We’re talking about the three biggest mistakes that artists and creatives make when it comes to branding their business. And for those who you joining might not know, Jordan Cotton, she is a graphic designer based out of the US, and this is the abridged version of our chat on IG Live about the 3 biggest mistakes creatives make for their branding and business.
As a photographer who works with lots of brands, this talk was invaluable as a lot of the foundational questions I ask them are the ones that Jordan as a graphic designer works through with the client before they come to me for photos. I will say the more fleshed out your brand is the easier it is to plan a concert together for your photos, and make strategic decisions around your imagery that will allow for your business to flourish.
Mistake #1: You only are looking at your peers in your industry and are trying to emulate the successful creatives you idolize
Jordan Cotton: [With the points we’ll talk about], a lot of times I’m seeing all three of these happening.
[For example, when] working with clients and you’re planning [a photo]shoot, and they [say] I saw this person, they did this, so I need to do this. That is probably […] one of the biggest mistakes I see people make is that they look around at their peers for inspiration of their design, even how they operate in their business and try to emulate other people’s aesthetic that are either their competition or someone in their niche
It’s just easy to talk about the wedding industry. But [when you] only look at wedding industry people for inspiration, for your branding or for your colors or whatever. [What’s] wrong with [that] is it leads to […] you to end up doing a lot of trendy stuff and feeling like that’s the right [thing]. That’s the right direction for design, but really it’s just all you’ve exposed yourself to is this certain aesthetic, and that’s something that I see people do a lot. It’s like I want my brand to look like this person’s [but] what they’re really communicating is, I want to have their success. They think that [if they] look and talk like they’re this person that they’re idolizing, [that their] brand is going to get them that success. And what really is going to get them that success is figuring out their own magical parts of themselves and communicating that. What’s really sad about that is that when you look around at other people, for their aesthetics, on Pinterest or even Instagram, is that they end up investing in their brand to get a brand that is going to be out of style in a year or two. A classic example of this is the clear calligraphy logo.
Pam Kriangkum: I think what you just said about people emulating others that are like them because they’re wanting to emulate or get [that person’s] success, I think [that is an] aha moment because I’ve actually never heard that piece before. But your definition and your version of success will never look like someone else’s.
JC: There is value to looking at your peers and what they’re doing, I think you need to do that. I think if you just completely ignore what’s going on around you, it’s kind of ignorant because I think you need to know what you’re up against. I think that’s important. I mean, you’re only going to be successful if you figure out a way that you’re different than the other people selling the same thing as you. I think it’s OK as well to look up to someone and see how they’ve created their success and take things from that. But to just realize their brand as a whole and be like, I want to be them, I see that all the time.
And I think there’s many places you can find inspiration, but my number one tip is to find inspiration outside of your immediate niche, which might sound like a no brainer, but people don’t do this. [For me], I look at fashion and as my inspiration, instead of other designers work, and I also look at vintage posters as an inspiration too. So that’s completely different than going on Pinterest and typing in: “a cool logo”.
PK: I think when you emulate other people and you’re feeling like you need to chase after the next best thing to stay on top and on trend, [it’s] exhausting. And that’s not coming from a place of sustainable creativity, you know what I mean? Like, it’s not coming from a place where you could sustain that long term. So definitely being able to, look to other industries, but also look within and see what it is that you actually want to create for your business and your branding and stuff like that does so much more and will give you so much more longevity and you know, the future versus always feeling anxious and [chasing after] what’s next trend, and if you can create from [within] and take inspiration from other industries, you’re more likely to create the images that make you become the trendsetter […and] change the industry.
Yeah, yeah. And and it kind of takes you out of this follower mentality and brings you into a leader mentality. And I think what’s hard about that is it takes courage and people don’t always feel confident enough to be like, no, I’m going to be who I am and stand out. I just want there, like, I just want success. So I need to look like everyone else, which is like the opposite.
Are there anything else besides things like calligraphy, logos or things that you’re seeing [right now as trends]? [Are] potential clients coming to you being like, I want this. And you’re actually saying, I get why you want this, but this is why we should try something else. Is there any of those things that are popping up a lot right now for you?
Yes. I mean, I think it’s just I think it’s also just how humans are and sometimes, what seems like a trend [can] make complete sense for the brand. So […] I’ve done a calligraphy logo for someone because it made complete sense to do that for her, it went with her brand story. It was just so authentically her.
What I do see now is this: I see […] more right now in how people are like describing their businesses. It’s always authentic. It’s always luxury, authentic, approachable.
Mistake #2: You think your logo is going to do all the heavy lifting for your business
JC: Even though [businesses] know the logo isn’t their brand, they’re still operating and relying on the logo as if it will save their business or it is the life raft of their business.
And I see this when we get into the design phase and it gets very hard for people to make decisions on things because it. It’s making them commit, and that’s really hard because they’re putting so much weight on the logo and [while] the logo is important, [it’s not everything].
