Part 4: Branding, Marketing, and Salesmanship
As you may know, I spent 20 years working as a graphic designer, therefore I am comfortable with the term "branding." I have often heard artists talk of branding like it is intimidating or confusing, sometimes even with scorn or dismissiveness. If you've ever talked to somebody about branding, or read something about it, that left you feeling confused, the source of information a) is trying to sell you their branding services, or b) doesn't understand it either. It's one of those topics that people will bullshit about pretentiously, similar to wine or health food fads. I'm also shaking my finger at those who are quick to be dismissive of branding. You are revealing an attitude that might be laziness, or it might be a sense a entitlement. My work is so amazing I shouldn't have to try hard to sell it. Or, you might have some unreconciled feelings of guilt about capitalism, to which I say "get over it, or do something else."
I want to explain branding in ways that are relevant to a small business like a festival artist. The meaning of branding is the same for any business, but the process of branding is very different between a small company and a big company. My definition of branding is "the impression your company makes on the public." It is important to your business because your credibility is at stake. Ever hear a news anchor mispronounce a word on tv? Doesn't it make you cringe? You wouldn't care if a personal friend made the same mistake, but a news anchor is held to a different standard. A business is held to different standards than a regular person too. You are asking strangers to part with their money. They will hold you accountable in ways that they wouldn't expect of their personal friends.
For a small business, the branding standards you need to achieve are easily attainable. The most important standard is to be consistent all the time. Every time your company name appears in print (when you can control how it looks) it should always look consistent. That might sound simplistic, or even arbitrary, but it's not. This is what it conveys: I know who I am. That is a powerful message. And the truth is, you really do need to know who you are in order to commit to a look. If you are still figuring out your work and yourself, you'll find this surprisingly difficult. When you commit to a consistent look, you come across as confident, credible, and trustworthy. On the other hand, when you fail to use a consistent look for your company name, strangers will subconsciously conclude that you don't have your act together, fair or not. You will be the anchorperson who can't pronounce things correctly. Remember, these are people who don't know you, don't expect any benefit of the doubt.
Here are some elements of my business that I have included in my branding scheme:
My booth banner
The sign in my check-out area
My artist card
My shopping bags
The stamp on the backs of my plates
And of course there's the header of this website too.
Honestly, you don't need to brand all of these things in order to be effective. Do as much as you can. The main point is, whenever you choose to put your company name on something, make sure it is consistent.
For a small business like a pottery studio, it boils down to this: just pick a font already, and don't overthink it more than that. Like I said earlier, depending on your level of self-awareness this might be harder than it sounds. But it really isn't any more complicated. I know I'm not offending my designer friends, because they don't want your work anyways. They are after bigger fish, the ones who need more complicated branding work.
Here's another basic standard you need to meet: When you commit to a font, make sure it's a good one. Bad fonts are everywhere. They are a scourge. A bad font can negate all of your branding efforts by making you look amateurish, no matter how consistent you are. You don't need to be a designer to have access to good fonts. My favorite place to buy them is Fonts.com. This website lets you preview any font in any text. You don't need to buy an expensive package or subscription of fonts. Remember you only need one, which can be as cheap as $30. You don't need to make a conservative choice like I did. My chosen font reflects my personality, and your font should reflect yours. Just please, for heaven's sake, pick a professional-grade font!
You might be thinking, doesn't this mean anyone can portray their company name consistently, and gain credibility points that aren't deserved? Yes, that's true, but you don't have to worry about that. A company with great branding and poor substance is not your competition. Sure, their branding efforts will help to some extent, but they are still going to fail. When I see a company with branding that far exceeds their substance, I figure they paid a talented consultant for their branding, and didn't contribute much to the process. I paid someone to tell me who I am. I feel sympathy for the consultant in those cases. Every designer tries hard to accurately portray their client's character, sometimes there isn't much to work with.
My final word on branding ... think of branding as a baseline standard that your business needs to meet before strangers will take you seriously. But it's just a baseline. You won't get very far without it, but there is still a lot more work to do, so don't sink too much time on this. Figure it out, then turn your attention to the things that will directly generate sales. Starting with ......
"Sales and Marketing" are often said together like they are one thing. I prefer to separate them into two different activities. In the context of art festivals, marketing is everything you do in advance of a show to get people to attend the show. Salesmanship is what happens inside your booth during the show.
When it comes to art festivals, i.e. a live event that folks must attend in person, there is one form of marketing that is far more effective than anything else: email marketing. I focus almost all of my marketing effort building and maintaining an email list, and using it to promote every show. I also make announcements on Facebook, however I don't expect much in terms of results from social media. I don't use Twitter or Instagram at all.
I met most of my email list subscribers at one of my shows. They are art festival goers, who are located close to one of my shows, and appreciated my work enough to hand over their email address. This is a highly targeted group of people, very likely to buy my work sometime in the future. Nobody likes junk email, so when someone gives you their email address, you know their interest level is high.
