Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why We Do What We Do: A Shout Out for The Focusing Series

I don’t know about you, but when I was in art school the professors did everything they could to undo community-building.  Whenever possible they would remind us students that we were competitors not comrades. This fostered a sense of paranoia, pulling us further and further away from each other.  By the time most of us graduated we had no desire to interact with our fellow alumni ever again.

While this strategy may have been helpful in the past, I don’t think it is realistic in our current age and economy.  These days it is all about mentors, partnerships and networking.  I applaud the fact business has evolved from “every man for himself” to “it takes a village”. 
The Focusing Series was created out of a need to build that village in the art community.  I witnessed hostility rather than nurturing.  Wouldn’t artists benefit more from collaboration rather than competition?  They could learn from each other, develop products and projects together, and strengthen each other through wisdom and hands-on help so that the entire group could become more successful.
Many of us inadvertently hide in our studios in an effort to be productive while ironically missing out on developing as a professional.  Artists cling to the dated stereotype of being “scatterbrained” and “flighty”.  But in this day and age, as handmade becomes a valued commodity it is vital for artists to be able to handle the business side of their craft as skillfully as they do the crafting.
The Focusing Series is all about teaching those skills while providing a support system.  Our team is experts in their respective fields who are eager to impart their techniques. We teach small groups to allow each student a personalized lesson he or she can utilize successfully.  And because we understand the difficulties of an art career-including the frequent lack of funds-our workshops are inexpensive.
I can’t tell you how often artists will tell me they know they are missing out on opportunities and making mistakes because they don’t know what they are doing.  And yet, these artists are often the ones who never bother to register for the very workshops they need!  The Focusing Series has made it simple to sign up for education.  We even have a Lessons to Go section in our catalog.  These workshops can be scheduled at the time/date/location of your choice!  And my Two-Day Boot Camp is a one-stop-shopping experience to give you all you need to take your art career to the next level.
To view the entire catalog, click here.
I am encouraged by the beginning of this year’s Focusing Series.  This is our third full year in a row.  In January instructor Julie Boyer taught students how to nurture one’s creative practice.  This month I am psyched about Kathleen Robey’s accounting workshop: Bookkeeping & Deductions & Taxes, Oh My!  As a CPA, Kathleen has worked with many artrepreneurs and knows exactly how a creative business operates.  It is vital to understand the financial aspect of your art career, so take advantage of this opportunity!  Registration ends at 12pm Friday, February 21.
The greatest reward I receive from directing the FocusingSeries is seeing the immediate, positive results our students experience when they apply what they’ve learned to their creative enterprise.  Students have called The Focusing Series a “life-changer”.  And it is fantastic to see a caring, encouraging creative community develop as a result.  If you haven’t already, I hope you step out of the studio and join us!


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Girl with the Yellow Shoes: How Are You Making Sure You Stand Out?

As a young teenager my sense of fashion was unique, but horribly misguided.  When I was fourteen or fifteen I owned a pair of ballet flats in loud, mustard yellow.  I walked to school every day, often wearing those shoes. 

I was reserved in my younger years.  My family moved around a lot, making me more reserved with each relocation.  By the time we had settled in Atlanta I wasn't one to actively seek out attention and if the focus was on me I felt uncomfortable.  So you can imagine my surprise when, during my sophomore year at the Rhode Island School of Design, a fellow student approached me to ask if-back in high school-I wore yellow shoes.

It turns out that this student had temporarily attended my Atlanta high school and his father would drive him to school every morning.  He said as they neared the school and saw me, his father would sigh and say, “Ah, there she is.  The girl with the yellow shoes.”
While I wasn't the least attractive girl in high school I certainly wasn't the hottest.  But those yellow shoes grabbed attention (of at least two people).  And judging from the reaction of the father when his son introduced us at a Parent's Weekend, the impression had stuck.

Now at this point you are probably saying, “Nice story, but what's your point?” Well, my point is this: your brand needs yellow shoes. 

