, but not necessarily so. For instance, in blind taste tests people often suggest they like Pepsi more than Coke, and yet Coke has enjoyed a superior market position, and if the same question is asked with brands revealed, more people tend to prefer Coke. The brand is clearly having an impact on people’s experience of the product.

        What confuses the issue with blogging and writing books, however, is that blogs and books are both, in a sense, similar types of product (as well as the blog serving as a type of marketing platform) with different functions and qualities. The qualities that make for a successful blog are not necessarily the qualities that will make for a successful/enjoyable novel reading experience. The skills required to do one well are not all necessarily the same skills required to do the other well.

        The point in branding is… you want a potential reader’s impressions of you through a medium like a blog to reflect the same impression you want to give that potential reader when they see your name on a book.

        As an example of a blog where branding works (whether he’s actively, consciously cultivating this or not I can’t say, but it is having the effect) is on John Scalzi’s blog. Scalzi regularly demonstrates an irreverant sort of humor on his blog that I’ve found mirrored in what fiction of his that I’ve read. That’s a consistent quality that’s present and communicated on the blog as well as in the actual fiction. So you know when you pick up a Scalzi book that there will be a certain sort of irreverant humor somewhere in there.

        Basically… the key to branding isn’t really “authenticity” (as Wiswell suggests above, authenticity is actually a negotiable quality of a brand), but consistency. There are several paths to that consistency (though I can’t say for sure I’m actually following any of those paths, myself), but achieving it is probably the most important part of cultivating a specific brand identity.

        …I think I’m going to have to write my own post on the subject. I’ve got my own take, I guess, what with having an MBA and having studied branding in my MBA.

      3. You definitely should. I’d really like to know your thoughts on it.

        I still haven’t worked entirely through why the idea of ‘branding’ bothers me so much. I’m still chewing on that part. One of my best friends recently admitted she doesn’t like reading this blog, because it doesn’t reflect my personality (the comments do more, I think!). What I post here (nonfiction) on this blog is rarely consistent with the kind of fiction that I write, in tone or subject or style. Thoughts are whirling about, but they haven’t settled.

      4. Lol.

        I think you and Nathan are actually saying more or less the same thing. He’s saying, You can’t let your brand drive your content; you’re saying, Your content is what makes up your brand.

        (I’m using “content” loosely — your books, your tweets, your headshot, etc.)

        In other words:

        Brand –X–> content. VERSUS Content —–> brand.

        Those are very similar posits. (If you can decipher my computer graphic, that is…)

    1. Brad

      I agree this is a misapplication of the word “brand”, which is shocking because it’s coming from the mouth of a former agent. His post, “On the internet there is no such thing as a brand” is as disturbing to me as the $10,600 Kim Khardashian gets paid for each branded Tweet — and the internet didn’t expose Tiger Woods, a screaming Swedish woman letting loose with a three iron on a brand new Escalade did.

      The gist of his post is to publicly announce that he isn’t going to use it to pump sales of his book. He isn’t going to tweak the message to get more sales of Wonderbar. That’s all well and good, but then the sidebar has the cover art, and links, and a where to buy it information. His post is a lesser version of the starlet’s “I may be famous and rich now, but I’m not going to forget that humble little farm town I came from.”

      1. Brad

        It’s more useful to think of writing to a market. Ultimately that is how you’re going to sell your book. You’re going to show (to an agent) how it works for a specific market, how it hits on all the things that market wants.

        Later, if you manage to achieve success (in terms of sales), you will be shoehorned into adhering to the brand you’ve created because the agent will tell you they can sell another book just like the last one, and they will less interested in something new and different. Being a writer, and desperately wanting to please, you will give them exactly what they ask for.

  7. I certainly censor much of what I could put on my blog, on twitter, or on Facebook. Most of this is from the standpoint that I’m not cleverly witty and therefore, it probably doesn’t matter. Much of what I’m learning (slow baby steps about writing) isn’t fantastically new, but something that I’ve gleaned in a way that my lizard brain finally understands.

    However, with respect to platform, I see a variety in what is happening among published authors. Stephen mentioned Scalzi and I find his pushing his books over the top. Fortunately, I’ve got an RSS reader and it’s easy to skip those posts. What I really enjoy is his Big Idea posts and it is a redeeming quality of his blog because he isn’t just pushing himself but other authors as well. However, I think Scalzi is an extreme outlier. I believe Tim Pratt is probably a better average author example. He does talk about his books (but not as relentlessly as Scalzi) and more when news occurs like he’s finished one or the publication date passed. He published two of his novels on his website when one series was cancelled and the other book didn’t get any bites from publishers.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      I suppose a lot of it depends on what you want out of your blog too. I don’t know if blogging really helps all that much in terms of direct book sales. It likely plays a factor, but not as large as word of mouth or other means… the genre circles online really aren’t that big (at least, it seems to me).

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