marketing

On Branding: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 5 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-4 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“A successful brand isn’t a sign of pandering to readers; rather, it evokes and emphasizes the why, or what the publication or publisher stands for.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 74)

I think a lot about branding. It’s part of my day job as a copywriter, after all. But this week, it’s been thrown into full light with Kate Spade’s death.***

I was so moved by the stories people told about their first Kate Spade bags or purchases, in part because Kate Spade has not been a part of the company she founded for over a decade: She sold off a significant portion of it as early as 1999, just six years after it was founded, and stopped designing for them ages ago.

And yet, so many people wrote about how “Kate” made them feel “quick and curious and playful and strong,” and there is a definite sense that, with that passing of Spade herself, that iconography of a “quick, curious, playful and strong” woman–a quote often attributed to Spade herself but which I think actually was born in the brand’s copywriting department–has lost its originator. And this, this wonderful tie between what people feel and what is, even if it’s not exactly right–is the beauty of a strong narrative.

There are very few companies who have been able to pull off this kind of branding. Nike, maybe. Cheerios, or Mr. Clean, or maybe, better yet, Cap’n Crunch. But even those don’t have the immense personality that Kate Spade did. That’s because there’s no person behind those brands. And it’s the reason brands have to hire brand ambassadors.

Kate Spade was her brand. Even more, she memorialized a certain moment in time, I think, a certain New York minute, even as it stretched into two impressive decades. Her brand was hitting her stride the same time I moved to New York, the mid-nineties. Even I, not a fan of bows and ruffles and personal slogans, associate Kate Spade with my New York life, with buildings and walking tall because I was earning a liveable paycheck and going to parties in lofts and establishing my own brand of wit, trying it out on cocktail conversation and failing a lot, at least three times a week. Say “Kate Spade” to me and the words evoke a rush of memories attached to all my senses: pavement under my feet; the wind from Fifty-first Street rushing up Sixth Avenue as I rounded the corner to meet friends in that subway bar; the damp Manhattan summer night; the chatter of a restaurant at lunchtime.

In the end, Kate Spade’s brand succeeded because it knew exactly who it was talking to. It placed aspiration within reach of so many women, whereas other aspirational brands keep their wares just squarely and deliberately out of reach. With a Kate Spade bag, and later, in Kate Spade shoes and dresses and displaying a quirky quote on your notebook, you could be everything you thought Kate Spade hoped for you.**

When I bought a literary magazine with some friends last year, it was one of the best things I could do with my literary life. I had a lot of thoughts already on art, and what role it might play in these fraught times we live in, and being co-owner of a literary magazine that we could use to execute our (thankfully) aligning missions was really, really attractive.

In the light of the quote from Friedman’s book above, and with Kate Spade in mind, I’m thinking about the people behind why we do what we do.

For years, Tahoma Literary Review had been operating on a solid, three-legged platform. Those three legs were:

Transparency. The magazine tells you exactly what it does with every dollar.

Sustainability. We paid our writers first, so as to helps writers to continue their creative lives.

Community. TLR strives to promote, to our best capacity, the work of those who have published in our magazine.

When we took over, nothing really changed, except we made it a priority to even out the pay schematic, so all genres got paid the same, and started paying production crew and editors as well. But it wasn’t until I read Friedman’s words above that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of our mission. (TLR has a mission statement, but I think most mission statements can be made stronger with a firm grip on the why of a thing.)*

This is a slippery thing, see. And it can be uncomfortable. Some explorations of the why you’re driven to do a certain thing end up leaving you cold, because they’ve exposed you to be heartless. Or insecure, or selfish. For instance, how many of us start a literary magazine because we want to boost our own profiles, or volunteer someplace because we want to build our own skillset or meet people who are interested in similar things?

I think, at the end of the day, while we don’t have a specific end user in mind like Kate Spade does, we are similar to her brand narrative in one regard: Ultimately, we are about the reader. We are about the reader-as-consumer-of-words and the reader-as-writer-of-words, and yes, I do mean all those hyphens exactly where they are. We are about making the reading experience great by way of making the writing experience great.

We are about giving writers a leg up towards producing their very best work, and ensuring a great reading experience. We are about paying everyone involved in the production of our magazine, and ensuring sustainability of that great reading experience for years to come. We are about the new-to-short-stories or new-to-poetry or new-to-creative-nonfiction reader, and helping them to understand just what goes into making this reading experience for them.

Readers, in all their variations, are the why of Tahoma Literary Review. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to say so.

Takeaways:

  • Consider your origins when you look at sussing out your whys.
  • Look broadly at the things you admire, the things with great narratives. Don’t think of just literature. Think of the things you have loyalty to.
  • Conversely, look at the things that drive you in your life outside of reading and writing. What are those things?

What’s your“Why?” Do you have an end user in mind? Tell me below. 

*These statements are independent from what our founding editors, Joe Ponepinto and Kelly Davio, may have said. Second, while I’ve talked to my co-editors and co-owners (Ann Beman, Jim Gearhart, and Mare Heron Hake) about this, these statements are largely my own thoughts.

