Creating Your Brand: How to Stand Out in Your Market

January 4th, 2015

StandoutThe following is a guest post by Tony Colangelo, Victoria, BC. Tony is an active PFRE coach. In this article, Tony describes the basics of the approach he takes with his coaching clients.

A few months ago I wrote an article for PFRE that spoke to the importance of managing fear during the early stages of one’s pro photography career. It was drawn from my time as a psychologist and highlighted the importance of successfully addressing fear ­ particularly when confronted with a daunting challenge at a photo shoot. The feedback to the article was wonderful! So, I thought I’d start the new year by writing another psychology-driven article, one that focuses on how psychology can be applied to one of the most important aspects of business success: establishing an effective ‘brand.’

To set the stage for this article, let me share with you that after being a psychologist for many years, I shifted careers and accepted a role on the business-side of the counseling organization that I worked for at the time, an industry-leading firm here in Canada. I was with them for almost 16 years, the last half of which were as a senior vice-president, overseeing all aspects of the business, including sales and marketing. Of note, is that in my last 5 years in that executive role, we went through FOUR mergers & acquisitions! As you can imagine, all that change caused much stress within the company. Indeed, not only was there an undefined corporate culture, we inherited an expanded product/service line without really having a cohesive way of speaking to it. This ended up confusing the marketplace, our customers, and even our own employees! To address this, we went through a formal and exhaustive “branding” process, using one of Canada’s top branding/marketing companies. In short order, they helped us to understand who we were, the value we brought to the marketplace and how to tell our story in a compelling way. The results from implementing our branding efforts were clear and immediate. Prior to going through that process, we typically won about 40-45% of all our submitted bids to prospective corporate customers. In the year following the branding, we won 70% of those bids, generating millions of dollars of additional revenue!

This article provides an overview of the method that was used at that time. It’s an approach that I’ve subsequently adapted for use with my coaching clients, as part of PFRE’s coaching network. This adapted approach incorporates marketing essentials into a step-by-step brand development method that includes structured exercises/activities.

What is a ‘Brand’?
Let’s first define what is meant by the term ‘brand.’ Noted author and renowned marketing expert, Sergio Zyman, defines brand as a “container for a customer’s complete experience with the product or company.” I find this a particularly useful way of viewing ‘brand’ because it focuses on the customer’s “complete experience,” rather than on any single marketing tactic. What this means is that your brand is NOT just your logo, it’s not your website or your marketing materials … believe it or not, it’s not even the images you capture! All these things, while very important, simply represent components of your brand. Your brand is actually how these things come together to form your customers’ over-arching experience of you and your photography business. The key question is: How does this experience get formed?

To highlight one way that this experience can take shape, I’d like to describe a scenario for you. To begin the scene, please visualize your top prospect. She is the one who you want to work with more than anyone else in your market because landing her as a customer would significantly impact the future of your business – both from a revenue perspective, as well as the cachet that would come from having her on your client list. Now imagine that she is in the process of looking for a new photographer! In fact, unbeknownst to you, she is reviewing you and three other professionals. After her initial analysis of each photographer’s website, she finds that all four of you appear quite similar. To break the deadlock, she decides to conduct one-on-one interviews, with your meeting scheduled into the final time-slot. After interviewing the first three photographers, the client was impressed but was still left feeling somewhat disappointed. When she thought about it more intently, she realized that in those interviews, each of the three photographers spoke only about themselves and the “features” of their photography business (e.g., number of years in the business; use of high-end cameras and lighting equipment; awards won; etc.) As a result, they all sounded the same. When a client perceives all vendors (and the products & services they offer) as being the same, they tend to make their selection based on price. Think about it … are you loyal to a certain brand of sugar or do you buy sugar based on what’s on sale that week at your grocery store? Indeed, if you’re like a vast majority of people, you choose the latter because sugar is a commodity – i.e., there’s no discernible difference between producers, so the lowest price gets the sale.

On the day of your interview, you make a very strategic decision! You decide that rather than talk about your business, you’re going to spend your time finding out about hers. At the meeting, you ask her questions related to her vision and aspirations for her business; the challenges she encounters every day; how she would like to be seen by her target customers; and the type/style of photography that she’d like to use to portray her brand. When she asks you about your photography, you speak passionately to the creative and technical elements behind your work BUT, you do so in the context of how they might impact her business and her brand. Unlike the other three photographers who “made it about them,” you made it about the customer. In just one meeting, you created an experience in her mind that was different from the one she had with your competitors; one in which she felt heard and understood – an experience that she now associates with YOU.

