By Jennifer Idol
As nature photographers, our profession is unique. Our motivation is driven as much by a need to share the beauty of the natural world, document wildlife and illuminate the challenges faced by animals and ecosystems as it is by making a living. Branding, like marketing, can seem like a dirty word, but it helps us earn income and operate professionally. By creating a branding and marketing strategy for our businesses, we can take some big steps toward achieving financial stability.
How branding helps nature photographers
Branding is more than a logo. It is the message, feeling and identity you wish to convey about your business to a customer. Your brand expresses the unique value and context that your company provides. Logos, websites, business cards are some of the foundational elements that help define a brand, but your brand could also include your image, personality, even your voice. Together, they support and are supported by a marketing strategy that includes your goals, audience, mission, vision, and plan for disseminating information about your business.
After all, it takes more than a logo to create a successful business. Every facet of your communications conveys your brand, be that through social media, websites, in published work, or even watermarks. Creating consistent messaging that is uniform in appearance across all media is critical to developing strong branding. This includes color, typography, logo design, watermark usage, and the message itself.
Creating this brand identity is essential for differentiating you from your competitors. It makes it easy for consumers to identify who you are and what you do, as well as understand the value of your work. Having a strong brand shapes your business and helps align it with your goals.
How graphic design shapes branding
Graphic design is a craft that uses typography, iconography, colors, and illustrations to communicate visually. Good graphic design conveys more than a name. It says something about you and your business. Within a consistent framework of design assets ,such as websites, logos, letterhead, newsletters, and other communication materials, it adds to the professionalism of your business and shapes your marketing strategy.
Poor design often fails to consider how the audience will engage with the tools of your brand, does not effectively communicate messaging, and is poorly crafted. An example of poor design is one that does not clearly state a single purpose, confuses a viewer, or lacks a hierarchy of elements (more on that later). How aesthetically pleasing a design piece appears does not define if it is good or bad. Beautiful assets can still be badly designed.
Why a nature photographer speaks up about marketing
Like many photographers, my career has been a long and winding evolution. I discovered graphic design in college and earned a BFA in graphic design from the University of Texas at Austin. From there, I worked twelve years within a business (in house).
While I worked as a professional designer, I built my own design practice. I also volunteered for AIGA, the professional association for design. I developed leadership skills by serving on the board of directors for the Austin chapter of AIGA, culminating in a term as president.
Photography was a large part of my work and became one of my passions, especially after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. That ecological disaster moved me to explore our local waters in my book, An American Immersion. I was obsessed and became the first woman to dive all 50 states.
Since then, I left my full-time design job and have been working as The Underwater Designer, with a variety of industry-related clients. Now, I am in the midst of changing my brand to Fins Up Creative to illustrate the variety of creative services that my design firm offers. Because I’m in the midst of rebranding, it seems like a good time to share what I’ve learned.
How branding is used
Nature photographers are usually small businesses and sole proprietors. To connect with our audience, we need to amplify our voice to reach a wide variety of clients through marketing, social media, and our business communications.
Publications, competitions, client testimonials on review sites (like yelp or Google), and your website are key marketing tools. Having a consistent brand and look across your social media, website, and newsletters, promotional materials, blog, and any published work is important, as is cross promoting your brand across each of these outlets.
Keep in mind that working on someone else’s platform, such as social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, leaves us at the mercy of that platform, while exposing us to potential exploitation and theft of our work. This is why our own websites, blogs, and newsletters are still important for communicating our brand and for showing the value of our work to potential clients.
Social media is an evolving tool that requires planning to build an audience that resonates with our work and translates into sales or professional relationships.
A few guidelines make social media more effective for your business. Consider yourself as the core of your brand and accept that you are a public figure if you work full-time as a nature photographer. It is important to connect personally with your audience so they are emotionally invested in you and your work (but keep posts professional).
Avoid political posts that don’t contribute directly to your work and avoid partisanship when you post on relevant issues. Create a plan for how often you post, what kind of content you want to share, and how you want to indirectly insert promotional messaging. Keep all messaging genuine and purposeful. Re-read posts before posting. Every post can reinforce or detract from the brand you’re establishing.
Speak to what differentiates your work from other photographers doing similar work. Simplify your messaging into succinct sentences with no more than three major points.
Consistently use the voice of your brand in all your communications, from email signatures to periodic blog or newsletter articles. Consider what you appreciate in a company’s customer service values and apply your values across all communications to speak with a consistent and professional voice.
Take the time to review all business communication materials and see if they align with your brand and achieve the goal of that particular piece.
Working with a designer or freelance sites versus doing it yourself
Investing the appropriate amount of time and money into brand development can be critical to the success of our businesses. Whether we build our own creative assets or we hire experts to help us develop our marketing strategy, mission, vision, and identity, the net result is a cost in limited resources of time and money. Either way, your brand is critical to your success. Now is not the time to skimp.
Doing it yourself
Doing it yourself (DIY) may be the right choice for you, especially if you want to retain total creative control and you have limited funds.
