Business + Marketing

7 Steps to Making Your Brand a Photo Empire

February 27, 2019

By Blair deLaubenfels

Photo © Kristi Odom

Blair deLaubenfels first started working with Kristi Odom in 2013 and helped her to develop dual brands in both wedding and nature photography.

“If you have big dreams, build a brand, not a business!” I first heard that phrase in 2006 at a Seattle conference for women entrepreneurs called Startup Junkie. Along with my close friends and fellow photographers Christy Weber and Kim Bamberg, I had just decided to launch Junebug Weddings and we were all looking for smart ways to go about it. We knew we wanted to build an online magazine that was unique and beautiful, and that focused on wedding photography, which we planned to expand quickly and eventually sell within seven to ten years. With a focus on brand building, a little luck and eight years of hard work, we built Junebug and brought photography to center stage in the world of wedding blogs with our World’s Best Photographers Hotlist and our photo blog, Photobug. Then, when we decided to move on in 2015, we sold JB to investors for a price that made us smile.

So, what is the difference between building a brand and building a business?

A business has clients and sells products and/or services; a brand sells experiences and develops communities, in addition to making sales and maintaining clients.

Businesses often remain static or grow slowly; brands innovate and grow quickly.

Businesses have names and logos; brands have names and logos you recognize and that stand for something unique.

Businesses have marketing, sales and communication to build more business; brands have marketing, sales and communications designed cohesively to demonstrate authority in their market and attract their ideal clients.

Just think about some of the icons in our industry—photographers like Sue Bryce, Jerry Ghionis, Lindsay Adler and Susan Stripling. They all have recognizable brands and large communities that allow them to offer more to clients and followers than their competitors. From workshops to full-blown conferences and online education, to tools, apps, photo services and product lines, they’ve all shown us how distinctive brands can create multiple businesses with impressive profits.

Due to the intense commitment, though, becoming a brand is not for everyone. But if you are ready and excited to expand your reach and go beyond standard bookings, here are seven things you can do to build a brand that will kick open doors and take your possibilities to another level.

1. Clarify What You Have to Offer and Why It’s Wanted and Unique

To get started, define your niche based on a real passion you can stay dedicated to for years to come. When I think of photographer Lindsay Adler, I think of stunning fashion images, magazine covers and a whole suite of educational offering. When I think of Jerry Ghionis, I think of dramatic wedding images, WPPI print comp and awards, the Ice Society and the Ice Light. Both of these photographers have built their distinctive brands based on real passion, and that’s allowed them to leverage their skills and talents to sell workshops, presentations and products. For every brand, there is a driving force that helps inform all of its plans and projects. So before you start anything that will take years of commitment, make a mission statement, get focused, and define the style and values you want to be known for now and in the years to come.

2. Define Your Ideal Client

When you think of clients to target, you may think “couples getting married” or “pregnant moms,” but those vague descriptions won’t help you build a brand. You’ll need to decide on a much narrower group, like “young professionals getting married who love animals and the great outdoors.” That description could allow you to travel, expand into nature photography (if that’s your jam), and sell outdoor products and services later. In fact, that’s exactly what my long-time client and friend Kristi Odom did. When we first started working together in 2013, she had fallen in love with nature photography but was worried that it wouldn’t make sense to her wedding clients. We decided to incorporate her passion into her emerging brand. Now, she is a Nikon Ambassador, wedding and nature photographer, and an international photography educator, with her work shown in the Smithsonian.

3. Choose a Name That Can Build a Recognizable Brand

Most artists use their own name to make their brand about their personal style. Some artists use studio names to sell a wider range of photography styles and genres using the work of multiple photographers. Of course, brand names that are easy to spell, easy to say and inspiring all have a natural advantage, and if you have years of experience and a great reputation, you’ve got a cherry on your sundae. Whatever you do, choose something that others can love (and get a .com URL if at all possible). I remember knowing that the name “Junebug” was it for me when people kept telling me they loved the website even before it existed.

4. Communicate Cohesively Across All Platforms

Every way you interact with an audience—whether it’s through your website, social media, text, email or face to face—it’s important that your communications stay cohesive. That means your logo, taglines, website design, colors, fonts, layouts and written content stay consistent in style and complement your brand. All too often, I see photographers with great photos whose brands aren’t working because of lack of cohesion in these critical areas.

5. Build Your Community, Influence and Email Lists

Great brands know that sales come from relationships. Regularly posting online, having an interesting newsletter, booking public speaking gigs, and attending conferences and networking events are just a few of the great ways for you to connect with people who want to connect with you. Expand your social presence and maintain an email list with first name, last name, email address and category of client. Every follower, fan and person in your list is an opportunity for sales and referrals.

6. Get Published and Win Awards

Every time your work shows up on a blog, in a magazine or on a list of awards, you are one step closer to becoming a recognizable name (plus, you create valuable link-backs to your content that can boost your search rank). Make it part of your schedule to submit to magazines and award sites.

7. Sell an Emotional Experience

When your marketing is creative and cohesive to your brand, sales become much easier because you are no longer selling a list of things—you are selling an overall experience. The truth is, people don’t just want great pictures or products; they also want wonderful memories and experiences that make them feel better about themselves. When you’re presenting what you offer, help your clients imagine a gorgeous album on their table and your stunning art up on their walls from the moment they start working with you. Beautifully framed photos and well-designed albums will make future sales for you and make your clients happy. Selling education or workshops? Don’t just think of the advice you have to share; think about how you will interact with your clients in a way that stands out from your competition. I guarantee my workshops offer gourmet food and drinks and follow-up with all my attendees, which helps to boost my ticket sales. Find a way to give your audience a unique experience­—and it’ll go a long way to building a brand that lasts.

Blair deLaubenfels is a business mentor and marketing strategist who offers portfolio curation, copywriting, SEO and website services to professional photographers.

Related: 10 Ways to Impove How Potential Clients See Your Photo Business

8 Common Branding Pitfalls in Wedding and Portrait Photography

6 Things to Ask Yourself If You Need Help Breaking Out of a Photography Mold