You know that feeling when you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner and you find yourself standing in the supermarket aisle for over half an hour, eyes glazed over, looking at dizzying row upon dizzying row of wines, reading labels about fruity undertones and woody aftertastes, while wondering which bottle to get, how much you should spend, what your hosts will like (or won’t like), and how the value of that wine will reflect on your value as a guest?
Well, that’s the same feeling your customers experience when trying to hire a freelancer and they’re suddenly confronted with a digi-store chock-full of “designers” or “coders” or “photographers” or whatever professional it is they’re looking for. Daunting, isn’t it?
How can customers know who the right freelancer is for them and who'll bring more value for their buck? More importantly, how can you stand out from the underpriced competition and help clients realize your real value over everybody else?
In a word: branding.
As a freelancer, you may think that you don’t need to create a brand. You may even think that branding is something solely for big companies with huge budgets. But that’s not true.
Everybody Needs a Brand
And you may even have one without realizing it. If you’ve ever signed your name under an email you’ve sent to a lead, under a quote or proposal you’ve sent to a potential client, or under a service you’ve provided to a paying customer, then in each of those moments you’ve represented your brand.
More than that, if you’ve ever blogged about what you do, put up a website with your services, joined a freelancer job board, or in any other way “put yourself out there” for the world to find, then in those moments you’ve stated your brand.
Do you know what your brand says about you and how potential customers perceive your value? Because if you don’t, you’re practically playing Russian Roulette with your contracts (and your bank account!). Not smart.
If you’re serious about succeeding as a freelancer, then you’ll need to take serious care of your brand and of the way you present your services to others.
Branding isn’t just telling people what you do in a fancy way: there are plenty of other people out there doing the same thing as you.
Branding is about incorporating your “what” with your “how” and your “why” to create a unique identifying mark that showcases your true value.
And to do that, you’ll need to craft the three parts (three P's) of profitable branding for yourself.
Proposition, Personality and Purpose
Let’s take each part separately. We’ll look at what it means in terms of your brand, and then do a few fun exercises (available on this free branding worksheet) to get you on your way to higher profits and better-paying clients!
Also often referred to as unique value proposition or brand promise. What do you propose to your clients? What promise are you making them that will lure them in?
This isn’t simply what you do. It’s what you really do. You may think I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m not. Nailing this first step is important.
Putting a simple label on your website that says “web designer” or “coder” or “photographer” isn’t enough. Doing so makes you just another no-name bottle of wine off the shelf with a “red wine” label on it. Not very special, right?
Your proposition must give your clients a reason to choose you. So what is it that you offer your clients that no one else does?
This doesn’t have to be anything over-the-top impressive or earth-shatteringly new. But it does have to be unique to you. Even if in subtle ways. And the best way to discover your unique proposition is by doing the first exercise on your worksheet, called the brand butterfly.
Step 1: What's Wrong With Your Industry
The top wing of the butterfly represents what's wrong with your industry. This doesn’t have to be a major flaw of the industry. It just has to be something that you think is missing, or something that you think could be done in a better or different way. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something you can do or not. For now just make a list of the gaps you see in your field in the first column of the table below the butterfly on your worksheet.
Step 2: What's Special About You?
The lower wing of the butterfly represents what's special about you and your services. What is something you do that no one else does? If you’re a web designer, for example, and have a passion for manga comics as well, your special thing could be designing websites in manga style. Or if you’re a photographer who also loves some good body ink, maybe you have a special skill and eye for photographing tattooed brides.
Think about all your skills, passions, and experiences inside and outside your industry, and write down the things that are special about you. It doesn’t matter if they don't directly relate to your work. Just write them down in the second column for now.
Step 3: Analyze the Intersection
The intersection of the two wings that forms the body of the butterfly represents your unique proposition: What’s something that your industry needs and that only you can provide because of your special skills?
The reason most freelancers fail to stand out as exceptional isn’t because they’re not good at what they do, but because they don’t know how to present themselves in the right light. Most people begin thinking about their work in terms of what there already is in their industry rather than what there isn’t. That’s why everybody ends up looking like everybody else on the shelf. And that’s why clients have a hard time choosing among all the options, being essentially forced to choose based on price alone. Because if all else looks and is the same, wouldn’t you choose the cheapest one?