You can't just count on your talent or the stellar product you create/the stellar service you offer (I hate to break it to you, but it may not be as awesome as you think).  And don’t even think about slicing the competition with your bargain basement prices. Nope.  In order to have success, in order to have a fortified brand, you have to have nuance-that indelible something that separates you from the crowd.

Find Your Heart

Remember, people don't want a product or a service.  They want an experience.  And as a small business you have the edge on all the bigwigs.  Amazon.com can't provide the personalization customers long for.  Define the heart of your brand and share it with the world. 

Let's say you are a candy maker.  Great.  There are thousands of other candy makers in the world, from fellow artisans to small Mom & Pop shops to corporations.  How are you going to attract customers to your candy versus the option of grabbing a snack at the corner store?  Your candy costs more and it is less convenient to purchase.  You have to figure out how to differentiate your candy from the competition.  Think of how you can make your product unique in both variety and presentation.  What are some clever ways you can express product value.  What are the extra touches (benefits) one gains when choosing your brand over another.

Why do you make candy?  Is it because one of your most treasured memories is grandpa teaching you how to make candy in his old Southern kitchen, the one with the yellow flowered wallpaper?  Make this part of your brand's story: the name, the packaging (perhaps your label could be affixed to a swatch of antique yellow wallpaper-it's easy to create a jpeg that can be printed again and again, and then tied on with a piece of twine or burlap), the marketing. The ideas are endless-as long as they are consistent in theme.

Create Value

Value is more important than price.  Perceived value is more important than actual value. Remember, customers want an experience not just a product or service.  Name brands get away with charging exorbitant prices because they have masterfully crafted prestige around their product/service.  Through consistent marketing message these companies sell consumers the idea that life will be improved through purchasing their brand.  

How are you constructing value around what you offer?  Successfully building value will make it easy for customers to choose you over your competitors.

Know What You Sell

When you know your story, when you understand every nook and cranny of your brand's heart, your branding will be stronger and smarter because the message will be clearer and more consistent.

But I'm Already Marketing the Heck Out of My Brand!

Yeah, well so are your competitors.  We all have access to the same methods of marketing through websites, commerce sites like etsy, and social media.  And guess what, your corporate competitors have the megabucks needed for endless television and print campaigns.  They can also undersell you any day of the week.

If we go back to offering an experience rather than just a product or service...remember, you have to understand thoroughly what you are selling and why.  To get started on learning your brand, ask yourself these questions:

Why do I create this product or offer this service? (Why do you do what you do?)

What do I want to do with my product or service?

Who do I create this product or offer this service for?

How is my product or service unique?

What do I offer that no one else offers?

What do I provide that no one else provides?

Find Nuance through Niche

I'm not suggesting everyone should do this, but if your product or service is one that is all too easy to come by (photography, massage, jewelry, yoga, etc...) you have a greater need to pinpoint how you can stand out.  If your product or services are specialized in some way, it makes it simple to target your audience and tell your story.

For example, jewelry is tough.  There is a ton of competition.  I know of two jewelers who created successful solutions for brand strength.  The first decided to name every piece she creates after the first woman who buys it (or if it is a gift, the name of the recipient).  Therefore, every item in her inventory, be it earrings, bracelet, necklace, etc.., is named “Caroline” or “Esther” or “Allison”...you get the idea.  Not only is this a super way to engage potential customers as they are browsing her inventory, but I myself have witnessed the gleam in the women's eyes as they quickly scan the display looking for new, unnamed pieces.  The thought of having something named after them is just too tempting.  I'm sure it has generated at least a handful of sales over the years, if not more.

The second jeweler decided-after a rough go of getting his business off the ground-to create “recovery” jewelry: pieces that aim to spread hopeful messages of support and strength.  He based his branding on his personal experience of recovering from addiction.  Because his product is now niche, it appeals to buyers who are enduring difficulty.  It is a popular gift for people needing support (And let’s face it, who doesn’t?).  As a result of this jeweler finding a niche market, shops, galleries and catalogs are carrying his products.

No matter how you do it, spend a bit of time with yourself and your brand to figure out ways in which you can craft nuance. Your goal is to make your brand unforgettable, just like my yellow shoes.