Sunday, September 2, 2012

Brand 'em, podnah--the importance of brand loyalty

I'm sort of at a loss right now. Almost every year since I turned thirteen, I've been busy every Labor Day weekend working on the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Here in Dallas, the last few years have been broadcasting with Channel Five from Lone Star Park with the Sonic "Tot Board" and answering phones behind someone like Mike Doocy (a really nice guy) and before that Chip Moody (yes, I still remember). Is anyone else old enough to remember when we did it from SIX FLAGS OVER TEXAS? That was AWESOME. Back then (this was high school for me, kids), the Sid and Marty Krofft "Banana Splits" and "Lidsville" characters were a park theme, and we all went out and played with them between answering the phones and eating Pink Thing Ice Cream Bars. One year we were even at the Channel Thirteen studios on Harry Hines, if I'm not confusing that with the pledge drives. (GRIN) *I think I am confusing it*

*BUT ANYWAY*. Here I am sweltering in the heat and NOT watching the show MDA is putting on this year, for personal reasons. I've managed to contribute to sending kids to camp through other channels (among them James Lacerenza's wonderful efforts up in the New York area). I can't help thinking about MDA's BIG MISTAKE, though. In 2011, for reasons that have NEVER quite been explained, they committed what one website calls "a kind of hari-kari, taking an established brand and flushing it down the toilet." Yes, I agree. They took the image that Jerry Lewis and his showbiz and corporate friends had built over fifty years and tore it to bits, claiming that it was holding them back. They didn't NEED that brand.

But it was a dire error. Last year, although they claimed they got more money than ever, their tax returns say otherwise. The discarding of the Jerry Lewis headshot and voice and brand hurt them, and it's apparent that they're going to have to regroup and make another brand that people want to be loyal to--and quickly. I feel so bad for the patients and researchers who are suffering because of this stupid way of ushering out the "old" before they even had any "new."

You can see another failure to understand brand loyalty in the JCPenney advertising debacle. A few months ago, JCP announced it would no longer do coupons or send out advertising catalogs and flyers. Instead, they revealed their Fair Pricing scheme, which was too elaborate for the buying public at large to try to understand. Over the past quarter, Penneys sales took an alarming dive. The moral of the story is that people don't KNOW what they want until you advertise it and create a desire for it--and then they see a coupon and think they will get a better deal on it than other people will--and they run to fight over the item at the store. I think it's wonderful that Penneys thought up this neat scheme, which made sense to ME, but I can see how it really affected their business. It's all a case of brand loyalty. If you no longer advertise your brand as "special" and show the things to people in pictures they can understand, it all falls apart.

I'll bet that at the supermarket, you always reach for orange Palmolive dish soap and Cascade dishwashing pellets (or whatever "your" brand is) because you know you can rely on the products. You expect the same performance you got the last time, and if it was good, then there's no reason to change. Right? Brand loyalty in action.

Why am I typing at such length about all of this?

Because as an author, you also need to build brand loyalty. In one sense, this means that when the audience expects a thriller from you, you'd better deliver a thriller. You have to make your next book different enough so that it doesn't seem that you have just changed the names and locations and stuck different heads on the bad guys, but then "same" enough that readers feel comfy and know that they can expect a reading experience similar to the last one, the one they enjoyed enough to make them seek out this book of yours.

Does this mean I approve of authors never growing, never going in a different direction never trying something new? Not at all. But I have to acknowledge the realities of the marketplace. You must offer readers a reason to keep coming back to your work. You need to make them love your characters enough to want to see what happens to them next. You need to show readers places they've never been, show them things they've never done or thought of doing, so that their vicarious experience is pleasing to them--just the way it was last time.

What if you want to write in a different genre now? Say you were really successful in YA fantasy, but now you want to write mysteries for grown-ups (like Joanne Rowling). Well, you're going to have trouble if you don't create a new brand. I believe that Rowling is going to get a terrible shock if she puts out a book that's really different from her Potter series, because people are going to compare it--and that's not fair. Yet it's going to happen. Unless she's an amazing wizard herself, she's going to encounter lots of problems with reader reception of her new work.

The answer is to have a pen name. I write YA fantasy under my long-time 'net name, Shalanna Collins. I've been Shalanna to the 'net since the CompuServe days (70356,62 was my login ID--that's pretty ancient) and the FidoNet years. My husband first knew me as Shalanna (online). I answer to pretty much anything by this point. LOL

But Shalanna Collins is the fantasy author in our family.

So when I came to publish mysteries, I went with my driver's license name, Denise Weeks. This made my mother happy to no end. She and her cronies, not to mention the entire family, always carped about how difficult it was for them to mention my books to anyone "because of that crazy name." Now they carp about how difficult it is to mention my books for all sorts of OTHER reasons, including the BDSM content in NICE WORK and the paranormal content in some of the others, but never mind--that's another rant.

You need to build support for your author brand. If you can garner followers who look forward to your next book because they know it'll be "the same, but different," and they can reacquaint themselves with the characters you have featured in the past and their new loves/bosses/children, you have a much better chance of success than the author who doesn't try to build any brand recognition and who just goes with singleton attempts, all different.

So before you start out as a writer, consider the "brand" you will be building. You might have to live with it for quite some time, so be sure you are writing the book of your heart, a book you would like to read. You'll have to re-read it so many times yourself, after all!


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good post, Denise, and you are right on. Marilyn

Shalanna said...

I wish I weren't--but it's true. We must think of the audience that we have built (or are building) and serve their needs, or else we'll be one of those authors whose series books kind of peter out ("She doesn't write it the way she used to! She phones it in! I miss ol' Gilbert!" and so forth)

I miss Jerry Lewis, too. I hadn't realized how much I looked forward to the chaos when we had a local station on-the-air bit and did one of those "Sonic will match your donation for the next five minutes!" and the phones would start to ring and you'd be filling out the pledge envelopes or taking credit card numbers. Then you'd look at the tote board and everyone would cheer! And of course Jerry would sing. Ah, me. Sic transit gloria mundi.

But it sure illustrates the power of branding.

Kelly Hashway said...

Very true. I'm already branding myself as a paranormal writer.

Lorna Collins - said...

Wonderful! Branding is concept some people find hard to grasp. It's a bit trickier for us since we write in several different genres, but we always say we ahve something for nearly everyone.

Augie said...

Thank you for this makes sense. Augie

Holli said...

I am just starting to get this brand thing as well. I don't like the terminology, but I agree that the concept of creating a brand must be embraced by writers if they want their books to stand out from the crowd.

Sally Carpenter said...

The problem with JC Penney is that in attempting to to look up-to-date it's alienating its older core customers. JC did away with the cataloges so nobody knows what items it carries; eliminated the brands I buy; set up a website that's impossible to use; and is even doing away with store clerks and putting in self-serve checkout counters. When I email my complaints I get computer-generated puff on how great the store is. What this means to writers is that changing too much too quickly and not responding to customers/readers, an author can quickly lose an audience.