But if you start by looking at what’s missing, you'll be a step ahead of everyone else in the game. If you can propose something unique, then price becomes obsolete because you become the one clients want.
Use the middle column of the first exercise to brainstorm ideas of how you can bridge the gap between something that's missing from your industry and some of your special skills. What unique propositions can you come up with?
Let’s look at an example to see how you can use the power of brand proposition in practice.
Let’s say you’re a wedding photographer. “Wedding photographer” is too general to be your brand. So what is it that you really do? Here are some ideas of what you could write in the “What’s wrong with your industry” wing of your butterfly:
- There’s no photographer who’s dedicated to photographing weddings on or near water locations that need special lenses for great results.
- There’s no one who specializes in old-fashioned film photography that can create true photos of a couple’s special day.
- All wedding photographers try to become “invisible” and just take candid shots of your day. There’s no one serving the couples who want the staged, high-art, cinematic pictures.
And here’s what you might write in the lower wing about what’s special about you:
- I come from a high-art background with work in editorials and staged photography.
- I’m an excellent dancer.
- I love the old art of traditional film photography and think that it’s the best way to create and capture unique moments.
- I love to direct people and compose scenes that really bring out the “feeling” of the moment, rather than simply document what’s happening.
So where do the two wings intersect to create your unique proposition to your clients? How will you present yourself to them? Here’s a thought:
I am a fine art wedding photographer. My approach applies fine art photography to the living, breathing, fast-moving phenomenon that is a wedding. Yes, I do documentary photography, because you need to capture the important moments at a wedding, but I also compose and direct. For me it is all about making something beautiful even if I have to insert myself into the situation. Ultimately, my goal is to craft vibrant energetic, fine art images, that are as unique as the people in the photograph.
And that’s not just a made-up example. That’s precisely how freelance wedding photographer Jose Villa presents his brand and describes his work on his website.
Although I’ve hypothesized what his answers to the first two questions might be, the description of his work nails his brand. He doesn’t portray himself simply as a wedding photographer. He goes into detail about what’s unique about his wedding photography (he composes, directs, creates fine art images, inserts himself into the scene). And that’s what makes him special and catapults him from mere wedding photographer into sought-after artist.
Crafting your unique proposition is the first step to creating your brand. Because as Philip Kotler has said:
If you’re not a brand, you’re a commodity.
And commodities are cheap (like boxed wine) and can only compete on price. Don’t be a generic “freelancer.” Become a specialist. What makes you a brand?
Once you figure out what you really do for your clients, it’s time to tackle the how. And that’s where brand personality comes in. What’s special about the way you do things?
Step 1: Give People Something to Connect To
Customers don’t choose a freelancer solely based on what they do. Customers also choose according to personality. Because we all want to work with people we like and get along with.
There’s no perfect personality that you should have. Just like there’s no perfect aftertaste to wine. You like it one way. I like it another. What you have to do is craft your brand personality so that it attracts the clients you enjoy working with.
Just because you’re a coder, it doesn’t mean you have to appear like a distant computer geek who doesn’t know how to communicate with non-techy people and doesn’t like anything outside of coding. Give your brand some personality. Talk about your hobbies, or your passions. Make it interesting.
As a freelancer, you brand personality will naturally closely align with your own personality since your whole business revolves around you. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be exactly the same as your real-life personality. You don't have to share everything about yourself with every stranger online. (There is such a thing as too much information after all!)
Step 2: Embrace Your Process and Quirks
Brand personality is how you present your brand and how you choose to communicate with your clients.
Steve Jobs once said:
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
And you could apply this quote to any industry, not just design. People don’t come to you just for what your services look like or feel like. They come to you because of how you work.
If customers love your personality, they’ll stay. If they hate it, they’re gone. And if you’ve got no personality? They’ll put you down in that corner with all the boxed wine.
Here’s a good example of how to do a brand personality that’s unique, quirky, non-corporate (i.e. personable) and works!
Sculptor and painter, Chris Ryniak has a strong brand personality that’s quite the opposite of the image you may conjure in your head upon hearing the words “sculptor” and “painter.” But he’s not afraid to flaunt it. In fact, he’s made his name and fortune around it.
