Branding Yourself: what’s your ‘user experience’?

Stop thinking of branding as 'selling out'. Clarity and consistency help you share your authentic creative gifts.
Little girl framing face with painted fingers

In this day and age, to be a working creative is to take on both the craft and the business. In a sense, we are both the creator, and the created. This requires the ability to wear two hats and to wear them well; to know ourselves deeply as artists, and to understand our marketplace accurately as entrepreneurs.

Regardless of how we might feel about playing the business side of the game, if we truly want to achieve our personal vision of success, branding can be a valuable addition to our toolkit. 

What is branding?

‘Branding’ and ‘marketing’ are often confused or used interchangeably, but in reality, are two very different practices. Branding is the careful designing of a product or service’s holistic image, whereas marketing is the act of promoting and/or selling it. 

Branding is the careful designing of a product or service’s holistic image, whereas marketing is the act of promoting and/or selling it. 

Applied to our world as creatives, it can help to think of one’s branding as our ‘user experience’. This is a phrase borrowed from the tech world, but is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English as, ‘the overall experience of a person using a product, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use’. This may sound a little abstract, but we all have a well-honed, instinctive sense of what this means in practice. 

For example, if asked to describe Apple’s user experience – setting aside our individual love or hate or indifference – we’d no doubt have a fairly strong ‘feel’ for what they do and sell. Apple has ‘won’ the branding game in many ways because, regardless of preferences, we’d likely all come to a general consensus. This is not a happy accident; it’s the result of extraordinarily deliberate and ongoing curation. 

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While sectors of the business world have realised the tremendous power of branding in a time of unprecedented saturation and competition, many still haven’t. Unsurprisingly then, the majority of actors and creative professionals (excepting, of course, the A-listers who have people to do this for them) have hardly started to use the power of branding.

Why does branding matter?

Why is branding something worth investing in? What’s the value? 

As mentioned, to be a working creative today, it’s highly unlikely one can exclusively focus on the creative components. Sorry team, but it is highly unlikely. So, unless we find ourselves part of the 1% that has this luxury, it serves us well to begin wearing our ‘business hats’ a bit more. It might feel a little awkward at first, but if we wear it in, we’ll be rocking it in no time.  

For some perspective, Backstage currently has over 100,000 registered actors. That’s a significant number of actor folk, and that’s just actors, and just on one platform alone. And while there’s more than enough pie for us all to share, we can only benefit from clearly indicating to our peers and wider industry which slice of it is ours. Because let’s face it, few producers or casting directors have the luxury of time (and energy) to sit down and work out what it is that each individual brings to the table. Therefore, we’d be wise to practise this discernment for them. 

We’d be wise to do this because, we, as creatives, ultimately want opportunities and work – just as companies and businesses want their products and services to sell. The companies and businesses that do this successfully distinctly carve out their brand so consumers know and trust what it is they offer. Following this example, if we wish to successfully attain our goals, we should approach our enterprise with the same intention and clarity.

To provide a real-life illustration of this, actor Donzell Lewis (Boss Cheer) recounted his experience of initially fighting his true branding and the change that occurred when he ‘learned to embrace all of me’.

Of his time endeavouring to ‘prove’ his ‘straightness’ he says, ‘I couldn’t get cast’. ‘I’d be [acting] straight in casting offices and then I’d be dancing wildly, half-dressed in a WEHO bar later that night.’ Now, however, ‘standing proudly in all of my queerness and never second-guessing it’, Lewis says, ‘the tier jumps that I’ve had have been magical’.

How to develop our brand

As developing our brand relies so heavily on having a sense of intention and clarity, here are two exercises we can use to get us started.

Exercise 1:

  • The first is to imagine our future self – the self who’s already achieved some of the goals we’ve set – and to work backwards from there.
  • What’s the user experience of the self that has now ‘made it’ in some way? What’s our ‘vibe’ at this place of success? For the moment, disregard how ‘realistic’ the endpoint may be, or how the hell we’ll get there, and instead focus on conjuring this depiction of our fully realised brand. 
  • Depending on how we think, we may experience this future branding as glimpses of colour, texture, sensation, smell, taste, sound etc. For others, an exquisitely precise and articulate written description will reveal itself more naturally. In whatever way feels most organic, capture the findings you’ve uncovered.

Exercise 2:

  • The second is, if we’ve ever been likened to someone famous or in the public eye, to ponder on why this may be and what elements of their branding we could embrace. Of course, we’re all special little snowflakes with our own unique constitutions, and this isn’t to suggest brazenly copying others, but we can draw on the inspiration if there’s some to be found. 
  • If we’re coming up blank with this second exercise (or we’re feeling especially open to some brutally honest input), image consultant Tom Burke says he ‘always’ challenges his clients to ‘ask your siblings, they’ll tell you the truth!’ Again, take note of your findings. We’ll be applying these in the step below. 

How to implement our branding

The verb sense of the word ‘branding’ – dating from late Middle English – literally means to ‘mark with a hot iron’. This, then, is our task as the entrepreneurial creatives we are. Armed with these insights, we transpose these discoveries to each aspect of our user experience: from the online to the offline, from the big to the seemingly trivial and small. 

For Lewis, this meant completely revamping his ‘boring, vanilla’ headshots, social media feeds, and conduct at auditions. Shifting away from what he thought producers and casting directors wanted to see, and simply sharing who he was.

Brands can change over time. Remember Matthew McConaughey’s ‘McConaissance’? Image via Ibtimes.

Perhaps for us, this means an overhaul of our LinkedIn profile, the way in which we respond to email, and the voicemail message prospective employers hear when they call. The specific changes we make (i.e. to Comic Sans or not to Comic Sans) will be unique to us – that’s the whole point – but the potential profits of implementing such clarity and consistency are the same and available to all. 

Remember, we don’t need to stick with this particular branding for all eternity. Our brand can – and probably will – evolve and change as we journey onwards. No doubt we can all easily call to mind several actors or creative professionals who pivoted their brand over the years (Matthew McConaughey’s ‘McConaissance’ being a relatively recent example), and in studying them, we will find those who did so successfully, and consistently maintained a very specific image at any one time.

Once our brand is known and trusted, decision-makers will be more likely to present us with the opportunity to try something new.

And from there, the collection of hats we wear so well will only continue to grow.

Tahlia Norrish (@tahlianorrish) is an Aussie actor and writer currently based between Sydney and London. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (BA (Hons) Acting), Tahlia stepped up as Head Coach at The Actor’s Dojo – an online platform pioneering actor empowerment through mindset and strategy training.