It can’t do the heavy lifting of your business. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it should catch people’s eyes. Yes, it should differentiate you, but it’s hard to watch people put so much emphasis on it and then have no backbone to their business or brand outside of it. And have this beautiful logo, but what for? What’s the point? And that’s kind of where people get caught up is. I get people coming to me that are having problems in their business, like they’re like the first thing people think when they start to have issues in their business is like, I must need a new logo.
[They might say] we must need to rebrand, which like maybe you do, but also like there’s a deeper issue here. Maybe we should figure that out [first].
I actually like talks clients about branding as kind of like a body, so every part of our body has its own role, but on its own, like my liver without anything else, is useless. That’s kind of how branding is. So the logo on its own without anything else like supplying it, it’s completely useless, it might work for a little while, but it will eventually die, and it’s so weird to say, but there’s so many different parts to branding that are important. I think the biggest thing that I help clients with is to establish a backbone [and] to help guide them through creating a what you would call brand strategy.
There are so many facets to it, like the deeper “why” behind your business. Obviously you’re there to make money, but there’s more to it than just that, especially with creatives.
Like client experience, that’s a huge part of branding and something I go through with clients is what does the client journey look like, how do they first find you? How do they first interact with you? How do you want them to find you? And then what does that relationship look like from like the first interaction to when you’re done working with them and we [plan] out every step and how to infuse their brand into every step and infuse their brand values into every step with them and how we want the people to feel when they’re going through. I mean, it’s basically like a sales funnel.
Before we get to any design, anything and [the client will say], oh we’re like a few weeks in and we haven’t even started any design yet!! I mean we kind of do, but not like concretely. I think the target audience piece is so important and people talk about this all the time. And I think it’s not only important to know about the demographics of your target audience, but I think something that I’ve been really trying to focus on more, especially in the past year, is let’s figure out how these people think and what makes them human, not just their demographics and do they respond to like a sales process, like how do they feel when they buy something? And I mean, the biggest thing I focus on is what problems are they having in their life? How are you the solution to those problems? How do you make people’s lives better? And that’s all that’s all we care about as consumers.
Mistake #3: You forget to filter your aesthetic and brand through your target audience and instead make it all about you and your own personal taste
JC: People make their brand about them and not about who their target audience is and what they want. We aren’t always the same as our target audience and we and sometimes people forget that [and think] I like pink, therefore my brand needs to be pink. And [you need to ask, does] your target audience like pink? If that’s a yes, then great. If it’s a no, then [we need something else].
We forget that we are here to serve other people and not make this brand [and] this business about us. Yes, it has us in it, we created it. So, of course, it’s going to have us infused into it, but it’s not the only [thing]. It’s the thing I have to remind people of all the time.
Bonus: Mistake #4: You lack depth in your messaging
JC: A lot of times I’ve see people lack depth in their messaging. It’s so general and not speaking to someone as if they are like a real human. I tell people when they’re writing copy or even just [an] Instagram caption or whatever, to imagine that one person in their target audience [that] is sitting right in front of them and how would you talk to them.
Bonus: Mistake #5: You’re too scared to niche down
JC: I see a lot [of] people have a fear of niche [or] honing in on a certain brand or certain values or like putting their stake in the ground like this is who I am and this is who I’m not. People want to be everything for everyone because they’re afraid. That is a huge mistake I see brands make because your brand should be attracting people and it should be repelling people. If it’s not repelling anyone, then you’re probably not super successful, which is kind of hard to swallow. When I hear clients getting no’s, I think that’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing.
When you think about some of the most successful brands, they’re all highly controversial, like people either hate or love Apple like they are, they are all in Apple and they are all out. It attracts and repels and people are so loyal on either side.
I mean, you need to be OK with displeasing someone, someone’s not going to like you, not going to like your brand and not going to want to work with you. And that’s really hard for me. I want everyone to like me. And I have a hard time like letting people go or have a fear of that. And I think that’s really true among creatives.
Bonus: Mistake #6: You think being “authentic” is enough
JC: One thing that I just remember, too, is about the word “authentic”, I recently read in this book about branding that basically, these days, now that Millennial’s and Gen Z, are becoming more prominent the main people buying things, we’ve been in jobs long enough to like invest in houses and things like that [so we have money]. [And] we value authenticity so much more than the generation above us and [now] if your company is not inherently authentic, then you’re not going to survive. So like having the brand value of authentic is not [enough, it’s] just implied.
Whether you’re just starting out or you’re looking to start creating a stronger brand and foundation for your creative business, make sure to remember these points as you get going!
- Look outside your industry for inspiration, and don’t emulate someone else’s version of success
- A logo can’t do the heavy lifting of your business for you, and if you feel like you need to re-brand to bring in new clients or customers, dig deeper — there may be another issue afoot that a logo or brand refresh can’t fix
- Filter the aesthetic through your target audience, as you may not be your own target customer or client
- Dig deep and add depth to your messaging and write that copy by imagining your target audience as one person sitting in front of you
- Niche down, and when someone tells you no, that is a good thing! You want to attract certain people (your target audience) and repel the others
- Be more than “just authentic”. In this day and age, Millenials and Gen Z with purchasing power believe that authenticity is already implied, so what else is there that you can bring to the table?