Sunday, November 3, 2013

Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should: A Lesson for Artists on How To Stay on Target and In Brand

My parents deserve a lot of credit.  They went from scratching their heads over whose genes produced (my investment banker dad or my happy homemaker mom?) of-all-things-an-artist to happily paying my RISD tuition.  My mom particularly has become one of my biggest fans, chatting up her friends while passing out her personal stash of my business cards.

But here’s the synopsis of my most recent phone conversation with mom (don’t worry, I don’t have a transcript nor will I bore you with the blow by blow): my parents were recently visiting my brother and his family when my mom happened upon some Halloween decorations on display in the guest bathroom (see image).  She asked my sister-in-law where one can buy these little “Halloween people”.  Laughing, my sister-in-law told her I made them.
My mom phoned to tell me I just HAVE to start mass-producing little Halloween people.  She envisioned hordes of frenzied Halloween fans clamoring for these collectibles.  She offered to parade them into greeting card stores and gift shops where I’m sure the underpaid staff would be thrilled by her enthusiastic intrusion.  And she volunteered to man my booth at many a craft fair in her neck o’ the woods.  Her idea was to box them up (she mentioned we should order well-designed packages) in groups of five and sell them for $15 a set.
This is all fine and good.  And there was a part of me-albeit very small-that was tempted to take her up on the offer.  But then I remembered the process of making little Halloween people.  Hours were spent carefully covering each tiny body in paint.  Layer after layer was applied.  Yes, they were cute.  But their purpose was to serve as party favors.  I just needed to remind myself that this was their SOLE purpose.

If you are an artist I am going to bet that you are talented at doing many different things. It is wonderful that you can whip icing into shape on a birthday cake or arrange the flowers just so.  Visit any weekend art event or many an online shop and you will witness the Artist Who is Good at Making Many Different Things.  She usually has everything from beaded necklaces to decoupage vases in her booth or on Etsy.  But if you want to be a professional artist who is serious about your craft, I hate to break it to you: you have to choose ONE THING to focus on.

Like any business you benefit from creating a consistent message and mission.  Your brand needs to be as homogenous as possible across the board.  You define your brand through your product (the work you create), your marketing (the materials you use to display, package, & promote your product), the events you are involved in, how you handle yourself professionally and how you treat others.  The greater your consistency=the more memorable your brand.
I just mentioned the same goes for the events you are involved in-how you are getting your work in front of the public.  For creative entrepreneurs who are just getting started, I recommend they participate in anything and everything.  How else are they going to learn who is attracted to their product (their audience)? How else can they hone their business skills?  How else can they begin to formulate the visual aspects of their brand (display materials, packaging, collateral materials such as business cards and flyers)?  However, as an artist becomes more certain of the direction they want their brand to go they have to become intentional about the ways they present their work to the world.  Going back to my mom’s proposal of setting up a booth at local crafts fairs-I am not a craftsperson; I am a fine artist.  Having 1) my mom + 2) man booths at church bazaars and holiday festivals = compromises my brand.  My mission is to produce high-quality fine art.  If I indulge in this side product I am diluting the time and energy I need to focus on my mission.  I am diluting the consistency and quality of my product.  And I am diluting the message of my brand.  Sure, it sounds fun, but it serves no greater purpose. In order to succeed you have to focus on the greater purpose.

Now at this point some of you may be saying, “But I HAVE to knit sweaters for kittens and be a watercolorist!! How can I decide?” If you truly have enough time/money/energy to passionately pursue both, more power to you.  I would suggest either separating the two endeavors or blending them.  If you separate the two make sure they have separate brands (brand name/logo/color scheme/visuals, etc.) and are not exhibited together (choose which you plan to share at art events and make sure the two have separate online shops, for example).  If you decide to blend the two make sure the theme runs through every product.  For example, knit sweaters for kittens but also sell cat-themed water color paintings.
The objective is to keep your branding constant across the board.

How do I decide what is worthwhile for my brand and what isn’t?
Good question!  First of all, be prepared to make mistakes.  Every one of us no matter how many years we have under our belt will inevitably find ourselves at the absolutely wrong event for our brand.  Or we will start to follow a creative path that takes all our prior endeavors down the rabbit hole.  (I should mention, if you find you are no longer passionate about the type of work and branding you have been doing up until now; if you feel your work is truly setting off in an entirely new direction, it is time to rethink and rebuild your brand.  I know.  I’ve done it.)

In order to lessen the chances of wasting a lot of time/money/energy and weakening the impact of your brand, you have to KNOW your brand inside and out.  Start by writing a Mission Statement.  Ask yourself: Why do I create art? What do I want to do with my art? Who do I create art for?  You should also write a Personal Manifesto: What can I live with (what isn’t ideal, but livable)? What can I live without (what are you willing to sacrifice)? What can I not live with (what would be too compromising)? What can I not live without (what is absolutely vital)?

The Mission Statement and Personal Manifesto are the foundation for your brand.  They will help you mold your product, your marketing, even determine the superficial elements like color scheme and fonts.  They will help you select the type of events you participate in.  And they will help you model your business practices and the ways you interact with customers.  Many people hear the word “brand” and think of a logo, but no- brand is the heart of a business.  It is the core values and intention. How you share that heart (your product, your marketing, your events…) is up to you.

Learn to say “No.”

Everyone needs to learn to say no.  Not saying no pulls you in all sorts of pointless directions.  The better you understand your brand and your path the easier it will be to turn down Aunt Suzie’s request for a family portrait when you only paint landscapes. You can avoid the neighborhood craft fair when your work is aimed toward high-end art galleries.  I am constantly barraged with requests to create items I simply do not create.  And more often than not the time and energy it would take me to make the item is hardly worth the money I would make.

So…Mom, I love you and I appreciate the support.  But I don’t see little Halloween people in your future-or mine.