The first bit of advice I can recall getting was given to me by my parents. I was about to start school for the first time and I wanted people to like me. There advice was something that we've all been told: “just be yourself.” As professional photographer, I still want people to like me. This article covers why simply being yourself is great advice, especially when it comes to branding.
I recently visited Clerkenwell Design Week with a friend of mine who is an accomplished architect. As we met other architects, it became clear to me that the architects were using branding as part of their approach to get new work. Like photographers, many architects are one person productions, where the business brand is also a personal brand. Just do a Google search for architects in your area and you'll see that most practices are named after the owner/founder.
At the Design Week event, it seemed like many of the architects were aiming to look like a certain type, in this case, the bohemian artist. Being perceived as the bohemian, artist type appeared to be a deliberate marketing ploy and a large part of their branding.
In contrast, my friend is almost the opposite of the bohemian artist type. He comes across as bold and confident. He dresses like a professional in the corporate world. He also communicates with an almost overwhelming passion.
After watching him chat to an artist type, I made a comment about how there seems to be an “artist architect” type and he bucks the trend. On hearing this, his face dropped and he told me about his own battle resisting what seems to be expected from architects versus what he wants to project to the world.
I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with my own experience in the photography world. When I moved to London from a small South African city, I experienced a culture shock in my first interactions with other photographers. They were all fully invested in branding — their clothing, mannerisms and everything that did all appeared to be designed and tailored towards a certain look. They carried themselves in a way that said, “I’m a successful independent artist”. I felt completely out of place. Over time, this sort of personal branding has increased in intensity. With YouTube and Instagram “brand ambassadors,” fedoras outnumber cameras at media events.
Ten years after moving to London and first encountering this desire among artists to also look like an artist, I’ve noticed a trend. Most of the photographers who worked very hard to look like an artist are now working in other jobs. Photography never became a viable option. Photographers that I meet that have had a successful career tend to be normal looking people. They spend more time on their business and craft than worrying about their look. There are some bohemian artist types still successfully working as photographers, but for them, it isn’t a look, they are being true to themselves.
Coming back to the conversation with my architect friend, we realized that he attracted different customers to the artist type. His customers tend to be confident, bold business. They hire an architect who they perceive to be similar to them. He is good at attracting this sort of client because all he has to be is himself. He has a competitive advantage for attracting this sort of client.
My business branding which is also my personal branding tends to be simple, understated and relevant to the job I’m doing. Interestingly, this is the sort of photograph I’m now hired to create. To the outside observer, it may look like I designed a personal brand specifically to target the clients I now work with. In reality I gave up trying to look like the trendy artist type. I dress and act in a way that makes me feel comfortable (mentally not physically). In essence, simply being myself gives me a competitive advantage in attracting the type of client that I want to work for.
It’s tempting to emulate other photographers who have become successful. Consider all the Casey Neistat imitators for example. My observation is that anyone who has built up a successful personal brand with long term success is most likely just being themselves. “Just be yourself” was great advice for a boy about to start school and also, it turns out, when working on your business brand.