**As I was editing this this morning, the news came through about Anthony Bourdain. He was another whose personality built his brand, and although I only saw his show “No Reservations” once, I have so many friends who admired him, and it’s for their loss of a personal guiding star and point of aspiration that I’m sad, as well.

***Racked.com has a wonderful, thorough discussion of Kate Spade’s brand.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Narrative

Some days, a good story is all you need. But to tell a story that sticks, a narrative needs more. Two critical illustrations of this crossed my desk recently, and I thought I’d share them with you.

First, let me call your attention to this spot, which ran during the Super Bowl. (You didn’t see if you live in the U.S.) It’s well worth its two minutes.

 

All right? Get your Kleenex? C’mon, blow your nose. I’ll wait.

This is a far cry from the beer commercials we’ve been subjected to in the past. There are no swiping remarks about how women age; there aren’t any animals being voiced over; there’s no bizarre new bottle or can design. (None of these has anything to do with beer, and none of these can improve on the taste of some of this beer.)

So what makes this spot work?

It’s the emotional core. The best commercials or advertisements tell a good story, but even most of those ignore the need for consumers to connect with the brand on an emotional level. The spot works because it tells a story everyone loves–an underdog story–and it gives viewers what they want: a happy ending.

Perhaps more important, it reminds us of a time when we, too, were underdogs, and when we, too, wanted to be cheered on. (What is that, like, every day?)

Most important, it locks the viewer into a time and place: a scruffy amateur hockey game isn’t the place for a high-falutin’ microbrew; it’s the place for communal cheer; for beer that everyone can afford and enjoy; for idiotic, non-cerebral joy. Budweiser has tapped into the whole point of a cheap beer: feel-good times, with your friends. This is what their brand is, and I wish they’d do more with it.

So that’s one half of narrative–getting to your emotional core. What’s the other half?

Let me tell you another story: Recently, Mr. Gooddirt and I went out to eat at a really amazing restaurant.

We’d never been there before, so why were we so sure this restaurant would be “amazing”? Well, we’re kind of sustainability nuts, so we liked that the restaurant uses only produce from one of its two farms in the northeast. We’ve also eaten at other dining establishments that use the tasting-menu concept, just like this one does, so we had high expectations that went along with the higher price points at this type of restaurant. (Once you add in the wine pairings, which we almost always do, you’re looking at a cool $300 per person.)

So in that way, the restaurant had its narrative lined up straight and true. We knew enough about it to already expect good things. We got there early, for drinks at the front of the house, and were pleased to meet a bartender whose knowledge  was absolutely in line with our expectations. He could tell us about the distilling and aging process of his whiskey, for instance.

photo: Gothamist

I anticipated an exceptional meal, and got one. Every single one of our eight courses was above and beyond what I expected; the flavors were complementary, if, in some places, totally unexpected; the quality of the food was unparalleled, without resorting to gimmick.

So what was missing? Service, service, service. We had one head waiter who depended on four or five rotating sub-waiters (?) to serve and explain the food. That’s appropriate for so many courses; but it quickly becomes an annoyance when none of the sub-waiters understands what they’re serving and has to defer to the head-waiter (who, in turn, looked harried and annoyed) for any questions.

There’s where the narrative broke down: This restaurant prides itself on the quality of its produce and its goods. They should expect that their customers will want to know more about their food and how it’s prepared (at one point, they brought out a wheat ale made from an ancient strain of wheat; and we wanted to know more). Towards that end, they should make sure that every staff person is well educated and cares as much about the stuff they’re selling as the head waiter or proprietor does.

Two final straws broke this camel’s back: First, our bill was wrong, in our favor, and we had to ask them to correct it. Second, when we got outside to our car, we found it there waiting, warm and toasty, with the seat heaters turned on. “Hunh! What a nice touch!” we said. And then we thought to check and see just how long they’d had the car idling for.

People. It’d been idling for AN HOUR AND TEN MINUTES. Complete and total breakdown of sustainability narrative. We lost it. I phoned the restaurant immediately and got an appropriately contrite young lady, and the following day I got a phone call from the operations director  and the outsourced valet service. So that was nice. But who’s going to pay for my $20 worth of gas?

I digress.

Here’s the thing, okay? Story is one thing. Have a good story, and you’re winning half the battle already. But honestly, if you–and I mean you as marketer, brand executive, novelist, copy-writer, restauranteur–don’t have your emotional core built into your narrative, you’re almost bound to build something forgettable.

Likewise, consistency is key. Make sure that everyone in your organization understands your emotional core and the point of your narrative. Make them buy into it. After our experience at the bar, we were sold on the bar–we were making lists of friends who needed to see the place and experience it. It was like that until about a quarter of the way through the dinner, when we realized that only the head waiter knew what he was talking about. And by the time we got to the problem with the valet, we were seriously questioning what we’d previously believed was a real need to get our friends to this restaurant ASAP.

Our restaurant? Great narrative and emotional core; total breakdown of consistency. Budweiser? Great narrative in this instance; game-changing recognition of emotional core that I wish would happen more frequently with them.

