What’s in a name: 5 tips for reluctant brand-builders

For marketing wizards to whom self-promotion comes easy, branding is miraculous.

It’s the invisible psychic force that compels grocery store customers pick up a full-price box of Lucky Charms over a less expensive bag of Marshmallow Mateys.

Marshmellow Mateys

The way this miracle works is not terribly mysterious. The brand name carries with it a lifetime’s-worth of seeing commercials and growing up with that brand. There’s a promise of quality in certain names that compel customers to choose the tried-and-true brand over a product that is unbranded and unfamiliar.

Full Disclosure Time: When I was first introduced to the concept of branding, I did not believe it was miraculous.

In fact, my reaction to it was much like the one I have when multiple, consecutive disco selections are played on the oldies station where my Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot used to be… a mild anaphylaxis and the words GET IT OFF ME!

To me, it seemed branding was what happened to cattle when the old-time rancher wanted to mark them as part of his herd.

Not fun. Though I managed to find an online image of a “fire brand” online that does not make me queasy.


Also, I’m a little too ADD to synonymize myself with any one genre or writing style. It’s hard to say which character’s gonna keep me up nights until I get around to telling his or her story.

To be clear, I do not condemn anyone who’s great at brand promotion. I stand in legitimate awe of authors without whom we couldn’t imagine the genre as it is today, such as fantasy sans George R. R. Martin or mystery sans Arthur Cohnan Doyle.

But Doyle rather famously hated Sherlock Holmes! He even tried to kill Holmes and abandon the brand, but he reluctantly revived Holmes because together, Holmes and he could reliably make money.

Happy Holmes

Not exactly the dream-come-true we often think writing careers should be, right?

After much contemplation and having to rewrite this article a couple times to minimize my own nhilism on the subject, here are 5 strategies for writers who have hith..loathe to pay homage to the branding beast:

1. Pick a genre and stick with it, come what may (my least favorite option). Some lucky ducks sustain a passionate, life-long love affair with their brand which happens to include a particular genre and writing style. Others stick to the brand when the love grows cold and figure, “Oh well. If it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay me to do it.”

2. Screw branding and write what you want. This is not necessarily the thing to do in the midst of building your fan base, but it’s a right and proper thing to do at either end of your writing career. Pre-Audience you will feel free-er to explore what you like / what audience responds to. Established You may get enough love from the book community to trust your audience will go with you on new and out-of-the-way journeys. The era in between is when brand defiance makes your (and perhaps your publicist’s) life a bit harder.

3. Cultivate multiple brands at once. Some writers have a small collection of pen names and personas for different audiences. This means slower potential growth for each of their brands, but they always get to write what they want. By using an alias or ten, you can write a picture book, a lit fic novel, a gardening manual, a military sci-fi saga, and “choose your own adventure” pornography series and never need to worry you’ll alienate your audience. The ones who wouldn’t like your latest title don’t even have to know it’s you.

4. Use your brand as a buffer between you and your audience. You know how if you start an LLC, you insulate yourself from certain legal woes while reaping personal rewards from the business you built? Your brand can insulate you in a similar manner from fools who want to be jerks to you based on the way you write and carry yourself. When trigger-happy critics open fire on your latest creation, or some internet troll uses trashes your name in a post in all his comma-splicing, run-on sentence glory, don’t take it personally. As much as they might want to think they’re worth your time and raised blood pressure, they haven’t actually attacked you. They’ve attacked your brand. And if you play this crazy marketing well enough, your brand’ll be bigger than your haters.

5. Define your brand by what your books have in common. This is the item on my list that gives me the most hope for my own books, because I’ve never done the same thing twice, even in my series which went from kinda-sorta novel to graphic novel. The only thing they truly have in common is a common writer, and sometimes that’s enough.

Part of what inspired my change of heart on branding vs. the writer’s voice was learning that Marathon Man and The Princess Bride were written by a guy named William Goldman.

Buttercup's Baby.png

In his own estimation, the only things those works had in common were as follows: pain, anger, and the most relatable characters die miserably.

Quoth he…

“…I was the guy who gave Babe over to Szell in the “Is it safe?” scene and… I was the guy who put Westley into The Machine. I think I have a way with pain. When I come to that kind of sequence I have a certain confidence that I can make it play. Because I come from such a dark corner.”

(This may or may not be a digression from the topic at hand. I concede, I may have merely thought William Goldman is awesome and wanted to call attention to more of his words)

In summary, branding can be scary.

Take whatever approach you need to make it less scary, ’cause marketing’s a thing that will help you better dispense your stories.

And, as the ancients who govern the sad, disco-esque oldies stations might say, “Write on!”


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