Chris’ brand personality can be described as weird but in a cute and friendly way. His characteristic “morning scribbles” designs took the internet by a storm of cuteness and catapulted him to online fame. His weirdness is evident in his subject matter of choice (critters!) which he somehow manages to turn from yuk! disgusting to aw, that’s so cute! in every single one of his drawings. As for his friendliness, it comes through in his blogging and the effort he puts into communicating with his fans through various channels.
Chris may not fit your traditional idea of what a sculptor and artist looks like or does, but his unique personality makes his brand stand out from thousands of other monster-drawing artists struggling to leave their mark.
Your industry doesn't have to dictate your brand personality.
Craft your brand personality in the way it most strongly resonates with you, and you’ll attract clients you love working with. (And you’ll also keep away anyone whose personality is not a good match with yours. So it’s a win-win all around.)
Step 3: Identify Three Meaningful Characteristics
For the second exercise, go to your worksheet and write down three characteristics you would like others to associate with your brand.
Don’t write what’s expected in your profession, or the characteristics of those you admire. I want you to imagine how you would like your ideal client to perceive your brand and write those adjectives in the first row of each column in the table provided. Underneath each characteristic, write how you will showcase each of those characteristics through your brand, like I did for Chris’ brand in the example above. How will you work with your ideal clients?
After the what, and the how, it’s time for the why. If answering the “what” gave your brand shape, and answering the “how” dressed it in attractive, stylish clothes, answering the “why” will plant the heart to make you brand come to life. Consider:
- Why do you do what you do? Not just because you need a job. You could’ve been stuffing the wine shelves at Walmart if all you wanted was a stable paycheck.
- Why are you in this? Why have you made coding or designing or filming or photographing or drawing your life’s work? What about it makes you tick?
People want to know. And that’s because human beings connect to the values underlying deeper purposes. If you don't resonate with peoples' values or purpose in life, they won’t work with you in a million years. Not even if you’re the only person in the world who can do what you do. They’d sooner convince themselves they don’t need your services than betray their own values.
As Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has said:
If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.
And loyalty is what you want. Return business from clients that like and trust you and that you don’t have to fight tooth and nail for each and every time.
At Chocolate & Caviar, a collaborative studio I’ve helped set up with the graphic and web designer Stella Demetriou, the marrying of high art and functionality has been paramount to our work from the beginning.
The purpose behind the brand has always been to create artistic work that helps companies reach practical goals and outcomes. Because we believe that art and business (the left and right brains of the society at large) should support one another in creating a better world—not oppose one another.
A brand is the expression of the deeper purpose its founder believes in.
Your brand purpose shouldn’t be an afterthought. It must come in from the very beginning of your brand creation to give life and direction to all you do. If you proudly display your purpose through all your brand elements, your clients will stick to you like bees to honeyed wine.
Step 1: Identify Your Brand Values
For the third exercise write down in the box provided the values that most represent your brand.
These could be words like trust, loyalty, quality, speed, creativity, security, environmental, giving, artistic, philanthropy etc. Jot down a few words that are meaningful to you, and then complete the brand purpose statement like I've done above:
“My purpose in providing my services is to __________________________ because I believe that ________________________________.”
And you don’t have to stick to that formula either. If you’d like to phrase your purpose differently then go ahead and get creative with it. Do what speaks to you.
Create a Brand With Value
True brands are not about price tags. They’re about creating value in the world.
If the dinner you've been invited to is special and your host someone important to you, you’d never in a million years dare to show up with boxed vinegar masquerading as wine under your arm. Out of respect for yourself and out of respect for your host.
So don't give your clients boxed wine that looks like all the other non-brands on the shelf.
It’s always the wine with the taste we enjoy, the presentation that charms us, and the quality we can trust that wins our hearts (and our extra bucks).
If prospects can see your proposition, your personality, and your promise through your brand as clearly as they can read the label on their favorite bottle of wine, they’re much more likely to become loyal fans of your brand. Fans that choose you over the cheapest price tag every single time. Because they understand your value. And value is what sells.
What do your three branding parts (three P's) say about the value of your brand?
Tell us about your proposition, your personality, and your promise in the comments and let's start building up your brand today!