This brief scenario highlights the first step in establishing an effective brand for your photography business, which is:

Step 1: Understanding That YOU Are Your Brand!
If you think about it, all professional photographers worth their salt, deliver great images to their clients. If that’s the case, how do photographers differentiate themselves? It’s my strong belief that what ultimately distinguishes a photography business (or any small business, for that matter) is the personal connection that the business owner has with his/her customers and prospects. Indeed, the way you choose to interact with your customers, the thoughtfulness you apply to understanding their concerns and aspirations, the feelings that your images evoke ­ these are the things that truly contribute to your customers’ “complete experience” of you and your business that was previously noted as being central to a brand. This is why I say that YOU are your brand!

As such, it’s vital that you fully understand you and your motivations for your business. For instance, what is it about you that makes most people take notice? What are the core values that you bring into every interaction with a customer? Why did you choose this branch of photography? What makes you so passionate about it? What is your vision for your photography business? Who is your target audience? Why?

Having a full understanding of who you are and what you want, lays down the foundation of how you will approach virtually everything in your business plan, including: who you choose as your target customers, how you market to them and how you communicate with them. It’ll even influence the types of photographs you capture.

Step 2: Understand Your Customers
It’s been said that customers don’t buy products or services, they buy solutions to their issues. In order to figure out how your photography might be able to address certain concerns that your customers might have, you must first find about those issues; and the best way to do so, is to simply to ask! Having conversations with your current and prospective customers is key because it gives you a chance to ask “open-ended” questions (i.e., questions that start with ‘What’ or ‘How’) that will allow you to glean valuable insight into their world. So, take a customer out for coffee/lunch and start to get to know them and what excites them about their work. Take some time to share your own passion for your work. Such mutual sharing tends to build rapport and trust between people. Once that’s been established, then you’re in a good position to ask them about their day-to-day challenges and those concerns that “keep them up at night,” so to speak.

I recognize that, for some, taking this step might be a little uncomfortable. Indeed, you may find that not all customers will be so easily forthcoming in describing their key issues/wants/needs. However, I hope you will believe me when I say that simply going through the process of asking thoughtful questions about their business will distinguish you from most other photographers who might not be as savvy when speaking to business-related items. I’ve seen this approach work throughout my career and I’m confident that it will work with your photography business as well.

Step 3: Understand Your Competition
Taking the time to understand/know your competitors gives you information that highlights how your business compares. Without this knowledge, it’ll be extremely difficult to “position” your business’s strengths or differentiators in a way that will resonate with your current/prospective customers. This means that getting competitor knowledge (i.e., “profiling” your competition) must be a core component of your business’s marketing strategy. Having competitive intelligence also allows you to ‘take the high-road’ and highlight what sets you and your photography apart from the rest, rather than resorting to pointing out flaws in your competitors.

Step 4: Create Your Value Proposition
By this point in your brand development process, you should have a lot of information related to you, your customers, your marketplace and your competitors. Organizing it all into a cohesive whole is what a value proposition statement is all about. In a nutshell, a value proposition statement is a concise, clear statement that explains three things:

  • How your photography addresses one or more of the client’s specific concerns;
  • The specific benefits they’ll be gaining from your photography; and
  • Why they should use you and not one of your competitors.

Let’s take a look at each one. The first bullet speaks to the importance of understanding your current and prospective customers, which we’ve covered off in a previous section. Without doing so, you’d simply be guessing at how your photography might be able to address their needs and wants.

The second part of a value proposition relates to the benefits you’ll provide. They must be clear and stated in a way that answers for the customer/prospect: “What’s in it for me?” For instance, if your customer is a real estate agent, she may not know (or care) about the value/superiority of the photographic techniques that you use, when compared to the “point-and-shoot camera” approach that she and her fellow Realtors might typically use. Your techniques are really only a feature of how you go about your work. She needs to see and hear are how those techniques benefit her (e.g., professionally captured photos tend to increase the final sales price of a listed property.)

Finally, why should the customer choose you? On the surface, this is a tough one because in a saturated and highly competitive field like photography, where much of the final product looks and feels similar to the untrained eye, many photographers stumble on how to differentiate themselves against the competition. To help with this, remember that there are commonly held differentiation “categories” in business that you can use to generate ideas for how to distinguish yourself. These include quality of the work, price, value, customer service standards, and convenience, to name a few.

In sum, having a clear value proposition is extremely important to the overall success of your brand. It will be at the heart of all aspects of your business, including sales, marketing and relationship management efforts.

Step 5: Test & Validate
Once you’ve put together your value proposition statement, the only way to make sure that it will resonate with your customers is to ask them what they think of it. Find out if your customers can make sense of it from their perspective. If not, then you can ask them questions related to what they think might be missing. Having this sort of interaction not only helps you tighten up your value proposition, it increases the number of contacts that you have with your target customer group and that’s a good thing!

