Don’t Let Your Startup Become a Lifestyle


June 15, 2017

I recently gave a lecture at the A.S.I.A. symposium on the challenges of building a career in lutherie. During that lecture, I touched on several things which I will put down in article form in the coming months. I wanted to touch on one subject though that seemed to generate the most questions and confusion from my audience. That subject is branding.

What is branding? Why is it important in contemporary lutherie? How can you improve your branding?

Of all the non-instrument making skills that are required to make a successful business in lutherie (bookkeeping, marketing, networking etc…), branding is probably the one that I have the most natural interest in. I never studied it formally so keep in mind that my ideas on branding come more from intuition and experience. I’m no expert and am always trying to improve in this area, but I do seem to get regular compliments on this part of my business. So, I figured I’d share what I do understand about it.

The first thing I need to point out is that marketing is not branding. Marketing is part of branding, or more specifically it is a tool for branding.

Branding at its core is simply story telling.

A brand is a mental object, or an icon, that tells the story, and conveys the ethics or driving forces, behind a company. A good thing to research on your own is marketing archetypes. Understanding them can help you a lot in defining and understanding your brand.

blogSo, let’s look at a company that I think has excellent branding. I started following Westerly Richards and Co about 2 years ago on Instagram because of their branding and because I loved all the detail work on their guns. That right there is the first thing they do well. They bring people not interested in guns into their world through their branding. Great photography, but more importantly consistency. If you scroll through their Instagram feed you will see that not only are the photos of their work exceptional, but that the entirety of their page has a very distinct look and feel that is created through consistency from post to post.

This attention to detail, consistency, and feel conveys a story of craftsmanship, history, luxury, art, expertise, and value.

If you then visit their website , that vibe remains consistent. So now we have multiple platforms through which they are conveying the same story. On the website, you have access to new content, like the biography of the company, shop tours etc… but the feel of it all remains the same.

blogIn the end, after spending some time visiting their site, Instagram feed, and watching videos on YouTube, you are left with a very defined feeling. This company has a rich history of excellent craftsmanship, they build some of the finest rifles in the world, they have exclusivity and rarity, they are experts in their field, and despite not being into guns or hunting, I want one. Most importantly, they have conveyed all of that without saying any of it. That is brilliant branding. Again, the big thing here is consistency. The photos on their own are examples of nice product photography but that’s it. But taken together from Instagram to show room, it builds a story and definite feeling through consistent messaging.

blogThis is a shot of a showroom in their factory. Notice that it is consistent with their online image, their history, story and attention to detail.

It’s possible you may think this is too involved. That its overkill and you don’t have the budget or need for that kind of marketing campaign. You may also already be getting sales and so don’t see the need for all of this from that angle too.

The question then becomes, why is this important? Well, branding, like any good marketing has a goal of driving sales. Any business owner who doesn’t want sales probably shouldn’t own a business. But branding is more than a sales driver. Branding builds long term and sustainable value. It also, counterintuitively, doesn’t have to cost all that much. With social media, access to high quality but affordable digital cameras, and a little research, a lot can be done very cheaply to create a meaningful DYI brand.

In the world of lutherie we have a few companies who really exemplify the power of branding. One that stands out to me, as an arch top maker, is a company who has built a business off the name of a famous arch top guitar maker.

There really is no existing strand of continuity from the original maker and the company today. They build instruments that he didn’t build, his family has been bought out of the equation, the company has gone through multiple renditions of production in multiple different countries, and they have deviated from his designs in ways that I doubt he would have. And yet… they carry his name, some signature design elements, and sell instruments for extraordinary prices. Why? Branding. This is an example of how storytelling, consistency, and iconic imagery can create so much value in a brand that it even supersedes the namesake and founder themselves.

So, therefore, in addition to driving sales, its worthwhile putting some effort and thought into building a solid brand. Because the value added to your company through good branding can open a lot of doors for you in the future in terms of your ability to expand your business, stabilize revenue, generate interest, and if it’s something you are ever interested in, it could even potentially give you a way to sell your company and retire (not that most of us have that goal).

Ok, how do you do it?

First and foremost, you must be genuine in your branding. If you were creating a cola company I’m not sure this would be as necessary. But in a creative industry such as lutherie, where your clientele tends to be well educated about the craft, and who tend to want to interact with you a lot throughout the process, it becomes imperative that your brand is built on a foundation that is genuine to you as a person, your philosophy as an artisan, and your products. If you try to build a brand that inflates some trait you have little of or fabricates some aspect of what you do then it will all collapse eventually.

From there, without making it more complicated than it needs to be, to start building a brand you need to sit down and think about what aspects of your personality and your personal story are intrinsic to your craft. Then think about what you want people to understand about you and your instruments. What message are you trying to convey to people? What do you want to be known most for? And if you could fast forward 100 years and look back on your career what would you want to stand out to people?

Maybe you want to be known for your artistic creativity. Or maybe you want to be known as a maker who built solid instruments for real gigging players. Or maybe you want to be known for building a solid business and being one of the only luthiers to drive a Porsche. Whatever it is, try to visualize a very complete and detailed image of it. That is your brand.

Branding then becomes, in short, the consistent and continual messaging that cultivates and reinforces that brand to the world. The key here is consistency. So, across all platforms – your website, your Instagram, Twitter, the marketing material you have at trade shows, or when you’re going out to meet people in person at shows – it should all have the same consistent vibe which conveys your brand to people at all times.

It’s tempting of course to feel like this is “salesy” and a lot of people (including myself) are uncomfortable with that. Larger companies that have big marketing budgets can simply get around this problem by outsourcing this process to a dedicated employee or agency. But if you are a luthier you are probably running a one-man or one-woman show. That’s where the rule of being genuine comes in. This is not putting on a show that is inconsistent with who you are. This is simply defining an image for your business – that is in line with you – which you reinforce through your professional/public interactions.

A big part of this is in what you don’t do. You can achieve a lot by just eliminating things which distract from your brand. For example, … I have worked hard the last few years at trying to minimize posts on social media that are more personal in nature, like photos of my dog. Because as much as I love her, she doesn’t do much to contribute to my brand. What ends up happening is, for people who don’t know me personally, pictures of my dog just end up distracting them from the messaging that I am trying to hit them with. You’ll notice that I do have occasional personal posts because people like to have that personal connection, but I really limit them.

I understand that this topic can come off as too contrived or awkward and it makes some people uncomfortable. I want to be clear that I don’t sit around every day thinking about this. But, I have noticed that in this industry a lot of people just never think about it. I think that’s a mistake… particularly for younger luthiers trying to come up in the highly competitive and digital contemporary landscape of lutherie. Many people in the older generations of lutherie never thought about this stuff. Their brands sort of just got built around them automatically because of the era they existed in. But with the landscape we have now I’m not sure it works the same way.

Branding shouldn’t ever feel awkward and it shouldn’t make you or your clients feel like you are engaged in the sale of a used car. But you should think about what your brand looks like and how you relate to it. You can put as much or as little effort as you want into marketing. But if you give this subject some thought, you know that at the very least you are bringing some intention to the process of your brand. Because if you aren’t building it intentionally then you could be building it inadvertently and the last thing you want is to inadvertently build a brand that doesn’t represent you or your values well or even worse actually reduces your value.

I hope this helped some of you get your minds around this subject and that it got some wheels turning. Till next time!

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