Many freelancers work with clients in some capacity or another to create a brand identity. But few enough of us actually invest a lot of time in our own brands — it’s a case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot more than anything else.
But a brand can be valuable, making it easier for prospective clients to find you and reassuring them that even if you’re just one individual working on their project, you’re a consummate professional.
Brand experience is what your clients will feel at every point of contact with your freelance business. It starts with a strong brand identity, but requires quite a bit of implementation, such as: crafting a relatable persona, communicating expert status, and delivering excellent customer service. It's up to you to craft a brand experience for your clients.
What is a Brand?
What you need is for people to think positively anytime they see your logo or think about your company.
It’s easy enough to say that a brand is a logo and leave it at that, but that’s not the whole story by a longshot. Most big companies consider every part of their customer interactions, from the checkout girl telling you good morning to the Twitter reply to an upset update to be part of the brand. That’s because being recognizable and memorable isn’t enough for anyone who is in business. What you need is for people to think positively anytime they see your logo or think about your company.
As a freelancer, you just don’t have enough hours in the day to take your brand to the extremes like a multimillion dollar corporation. Just the same, there are a lot of little steps that you can take over time to build a strong, valuable freelance brand, and to craft memorable brand experiences.
The Whole Brand Identity Package
Any piece of paper or web page that has anything to do with your freelance business hopefully looks like part of a cohesive whole. You want every interaction with a prospective client to seem perfectly planned out — and the same goes double for current clients. If a past client comes across something to do with your services, it should be just as recognizable.
A logo is a good start, but there are a lot of opportunities to build a visual identity even if you’re working on something that doesn’t have your logo on it.
- Business cards
- Each page of your website
- Invoices (even if you use a web app, most will let you customize how your invoice looks and add your logo)
- Proposals (and anything else you can either print on your letterhead or add a digital letterhead to)
- Social media accounts
- Online avatars
- Ads and promotional pieces
- Email newsletters
If you aren’t a designer yourself, it’s worth your while to invest in another freelancer’s services. You may be able to barter, particularly if that other freelancer needs some help with a non-visual part of her brand. Or you can utilize the FreelanceSwitch job board for free to find a quality graphic designer to work with.
You want to nail your visual identity early on, choosing something that you can live with for quite awhile. Especially if your specialty is graphic design, it may be tempting to change out your logo every six months. But you want to build brand recognition, so that when your clients see anything to do with your business, they immediately know who they’re dealing with. That’s not possible if you’re constantly changing the appearance of your materials.
Your Business’ Brand Persona
Once you’ve got what people see when they think of your business down, you want to focus on what they feel. Of course, you generally want good feelings, but that’s not specific enough in most cases. Because you’re providing certain services, you want to make sure that your clientele thinks of you as the best in your particular niche. If you want to be the go-to freelancer for conservative, polished professionals, they need to feel that you fit into that category yourself. If you want to work with edgy artistic types, the same is true. You need to craft a persona for your business that fits into the category your are targeting.
Part of that persona will play out in where your audience encounters your brand: certain conferences, blogs, events and other situations provide specific settings that allow you to shape how your business is perceived. You need to be in the right place to find your clients and to show that you’re a good fit for their businesses.
Every niche is different, especially in terms of how you can communicate your brand and establish the feel of your business. To work with some clients, you need to regularly be putting together major creative projects of your own. For others, the right place to be is engaged in philanthropic projects. You have to know your market inside out before you can be in the right place, making building a persona a longer-term project that you can work on as you go along.
The Expert Element of Brand Experience
No matter the specifics of how your freelancing business is perceived, you need to be seen as an expert in your field. Maybe you aren’t the top of the food chain in your particular specialty, but you need to show that you are at least more knowledgeable than your clients and that they can depend on you as a resource.
Expertise is a crucial part of any brand, because every client wants to know that he’s working with someone who can fully benefit his business.
The standard options available for building expertise these days all center around creating content that will interest your target market, that showcases what you know about the niche and your own skill set. That can mean publishing a blog or an email newsletter, but it can also take other forms. You can do audio or video content, if that’s what works for you, or you can speak in public or organize classes. If time is an issue, it might be easier to produce one big resources, like a white paper or a tool that your clients can use.
You do need to make sure that you’re showing your expertise in a format that your clients will actually consume, because not everyone will subscribe to email newsletters and some niches don’t even have conferences. But as long as that criteria is satisfied, it’s just a question of choosing a platform you’re comfortable with.
Expertise is a crucial part of any brand, because every client wants to know that he’s working with someone who can fully benefit his business. This client need to work with an expert is a reality no matter whether there are other constraints in place (like budget). You need to be honest about your own level of experience, but you also need to show that you’re worth the money a client spends with you. If that means that you need to go out and learn more about your specialty so that you are comfortable calling yourself an expert, do it.
It Always Comes Down to Customer Service
While freelancers get to work on interesting creative projects, the downside is that there’s no one to handle the little details of talking to a client for you. No matter what snags a project hits, you’re the only one who can deal with them. That requires a level of customer service beyond what most companies could even imagine offering. But you need to take things a step beyond that level if you want clients to think particularly well of your brand.
You may not have the level of patience necessary to convince clients that if they just want to call you up and chat, they should. But that’s the ideal, in a lot of ways — something you should strive towards even if you can’t reach it.
Your clients should always receive prompt and pleasant responses, even if you’re seething from some problem not of your making. You don’t have to fix every issue that comes up: you’re a freelancer, not a doormat. But you do need to address it in a fashion that doesn’t lead a client to think that you’re being mean to them.
It’s not always possible to keep emotion out of your client relationships, especially when you’re the only person around to take the negative calls. But there are strategies that you can use to make things more manageable. One option is to send emails if you don’t think that you can keep a phone call or an in-person meeting calm. Type up your responses and wait a few minutes so that you can read them over again before sending them. It’s rare that a few minutes can make a major difference in how a project goes, so take some time to make sure that you’re coming across the way you want your clients to remember you.
Your Brand Will Always Be a Work in Progress
Branding isn’t a project with a concrete end date. You’ll always need to keep working to maintain the brand you want your clients to see when dealing with you. That gives you plenty of opportunities to adapt to whatever comes your way.
Pay attention to how you and your freelance business are perceived. Run regular searches online, talk to individuals about their experiences with you and keep an eye on how your competition brands themselves. Don’t let your own brand overwhelm your freelance work, but do make a point of working on it regularly. You can only benefit from a good brand.
Keep thinking about how clients will feel at each point of contact with your brand and how you can craft a brand experience they will remember.