As popular as social media marketing is these days, it simply cannot deliver the same level of interest. It's reach is too broad. I'm pretty sure most of my facebook and blog followers do not live close enough to attend any of my shows. And it takes so little investment for someone to "like" you online. I equate social media "likes" with pennies, and email addresses with $20 bills.
Of all the potters I know, the ones who make the most money are the ones who spend the least amount of time on social media. This makes perfect sense to me. Social media can be a real time suck. Successful potters understand they need to produce a somewhat insane volume of pots, which doesn't leave much free time. They spend their marketing efforts generating sales, not "likes."
Here's an article from Forbes that expands on how I feel. "Although social media is ideal for promotion and building awareness, it does not always work well to get customers to act." -- Jeff Cornwall, Forbes
After over 10 years of collecting email addresses, my list is currently over 1300 addresses. I collect between 5 and 50 addresses at every show. People can also sign up through my website, those trickle in on a regular basis. I usually get 2 or 3 unsubscribes after every campaign. Every few years, I purge the addresses that are not opening the emails. I use MailChimp to manage my list and write/send the emails. MailChimp makes a lot of this work easier, and it's free (until my list exceeds 2000 addresses, then I'll have to start paying for it).
During the week before every show, I spend about two hours on this. I enter in all the new addresses I collected at the last show, delete the ones who either bounced or unsubscribed, author the new email, and schedule its delivery.
If you think this sounds like too much work, again I'm shaking my finger at you and thinking "lazy." The effort you spend on this will pay you back! I see evidence of this at every show. At a normal show, I'd say 30 to 50% of my sales are made to people who I emailed. Good shows get better and better every year, as the number of repeat customers grows. It is very predictable. The list is especially valuable when I find myself in a bad show, with hardly any attendees. At these shows maybe 75% of my sales are made to my existing fans, who only heard about the event because of my email, and basically saved my ass from losing money. Maybe the best evidence is my annual Open Studio. This event is not advertised to anyone but my followers, and it is usually my highest grossing event of the year (over $10K in 2015).
Years ago when my business was smaller, I did 5 or 6 shows per years. In recent years I ramped that up to 10 or 12 per year. For a while, I worried that sending 12 email campaigns per year would seem spammy. But I have learned it's not. People don't mind hearing from me that often. And the ones who lose interest can easily unsubscribe, thanks to MailChimp. And here's where marketing ties into branding ... all of my emails have a very consistent look, and are formatted in the same, concise way:
1) name of my company
2) a nice photo of my work
3) show dates/times/location/admission fees/website
4) maybe a short paragraph about the show
5) my booth number
6) a link to my website that lists my entire upcoming show schedule (always the most clicked-upon link)
There is a subtext that says "I promise not to waste your time." I want my subscribers to expect that from me. I think this contributes to my high open rate, and my low unsubscribe rate, and why my customers seem to like the emails.
Sometimes other artists ask me, "how do I get people to sign up? I put out a notepad to collect addresses, everyone ignores it." Again, the answer is tied to branding. My email list signup pad has the same consistent look as the rest of my brand. Therefore it is credible and trustworthy. Remember, when someone gives you their email address, they need to feel like they can trust you with it. I place the signup pad where people stand while they are making a purchase. I don't say anything about it. It looks inviting and people sign up on their own. I only talk about it when a customer initiates a conversation such as "what other shows are you doing?" I'll answer that my show schedule is always on my website, and if you're really interested you can get automatic notices by email (while pointing to the signup pad). I never initiate the conversation, because I don't want anyone to sign up because they were too polite to say no. (I once watched another artist do that ... super awkward.) I'll never do anything gimmicky like offer a raffle or giveaway in exchange for email signups. This is a waste of time, because the people who respond to this are not interested in buying your work. They only want it if it's free. The only addresses that I equate with $20 bills are the ones that happen naturally. Skip the gimmicks, get rid of the storebought spiral notebook or steno pad, and create a signup form that matches your brand. I created an 8.5 x 11 page with two forms per page.
I cut the pages in half, then I use a heavy-duty stapler to bind them to a piece of cardboard. I've been using this same piece of cardboard for years. Whenever I need new pages, I pry off the old ones, and staple on new ones.
Did you notice that the everything takes time theme has appeared again? I have a great mailing list because I built it slowly over time. I didn't take any shortcuts. I decided this was important many years ago, and I have been faithfully maintaining this process ever since.
