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Brand Building for Freelancers

Steve Nakamoto is a former tour director. He’s a former Dale Carnegie instructor and a personal development trainer. He’s also an author, an expert on relationships — and a freelance brand. He might not be a brand you’ve heard of and he’s certainly not a brand as big as Coca Cola or Nike but in a market as competitive as that of relationship expertise, Nakamoto has been able to carve out a spot for himself that’s pushed his book into multiple editions and given him the freelance business he wanted.

Nakamoto did that with a metaphor. His book is entitled Men Are Like Fish: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Catching a Man but that metaphor encapsulates all of the most important elements necessary for turning an idea for a freelance business into a recognizable brand that helps a new firm to stand out from the competition and win loyal customers.

The brand is clear.

Just as John Gray was able to create a brand out of describing men as coming from Mars and Women from Venus, and Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen have created an entire publishing niche by describing anything that makes you feel better as “chicken soup,” so Nakamoto is able to associate himself with the idea that men need to be baited, hooked and landed.

The brand is memorable.

The idea that men are like fish might not be completely original (the saying “there are plenty more fish in the sea” has been around for a while and is unlikely to have been inspired by Nakamoto) but it is both strange and simple enough to stick in the mind. Nakamoto can use the fish theme in his marketing material and keep himself recognizable while buyers feel that the metaphor explains something about men they’ve always found mystifying.

The brand communicates.

Nakamoto’s brand states who he is: a relationship expert with a particular approach towards helping people find life partners. A brand doesn’t have to do more than that on creation. Add good results though, and that brand will quickly fill with the extra ingredient that makes it really effective: trust.

So how does a freelancer begin creating a simple brand that customers can remember and which helps him to stand out in the market?

According to T. Scott Gross, author of Microbranding: Build a Powerful Personal Brand and Beat Your Competition, the brand creation process — including the process used to create an idea like microbranding — has four stages: Truth or Dare; Value Discovery; Conscious Creation; and Cement Yourself. While the details are complex enough to fill a 300-page book, the stages essentially involve understanding what really matters about the business and what you want to do with it; creating the message you want to send to leads and customers; building the image, name and concept that will help you to stand out; and finally, bringing all of those things to the market where they’ll hopefully produce enough loyalty to bring in stable sales.

It’s All About You

While uniqueness is a vital element of a freelance brand, that process isn’t unique to T. Scott Gross’s idea of brand building. Tom Peters, creator of the Reinventing Work series that includes The Brand You 50: Fifty Ways to Transform Yourself from an “Employee” into a Brand that Shouts Distinction, Commitment and Passion, describes some similar concepts. Number eleven in the fifty-strong branding list, for example, is “Give the World a Clear Picture of Who You Are.” That involves figuring out the nature of your product, how “it” is special (that is, the magic “it” that makes any product special), and how it differs from others’ similar offerings. It’s all very similar to the Truth or Dare stage of T. Scott Gross’s book when business owners figure out the essential elements they’re going to be promoting to their market.

The stage of self-identification is likely to be much harder than it sounds, and harder even than generating an easily identifiable metaphor, logo or design — a stage that can be outsourced to a professional writer or designer. Sometimes though it’s possible to come up with something surprisingly simple. Easyjet, a budget airline, is so well-known for its dirt-cheap plane tickets that it’s able to suffer similar infamy for its poor customer service. Zappos, a retail site, was able to brand itself in a hugely competitive space by doing the opposite: emphasizing personal and attentive customer service in a sector plagued by hierarchical phone menus and Mumbai switchboards. Just doing something that no one else is doing can be enough to give a business a unique niche in its market. Add the visual aspects (the swoosh, the red can or the golden arches) or the central idea (help as chicken soup, men as fish, women as Venutians) and a freelancer will have the two essential ingredients of uniqueness and easy recognition.

Defending Your Brand

It would be great to be able to say that brand building really boils down to those two elements but for freelancers they don’t always. The lack of uniqueness in Steve Nakamoto’s choice of metaphor was always a weak element in his brand. Not only would leads not always associate the idea of fish as men with Nakamoto in the same way that they link simple functionality with Apple products, but it also increased the risk that other people would have a similar idea. Today, the concept of a single as fish in the sea is likely to be more associated with plentyoffish.com, a popular dating site, than with Steve Nakamoto.

There is then an additional stage in freelance branding that isn’t described by either T. Scott Gross or Tom Peters: the constant refinement of the brand so that it remains strong enough to communicate, speak clearly and stand out from the competition. Brand building may be a way of carving out your niche in your market but that’s only the first difficult step. You then have to defend the brand and hold on to that niche.

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