Branding: How to Build a Strategic Pyramid to Solidify your Identity

In virtually any consumer market segment, a good brand is critical to success. Unfortunately, many photographers have let their brand develop organically without any strategic intent. As a result, their business identity floats adrift without purposeful guidance. This is what branding expert Karen Tiber Leland of Sterling Marketing Group calls “brand by default.” The consultant and author of “The Brand Mapping Strategy” (Entrepreneur Press) explains that too many photographers let their personal brands evolve entirely by what others say or think about them. That makes it difficult to communicate a core message to core audiences.

It’s better to have a brand by design, where you carefully consider how you want to be seen in the market and build your brand step by step along those guidelines.

Marketing pyramid

Leland suggests that entrepreneurs think about designing a brand in terms of a pyramid, which consists of three aspects:

1. Foundation. This is your brand’s platform. It’s important to build a solid foundation from basic building blocks:

  • A modern, up-to-date website. People want to see more than pretty pictures. Your website needs to follow modern marketing guidelines, it needs to look good, and people need to be able to get a good sense about you and your work. Don’t leave important design considerations about color, font, images, and layout to a web designer. As a business owner, it’s important for you to consider how these elements can represent your brand and whether the images demonstrate the specific kind of work you want to showcase.
  • Strategic message. You need a clear, branded message about who you are, what you offer, and what makes you unique. Be able to answer questions about your story, your signature services, and the mood you create. Because you’re a photographer, it’s important to represent this message both visually and in the way you talk about what you do.
  • Consistent social media. Your social media should be consistent with your website in look, tone, and message. Not all social media may be appropriate for you. It’s better to find where your audience is most engaged and go deep in a few platform than spread yourself thin across a wide variety of networks where your audience isn’t as active. Every photographer should have a robust Instagram account since it’s such a visual media, but the other social media networks depend on your specialty. For example, if you’re heavily into commercial and corporate work, LinkedIn will be useful. If you’re focused more on moms and kids, Pinterest is important. Facebook is a great business-to-consumer platform, which is useful for wedding shooters and different types of retail photographers.

2. Core. Brand and buzz building is the middle of the pyramid. Often, people want to jump straight into brand- and buzz-building activities, but it’s important to have the foundation in place before you start promoting your brand.

There are about 40 different things you can do to promote your brand, including podcasts, blogging, email, social media, and speaking. However, you’re not going to make much progress trying to do all those activities. Focus on three to five tactics that will be most effective in reaching your target audience.

3. Pinnacle. At the top of the pyramid is thought leadership. Once you’ve built a solid platform and gotten some buzz through brand promotion, you can start positioning yourself as a thought leader in your field. This may take the form of media outreach, interviews, articles, speaking, or writing a book. When you’re perceived as an expert, a go-to resource for your industry, then you’re able to demand higher rates and position your brand at the top of the market.

How long will it take to construct your pyramid? It depends, says Leland, but most small businesses should expect to spend six months to a year. “Going through these stages is an organic process, but the problem is that people try to skip a step,” she says. “Doing it organically and in the right order can save months of time and thousands of dollars.”

Importance of messaging

Throughout the building stages of the brand pyramid, it’s critical to have strong, consistent messaging about your brand. Leland says everyone should be able to express their brand clearly and succinctly within a few seconds. This is your anchor statement, also known as an elevator pitch, and should incorporate three key elements.

1. What you do. The kind of photographer you are, what you focus on, and the specialties you cover.

2. The qualities you bring. What makes you unique, the degrees and qualifications you have, and the personal attributes you bring to your work.

3. The results you provide. What people get out of your work, the final products you deliver, and the experience you offer.

Most people just stop at a description of the type of work they do, but that’s a missed opportunity. Go deeper. For example, instead of saying, “I’m a portrait photographer,” provide more context. Maybe something like, “I’m a PPA master photographer specializing in creating heirloom portrait collections of children and families in their natural environment.”

The process

Ready to dive into your brand building process?

1. Assess. Start with an assessment of where you currently stand online and off. Do you have a website that’s well-designed, well-written, easy-to-use, and up-to-date? Do you have a social media presence that’s on brand? What does the internet say about you? Google yourself to see what (if anything) comes up. Put a Google Alert on yourself so you can see when things are said about you.

2. Define. Clearly define your brand. Think about your value proposition and your key offerings. Consider how you want to be seen in the marketplace.

3. Plan. Map out what you’re going to do and when. What activities do you need to pursue to build your foundation, create buzz, and ultimately become a thought leader? Put together a schedule and specific deliverables so you can hold yourself accountable.

4. Execute. Execute on your plan. Follow the roadmap you’ve created and tick off the key deliverables that are crucial to your brand development.

“It’s not magic,” says Leland. “People think about branding as this magical, elusive thing. It’s not. It’s much more about coming up with a plan and executing on it. And be reasonable in your expectations about results. Don’t expect that doing something today is going to lead to results tomorrow. These things take time, and you have to be diligent in your follow up. But when you follow the process the right way, in the right order, the results can be very beneficial to your business.”  

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.