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Want to Be a Successful Artist?

Using social media to brand yourself

| From BU Today | By Patrick L. Kennedy

Personal branding in the arts is actually about staying true to one’s vision. The point is to clearly define that vision and to keep in mind the audience, no matter the size, that appreciates that vision. Photo by Jenna Talbott

To tweet or not to tweet? If you make your living as an independent painter, sculptor, graphic designer, musician, actor, or director, the answer is: tweet. As well as blog, email, and Facebook—and most important, do all of these strategically.

Artists today should know how to market themselves, says Benjamín Juárez, dean of College of Fine Arts, who plans to make entrepreneurial skills part of the college’s curriculum going forward.

Nowadays, the arts have lots of competition for people’s time and attention, Juárez explains. “So an artist needs to be not only an excellent, relevant artist, she also needs to be an advocate for her profession, for her art, and for her work. This means that she will have to acquire, on top of her artistic skills, some other tools that will allow her to be a good presenter, to express herself in writing and orally, to reach out to her community, to build new ways in which to experience the arts, to make use of technology and social media.”

A big part of that, he says, is knowing how to brand yourself.

“Personal branding is a state of mind,” Gary Bergmann tells audiences at his lectures on the topic. Bergmann, a personal branding consultant and a career counselor at the School of Management, says his advice applies to artists as much as, if not more than, to business professionals. Careful branding, he says, provides artists swifter recognition and the potential for a more devoted and appreciative audience. “The sooner you realize you are a brand and you need to integrate and unify all the elements of your communication, the better.”

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Dolly Parton to practice personal branding. The term is defined by Dan Schawbel, a personal branding guru Bergmann cites often, as simply “how we market ourselves to others.”

Study after study has shown that “a strong brand gets more revenue through higher awareness,” says branding expert Susan Fournier, an SMG associate professor of marketing. And self-employed artists know that they have to consider revenue if they want to keep making art.

Not that an independent practitioner should try to maximize his or her brand. “A coffee company wants its brand to be the biggest,” Fournier says. “That might not be the best goal for an artist.”

Personal branding in the arts is actually about staying true to one’s vision. The point is to clearly define that vision and to keep in mind the audience, no matter the size, that appreciates that vision.

“Twitter is an incredibly powerful way to get your music or art ideas out there,” says violinist Yevgeny Kutik (CFA’07). “Say things that provoke, are funny, or are informative—anything that would genuinely interest a varied group of individuals. This can really help grow your group of followers as well as get your name out there.”

“It’s not how well you are known,” Bergmann says. “It’s what you are known for.” That’s the first of two major principles of branding as Bergmann sees it. “It’s writing your own mission statement. What are your key attributes?” List them.

For example, “I am known for hand-crafted Swarovski crystal—and an abundance of it—and a lot of style,” says jewelry designer Kirsten Goede (CFA’90). “Bright, colorful, and feminine” are the words associated with her line, Objets d’Envy.

Bergmann’s second and closely related principle is: “It’s not about you; it’s about who your ‘client’ is.”

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Goede

In Goede’s case, that means, “a woman who’s between 28 and 52, probably an educated professional—but really somebody who’s looking for something a little bit different and is not afraid to go a little bit bolder with her jewelry,” she says. (Gayle King, best friend of Oprah Winfrey and coanchor of CBS’s The Early Show, wore an Objets bracelet to the 2011 Academy Awards.) “There’s a ton of jewelry designers out there, but there’s a customer for everybody.”

And, says Fournier, while a large company wants its product to “resonate within the culture,” artists need only focus on a segment of that culture. “There has to be a group that’s drooling for what it is that you do,” she says.

Once you’ve defined your attributes and your audience, or clientele, you’re ready to promote your brand online and off. Web 2.0 and social media allow small entrepreneurs to market themselves as never before. (Think of all the crafts sold on Etsy.)

This doesn’t mean locking yourself indoors and relying solely on the Internet to build your brand. But with cheap and speedy electronic communication, an artist can not only spread the word about upcoming exhibitions or shows, but also develop a buzz and a sense of intimacy with fans.

Goede perfectly blends shoe leather with savvy e-marketing. The women who read her email newsletter and buy her jewelry enjoy doing business with a small entrepreneur, she says. “It’s sort of, ‘This is my friend and my jewelry designer.’” For that reason, she says, she finds email to be a more intimate venue than Facebook or Twitter, although she maintains pages on those sites as well. Meanwhile, she goes out to visit office groups who invite her for lunchtime show-and-tells, and she holds fun “coffee-and-sparkle dates,” where she shows small groups her latest work.

As you juggle online and off-line marketing efforts, the key is to remember “the three Cs of personal branding,” as Bergmann calls them: “clarity, consistency, and constancy. You need to be very clear about who you are and what you do; the message has got to be the same over and over again; and you’ve got to be out there all the time—you can’t be hiding in a corner.”

The advantage of being a one-person promotional machine is that you can make your communications consistent yourself, without having the pieces separately approved by a committee. Using her photography skills and her CFA graphic design training, “I control all the messaging,” Goede says.

“Everything has the same look and feel and voice, and it’s got to be authentic, which is not so hard to do—it’s really just speaking from the heart. Jewelry design is one of the most important things in my life, so I can talk about it and spread the word pretty easily.”

Many of us are wary of putting ourselves out there too much, of seeing our typos or ill-advised posts spread before we can delete them. And indeed, in some ways, you face greater risks branding yourself than if you were branding a coffee or a car, Fournier acknowledges. “Because the brand is a human, and humans make mistakes.”

But to a large extent, you have it all over a faceless corporation. “A strong narrative is the biggest secret of branding,” she says. “All good brands have good stories. And good stories that are resonant and provocative have a main character. Well, the personal brand has that built in already. Artists, because they’re corporeal, can make their stories come alive. It takes a lot more work to do that for a brand of coffee.”

A version of this story appeared in the spring 2012 edition of Esprit.

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