Step 6: Align Your Brand
Once your value proposition has been validated by current and important target customers, you then must start to make sure that every interaction ­ every “touch-point” with them ­ serves to entrench their experience of your brand. Establishing consistency in the customer’s mind is key.

For your prospective customers, the first place to do this is through your website galleries, as this will likely be their first introduction to you. It’s there that they’ll start to get some sense about you, your “creative eye,” your skill as a photographer and the types of images you like to capture. They’ll also gauge (either consciously or sub-consciously) whether you can deliver the types of images that they’re looking for. This is why taking the time to understand your target customer is so important, as it allows you to be very strategic with your choices as to which photos “make the cut” for your website galleries. Indeed, a typical interior designer will require very different images than would be the case for a typical real estate agent.

While having consistency in your gallery images is also important to your current customers, once the relationship is established, there will be many other factors that will contribute to their experience of working with you. That is why you must see every contact with a customer as an opportunity to promote your brand. This includes the “everyday stuff” like your manner on the phone, the timeliness of your response to their calls/emails, even the way you manage your invoicing. Each of these interactions, viewed individually may not seem like much but, when taken together, they contribute “layers of flavor” to your customers’ experience of working with you, and that experience is what a brand is all about.

Moving forward bravely
Remember that YOU are your brand … being able to fully understand yourself and what you bring to your photography business allows you to portray both what you do and how you do it. Having this awareness and combining it with all the other “market intelligence” that you gather, allows you to articulately and confidently answer the following questions:

  • Who am I? What drives me?
  • Who are my target customers?
  • What makes me different?
  • Why should people care?

Coming up with solid answers to these questions and applying them to your photography business allows you to generate a consistent and positive experience for your customers that they will associate with you – and it’s THAT positive association that is, ultimately, what you want to achieve with your brand and your branding efforts.

As we begin a new year in an increasingly competitive field, we must find better ways to distinguish ourselves. Going through a proper brand development process (or refining one’s brand, if it’s already in place,) is the best way to differentiate your business. I hope some of the suggestions that I’ve touched upon in this article help you in advancing your brand. Please feel free to contact me directly here, should you wish more information. In any case, here’s wishing that 2015 brings us all our most successful year ever!

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11 Responses to “Creating Your Brand: How to Stand Out in Your Market”

  • My definition of a brand: A promise consistently kept that creates a profit for both the consumer and the company.

    A good thought to keep in mind is everything you do either adds to or takes away from you brand.

  • Great take on branding! I really like the client focus, too.

    I also believe that the client is always right, for lack of a better phrase. It’s always important to exceed their expectations as part of your branding, and as such, you sometimes have to prod them for what they may have perceived as a shortcoming in your execution or delivery. It may be uncomfortable for both of you, but it’s invaluable over the course of the business relationship. They know you’re not just knocking out quality, you’re actually striving to perform better via their constructive criticism.

    It should feel like a partnership, as though you’re an integral part of your client’s team. What’s better than creating or instilling your brand? Becoming the cornerstone of your client’s brand!

  • In my sales pitches, I try to get agents to think of themselves as a brand and professional photography as a way to promote that brand and create a quality image for themselves.

    They’re still out there with their cell phones taking horrible pictures. Maybe I need to go back to college and study more psych.

  • Excellent article Tony! Thanks for taking the time to create this and share it with us.

  • Good article! Thanks for sharing. I have used a lot of this information instinctively to grow my Real Estate photography business, but now I am going to use this advise to grow another aspect of my photography business that is not related to Real Estate.

  • Great stuff Tony, couldn’t agree more!!!

  • Tony –

    This post couldn’t be more timely for me. I am looking to grow my hobby business into full-time Real Estate / Commercial photography by the end of 2015, and much of this aligns with the direction I was already headed. Thanks for the confirmation!

    No one in my area is using video, which will be my differentiation from the small number of full-time photogs out there. Should be a fun ride!

  • Thanks to all for taking the time to read my article and make comments. I hope the piece provided some insights and some value to you. Thanks!

  • This is great, Tony. Thanks so much for the thought and time you put into this, and for sharing. I’ve got it bookmarked, and will refer to it many times, I’m sure. Thanks again!

  • @Julie … Thanks Julie, I’m glad you liked it! It was a labour of love putting that article together! Happy New Year to you!!

  • Perfect Timing! This is exactly the type of info I’ve been lately seeking. I’m struggling with all that’s involved in getting my company noticed, this adds nicely to all I’ve already got set up to reference to, and study. Thank You for all your efforts.

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