The lesson? Find your story. Be true to it. Be consistent. You can’t go wrong that way.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

7×7=one grateful blogger

Awhile ago, my Whidbey colleague Charlotte Morganti nominated me for a 7×7 link award! I wish I knew what the origins of this award was, but more important, I’m just happy that I’m getting an award! It’s my first!

Also, one thing about Charlotte, before I go on to the requirements of the award–she’s by far the most diligent blogger I’ve ever come across. She decided she was going to start a blog, and then, bang! She’s been keeping it up, regularly, with great writing tips and interviews with luminaries like Alan Rinzler. She also does great book reviews, and is the author of an as-yet-to-be-published hardboiled detective novel in the vein of Dashiell Hammett. So yes, you must follow her blog doings.

Now. On to this award. I must do several things in order to account for this award. I must list seven items in each of three category.

First, seven things about me you probably don’t know:

  • I don’t like very spicy food. That is to say, I don’t like things that flame your nasal hairs out and make you sweat. I’m much more apt to buy a mild tomatillo salsa than I am an “extra hot” salsa, for instance.
  • I am a sucker for the American Standards songbook.
  • I can’t dance.
  • I struggle with my weight. Part of this is my inherent laziness. The other part of it is my love/hate relationship with exercise. The final part of it is genetics.
  • I think everyone should have their own personal style. This is not to be confused with trendiness.
  • I adore button-down shirts and in general prefer neat dressing to slovenliness.
  • I love to cook. And I prefer to do it with friends in the kitchen or nearby.

Now, 7 posts from my own blog that I like:

  • Chris Hondros, in Memoriam: Chris was the photographer for one of my first-ever feature articles. He died in Libya almost a year ago.
  • Book Review: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane: I write book reviews at my site every once in awhile, but I like this one because it deals with something I think is super important in books–characters one can identify with. Also, it gave me a chance to write a bit of a love letter to Dennis Lehane’s characters. And okay, maybe Lehane himself. 🙂
  • Speaking the Gospel: This is a brief roundup on why everyone should try public speaking. I almost never write posts about business, but this is one of those things that I’m both good at and that I feel strongly about, so I did this one. It’s just a list of reasons everyone should love to speak publicly. And yes, you read that right.
  • Iron Girl, Iron Guy, and the Iron Maiden, Part I and II: This is the story of our Ironman competition. We trained for six months and had a blast, and I’d readily do it again. I loved this race. It was awesome. (Yes, yes, okay, in retrospect.)
  • A Phone Conversation: This is exactly what it is, a phone conversation between me and Mr. Gooddirt. I think it’s hilarious. It pretty much pegs Mr. Gooddirt.
  • Track Rats: This is part of a series I’m writing called “The People in My Neighborhood.” It’s about the folks who populate my life. This one is about the people who first really made me feel like I was a part of my physical neighborhood.
  • An Open Letter to Do-Gooders: I’ve deployed to Haiti twice as part of the ShelterBox Response Team. While I was there I noticed a few things. This letter is obviously not from ShelterBox itself, but it’s my perspective of what people who really want to help in a disaster situation should and shouldn’t do.

Phew. That was hard. This next one will be easier. 7 blogs I like, and, in turn, pass the 7×7 award on to:

  • GrassDirtCorn. My friend Hollie Butler is very special to me. I’ve known her since I was 18. We were camp counselors together. And we used to write letters. Now Hollie tackles some good things–and not-so-good things–in her blog on food, health, and general life. I love it.
  • DaphneUnfeasible. My friend Kate Schafer is a great literary agent. And she has good, important things to tell writers, on her blog.
  • ChelsKnorr. My friend Chels Knorr just started her blog. She’s off to a bang-up start. I think what she has to say is intriguing. I think the way she says it is beguiling. G’wan, take a gander.
  • Manhattan Nest. I’ve just started reading this one. I almost never have patience with blog posts that are this long, but I love Dan’s sensitivities and his design sense. So he’s hooked me. If you like mid-century design–or design at all–you need to take a look at this.
  • The Sherman Foundation. Thomas Sherman makes great, pithy remarks about things that matter to me–art and design and marketing. I appreciate his respect of my time and attention span, but more important, I respect his wide-ranging definition of design.
  • Harvey Briggs. Harvey’s been involved in advertising everything from cars to pantyhose. I can’t remember how I found him, but I’m thrilled I did. Another master of pithy copy, Harvey often points me to really interesting advertisements, but more important, he has interesting, commentary-provoking things to say. Every. Single. Day.
  • Kate Gale. Is a librettist, an editor, a smart, smart woman, and a wicked conversationalist. Again, short, loads-of-fun commentary. Well worth a peek.
  • Nancy Norton. I’ve written about Nancy before, but I think you should go over and take a peek at her blog. She spends part of the year near Toulouse, France, and aside from the part of me that’s an inveterate francophile, I’m always amazed at the things Nancy ends up doing and seeing–and sharing with us.

Okay. That’s it from me. Thanks to the blogosphere in general for this, and, more specifically, thanks to Miss Morganti.

 

 

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.