Branding part 2: Developing a new brand - Should you compromise?

In part 1 I looked back over how my branding for the Handmade and Creative Market has changed over time. When I set up the market I never expected to do more than one event so the importance of branding and how it would impact on the success of my business never really crossed my mind. I came up with something I thought was kind of pretty and off I went.

Here I am in 2020, the market is plodding along nicely. Actually doing leather work, the thing I set up the market in order to showcase, that's almost a thing of the past. Why? Partially because I don't have the time to do it. Truthfully though, it's because I have not had the head space to dedicate to successfully setting up another brand. When I started out on the market journey my priority was making enough stock to fill a table. However, I still have enough stock to fill a table and it all feels so jumbled I don't even take my own work to my own markets any more. You know the feeling, you have a head full of ideas, you pick up your tools and you create. You make it because you want to make it. It's not there to fulfil a particular purpose or even to set a standard for something you intend to make again. I know that's a good way to pass the time, a nice hobby, but there comes a point where you really do have to start selling some of it. Raise your hand if you know that feeling.

So, what do I mean when I say I don't have the head space? What I mean is I just don't know how to showcase what I make in a way that will make it saleable. I had exhausted all my creative resources working on the events side of my business and really haven't had any energy left to dedicate to my personal branding and self promotion. At least I didn't have until today. Today is day 4 of #marchmeetthemaker and the topic is 'Branding'. My number one goal for 2020 is to establish my brand 'Bramble Leather' and actually make my leather work my primary income source. This prompt has really forced me to clarify my own ideas and I hope that sharing them will help other makers who are struggling with similar issues.

Me vs Them and the vastness in between

So you will have noted that I am a leather worker. I don't know about you but that statement throws up some pre-conceptions, some stereotypical images which I know I don't fulfil. Lets take a look at some screenshots from Instagram to show you what I mean. Looking at the top posts from the following hashtags #handmadeleather #leatherwork #leatherworker #leatherworkshop you can see a rather minimal, natural theme going on. I am about as far from natural as could be.

Thinking about branding, I spent my afternoon putting together some photos that I feel best represent who I am, how I see other commercially presented leather work and the direction I want to go in with Bramble Leather.

The first image, that's 'me'. It's a colourful, sparkly, somewhat inappropriate jumble of things, just as my brain is a jumble of sparkly, often inappropriate jumble of thoughts. It's fun, pastel, a little bit vintage and about as far removed from what good quality leather work looks like as could be. The third image, that's 'them'. It's dark, natural, moody, all the earth tones which I absolutely hate. It's the type of image that all the best leather worker Instagram feeds look like. It's about as far removed from something I would want to make or buy as possible. Image number 2, you guessed it, that represents the vastness in between. It's colourful and wild yet provides a foundation for the sort of imagery I could use going forward.

It's taken me three years of making leather goods to find 'my in between' and this afternoon, while pottering about in the garden with Olive, I finally had a eureka moment. I chopped some spring plants in colours I can achieve with leather dye, arranged them on a bit of old wood which is suitably natural and popped on a filter in Snapseed. Yes, I know it's not leather but it absolutely is 'Bramble'. For anyone who doesn't know me personally, Bramble was my little Border Terrier, named as such because as a puppy his wiry coat made him look like he'd been dragged out of a blackberry bush backwards. Sadly Bramble was put to sleep in February, aged almost 17. He has been my little sidekick constantly since he was 12 weeks old so I suppose no longer having him there has given me the drive to actually do something with the leather goods he inspired me to make in the first place.

Passion vs Popularity: Why creating 'that image' is so important

Image number 2. Why did it take 3 years? Because compromising is tough. Most creative business owners would agree that the main reason for becoming self employed is to do something you love, something you're passionate about. However, what happens if your passion is a limiting factor for your profits? Just because you're passionate about something doesn't mean it will be popular enough to make you any money. Then what do you do? Do you stay true to yourself and risk limiting your market to a point where the business can no longer continue or do you jump on the latest band wagon and potentially wind up hating what you're doing?

It is important to remember that branding is ultimately the thing that makes you, the shopper, make a choice, it does for most people anyway. If there were two near identical pairs of trainers, same price, one Nike, one made by a small independent in their garden shed, which one would you end up buying? Most probably the Nike. It's not usually due to quality, for the most part we small batch producers have much higher standards, but rather due to awareness. Everybody knows the Nike tick logo. 142 people know about the independent making amazing trainers in their garden shed and it's all to do with branding.

Successful brands convince people to like what they're doing to an extent where they are willing to exchange money for it. In the not so distant past the only way to get people to notice what you were doing was to spend a vast amount of money on marketing. In the last fifteen years the rise of social media means that people no longer have to spend these vast sums of money to get people's attention, they simply have to have the right imagery, the right branding. Image number 3, the brown image, that's the 'right' type of image that people would expect to see on a leather workers Instagram feed, not the content of the image rather the style. Image number 1, the sparkly one, is about as opposite as possible. For me, finding a middle ground, something between what I am and what most people expect a leather worker to be has been really, really difficult.

Yep, I hear you. We independents should always be true to ourselves, make what we're passionate about. However, I know that as much as pretty pastel dog collars, covered in glitz and sparkle, will appeal to a significant amount of dog owners, I won't be able to make them to a standard I'm happy with. What I mean is, the base materials are never of a good enough quality to make something to the same high standards as what I can produce in a more 'natural' or 'jewel toned' colour palette. In order to make a range that is high quality, from sparkly pastel materials, I need to invest thousands of pounds in custom made materials, something which, even if I could afford it, would be a stupid thing to do.

So, with this in mind, I knew I had to reach a compromise with my branding in order to strike a balance between passion and profit. I know I can't do brown leather. Brown is not a colour that makes me as sad as the absence of colour, otherwise known as grey. However, walking into my work space every day and looking at pile upon pile of brown things, just because it's popular, that is going to make me hate what I'm doing. That's just about as bad as turning up every day for a job that is, at best, mediocre. At least with that job I know I'm always going to get paid. Making brown leather goods to a high standard means I'm going to get paid more often due to more people wanting them, however, it's not going to make me happy.

So, do I think it's necessary to compromise when developing a new brand? Yes I do. In order to strike a balance between passion and profit it is more than likely that you will also have to make a compromise when developing your own branding. You might be 'lucky', you might truly be passionate about the latest fashion trends and that will make it easy for you to stay true to yourself while making huge profits. The reality for most people is very different. I know that I started to make my own leather goods simply because there was nothing that already existed that I liked enough to buy it. Not to mention how often fashion changes. What you love this month will be different next month, next year at best. You could keep on following trends until what you're doing is so far removed from 'you' that it makes you unhappy doing what you're doing. The trouble with this is that, without the passion that got you started in the first place, you are likely to be over 'inspired' by others and struggle to come up with ideas that are truly your own.

I have reached the conclusion that, with an acceptable level of compromise I am more likely to succeed at building my new brand. I know that with a colour palette, Instagram feed and website that are designed with image 2 in mind, I am likely to reach more people while still working in a way that makes me happy. I know that once my brand is established it will grant me the freedom to be utterly random. I will be able to make extravagant one of a kind pieces or release niche pastel collections because, hopefully, enough people will see it for some of them to want to buy it. Whatever you decide to make, there are people out there who would give you ANY amount of money to own a piece of the crazy, random creativity that is in your head. However, that is probably only a small number of people. Popularity, appealing to a large number of people, that will bring you the money to run free and make whatever the hell you like in the future.

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