Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Marketing Lesson: Your Brand vs. Your Product

The Casual Vacancy
While I was home for the holidays, my mom and I were chatting about the latest J.K. Rowling novel, The Casual Vacancy.  Overall she was disappointed in the book.  Not because it was poorly written or because it was a bad story- quite the contrary. The main  reason she didn't like the book was because it wasn't what she expected from a J.K. Rowling story.

Said another way, there was a breakdown between brand and product. 

What is a brand exactly?

In it's most basic form, a brand is a promise.  It's a signal telling consumers what they should expect from any products that fall under a given brand name. 

As an example, let's use Tide. What are the things you expect from Tide as a brand?  You probably think of stain free, clean clothes. Perhaps you think of the scent of clean laundry when it's coming out of the dryer. 

No matter what products Tide launches - stain sticks, new fragrances, pods - you expect them to live up to the expectations you've developed based on your experience with other Tide products. If Tide products stop offering you that clean laundry experience that Tide represents to you, you might feel cheated.  And if it happens more than once, you may consider switching brands altogether.

When branded products stop living up to a brand's promise, the equity of that brand can erode. Consumers may be willing to forgive once, but overtime they will start to adjust their expectations for the brand, and  that adjustment will result in a loss of loyalty.

Your Name is Your Brand

In the writing world, your name is your brand.  Your products are the books you publish.  After you publish your first book, your name becomes a signal to readers about what to expect from future books written under your name.  If they liked what they read, they will want to see similar elements in future books written by you, and those expectations will drive future consumption of your books. 

In the case of Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling took a huge leap from the expectations  set by Harry Potter.  She went from a middle grade story filled with magic and whimsy, to an adult novel set squarely in the real world, dealing with real, and often heavy, issues. Any reader who purchased Casual Vacancy with Harry Potter expectations was bound to be let down because of the drastic differences between genre and target age group. 

Does this mean that Casual Vacancy shouldn't have been published?  Hell no.  She's J.K. F*cking Rowling.  She can write whatever the hell she wants.  But for the rest of us, our publisher, editor  and agent will want stories that leverage our existing fan base, and readers will hold you to the expectations set by previous books you've written.

This doesn't mean you can't write a middle grade story and later write an adult story.  But there will need to be shared traits between your MG and adult stories, such as genre, that links to your overall brand promise.  Otherwise you might get push back from your publisher and agent, or they may request that you publish the story under a pseudonym. 

No matter what, you should always write what you love. But be mindful of the expectations you will set from those early works - if you are lucky enough to have a fan base, your fans will want to see future products from you that mimic what they loved so much about your earlier works.


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