As I mentioned above, salesmanship refers to everything that happens inside your festival booth. It is the end of the line, where sales are either made or lost. Salesmanship is the reason why branding is only marginally important to a festival artist, because during most of the time your business interacts with the public, you are there. Your presence, persona, and behavior are far more important in terms of making an impression. There isn't one right way to do it, there is no script or formula. Good salesmanship is about your attitude. Pick the right attitude and your behavior will follow. I have a few rules, starting with:
Don't be shy. I struggled with this in my early years. I was anxious about being in public with my work on display, and nervous about talking to strangers. It's normal to feel this way at first, but you need to overcome it. I know that's easier said than done for some people. If you truly have too much anxiety about this, this is not the right job for you. You will be miserable and you won't have much success. For me, it got easier with time (there's that pesky theme again). You know what helped me the most? Teaching pottery classes. The format is very similar, i.e. public speaking to a small group of people. Being a teacher forced me to do it two nights a week, every week. Eventually it became second nature. Which leads to the next rule:
Don't think of yourself as a salesperson. Think of yourself as a teacher. When you are talking to customers about your work, don't even think about making a sale. Instead, just teach your customers about your work. Hopefully, your work contains a great deal of your thoughts, ideas, feelings. Put those thoughts into words. In Part 2 of this blog series, I wrote about my line of work, and the development process that my pottery designs go through. I already have prepared stories about many of those designs. This allows me to easily start talking when I notice a customer's interest. That is, if I sense that the customer would welcome some interaction from me. You know what else a teacher is responsible for? Reading people and making everyone feel comfortable, like being a good host of a party. Which leads to the next rule:
Remember that every customer is an individual. This is a mistake that too many festival artists make. They start seeing their customers as one collective lump, rather than individual people. "Them." A festival artist must use their people skills to read each individual customer, and give them as much space or attention they need. You cannot assign your beliefs about one customer to everyone else. This is another form of laziness. It's easy to fall into this trap. And it takes a whole lot of energy to do the opposite, which is to view every new person as a completely new situation, all day long.
I can't believe that customer asked a question that I just answered 30 minutes ago. Now I have to answer it again! What an idiot! I have actually read other artists' blogs where they are complaining about this. Guess who's the idiot. This is another common way that artists fail to see each customer as an individual. And yes, working at a festival means you have to answer the same questions all day, and tell the same stories about your work repeatedly. It's part of the job to always deliver those answers like it's the first time. Do you think this will annoy you? Then read my next rule:
Be grateful. This cannot be faked. It must be genuine, from somewhere deep inside. It is a privilege to be a potter. Make sure your customers know that you understand this, which means they don't owe you anything. Be grateful for sales, plus all the compliments, questions, even when someone just takes the time to look. These things are all worthy of your gratitude. Your customers deserve to feel it. When you express gratitude, it pays you back.
A person on an online listserv once said that she refuses to say "thank you" when she gets a compliment, because she reserves her "thank yous" for sales. Does she really think people cannot detect her passive-aggressiveness? She's wrong. She's treating her customers like they are dumb. Which leads to the next rule:
Treat your customers like the intelligent people they are. Anyone who wants to furnish their home with handmade wares, and can afford to do it, has a combination of high self-esteem, appreciation for beauty, good taste, and some kind of successful professional life. Way above average. These people understand the word "value," and spend their money thoughtfully.
If you are encountering a lot of stupid people, go back and read Part 1 of this blog series. You are applying to the wrong shows.
Don't listen to anyone who thinks salesmanship involves tricking, conning, or arm twisting. A person who is interested in handmade craft is too smart to fall for any of that. Which leads to my final rule:
Don't apply any pressure. Zero. None. There's no need for pressure. You've already done everything you can. The final decision is for your customer to make. Respect an intelligent person's ability to decide for themselves. Remember that your business will not survive if people will only buy your work once. Therefore, trying to turn a quick sale in a way that is disrespectful to your customer will only hurt you in the long run. On the other hand, if customers walk away feeling great about their new pots, and the experience they had in your booth, they will come back and they will refer their friends. Those are the only kind of sales you want.
I've written before on this blog about my love of wood-firing. Wood-firing is a great analogy for what I'm writing about here. You can spend years studying and practicing forms, surfaces, and construction methods that are well-suited for a wood-fired pots. Then every time you hand your pots over to the kiln, you must let go. It's amazing what you see when you acknowledge the limits of your control. It's both humbling and empowering, because you also see exactly what you can control.
If I had to condense all of my salesmanship rules into one rule, here it is:
Make every individual person who walks into your booth feel like they are welcome to stay as long as they want without buying anything.
In a recent post, I mentioned that I was sick during this year's ACC Baltimore show. My brain was working at half-speed, and I was tired and grumpy. I did my best, but I couldn't always maintain the right frame of mind to be a good host in my booth. My sales were over $1000 less than the previous year. I hope this illustrates the value of my salesmanship approach. Being "off" can cost you money! Don't worry, I made up for the lost funds at the Smithsonian Craft Show, where my sales far exceeded last year's sales. And to follow up on that same recent blog post, my new 8W LED PAR lightbulbs made my booth at the SCS look fantastic. Maybe those attracted a few extra sales too.
This is the end of The Art Festival Plan blog series. Thank you to everyone who read all of them. This was my comprehensive "plan," i.e. how I get ready for every show, and how I make decisions for every year. I hope you found enough guidance to put together your own plan. This doesn't mean I will stop writing about shows and business-related things. No doubt there will be plenty of stories and experiences to share in the future.