It saves dollars, but still has some costs. There’s the lost revenue from the time you’ve invested in creating the materials instead of doing paid work and there are the dollars spent in the production of business cards, letterhead and other assets. Creating the work yourself can be beneficial in that you create exactly what you think you want as your visual preferences and you have total control over every pixel.
Design templates like those found on printing sites such as VistaPrint, MOO Printing, or Shutterfly can be worthwhile. Website templates on services like Photoshelter, SmugMug, or Wix can be useful for helping you gain an online presence. When using these services, create a similar visual experience across all your assets. This helps others recognize you and your work.
However, one challenge with the DIY model is failing to finish building your brand assets because other priorities consume come up. Another challenge is that you may need to buy and learn specialized software and get familiar with production specs.
Online design companies
Websites like 99Designs or Upwork are part of the gig economy, systems that aggregate independent contractors who bid for your work. Some are also known in the design industry as speculative websites that ask participating designers to pitch ideas with only the selected designs getting paid. Careful study is required to determine if one of these options is right for your needs. Be aware that designs through some of these services may not be original and may include stolen or copied design templates.
Upwork is a freelancer system and costs more than 99Designs because you hire a designer rather than choosing from speculative set of generic designs. A challenge with any of these services is that your designer may be working anywhere in the world and it may be difficult to schedule a meeting or phone call.
Companies such as 99Designs or Upwork are profitable because they do not offer the same level of customization, detail, or comprehensive brand strategy that you or a designer might create. It’s quick. it’s cheap. It may suit your needs. But, when subscription fees, design costs, and product management time are added together, the online gig economy option may prove nearly as expensive as it would have been to hire a local designer in the first place.
Hiring a designer or design firm
Benefits of hiring an expert in marketing and design include working with someone who is unbiased toward your work and able to strategically see where you can improve communication and connection with your audience. They also free up time you would lose by dealing with a freelancer or completing the work yourself. Hiring a designer still involves some time commitment as you’ll be providing your perspective and some level of oversight.
Finding a quality designer who specializes in creating communication tools for your industry can be a complicated and time consuming process. Good, experienced designers are more expensive than online freelancers, recent graduates, students, friends, or family but, in the long run, it often saves money and time to invest in the right designer and not just the most affordable option.
To choose a designer to work with, visit sites such as DesignerHire or find local design and marketing companies in your region. Review potential designers’ portfolios and see if they work in related industries or create work that you find compelling. A great designer for medical companies may not be as well versed in what you need as a nature photographer. While branding strategy applies to all businesses, industries have different needs.
Once you identify who you want to work with, let them do the work. Resist the urge to design on behalf of the designer you hire. If you have a visual style in mind, discuss that at the beginning of the project and provide examples. This will save time and money by building a solid visual and messaging foundation. If you don’t know what you like until you actually see it, the design process may take several revisions and cost more money and time before reaching the desired outcome.
As this is work for hire, you control and own the work products—the logos, letterhead, web design, etc. Designers can also share them as examples of their work, which broadens the reach of your brand. And you can share that you worked with the designer, which further connects you to their audience.
What assets do you need?
With any branding project, identify your priorities and create an asset list. Identify your end goal and what supporting tools you need to build. Then build your budget. Be aware that it can take a while to completely hone in on the messaging your brand should convey before you or a designer even start to build that identity. Break projects down into tangible deliverables that can start working for your company while bigger projects such as websites develop in the background.
A basic brand identity requires a mission statement that identifies who you are and what you do, consistent colors that identify your brand, a logo, a watermark, and an online presence on social media.
Supporting brand assets can include business cards, a website that supports your vision, and a carefully crafted, on-brand biography.
Supplementary assets can include myriad of tools that reinforce your marketing strategy. These include:
- Letterhead to be used on all communication tools, including digital invoices and quotes
- Newsletter, blog, vlog or other periodic communication tool
- Ad campaign with digital banners, especially for social media ads
- Promotional marketing materials for clients, exhibits, and trade shows
The deliverables and experience a designer offers
Using myself as an example, here’s what you might expect of a designer you are about to hire.
I begin projects with a conversation about the client’s needs, goals, desired assets, and timeline to see if we might work well together. Good projects work best with good client relationships.
I follow my conversations with a formal quote which can then be reviewed or modified to adjust for their budget and timeline. Project parameters are defined in the quote, including usage and what deliverables will be provided.
Once a quote is finalized, I ask for half payment and a signed quote before I begin work and the timeline. Is started This is typical in the design business and ensures we are both committed to and invested in the project.
There is some foundational work necessary at the beginning of the project. That might be defining project goals, how the project will accomplish those goals, milestones and an audit of existing materials and content.
For example, a website is best built after the goals and content are identified and the visual elements that identify the brand are finalized. A website would then move into a wireframe stage followed by complete design and development.
Every step of the project, from quote to designs, is reviewed and approved by the client before I move forward to the next step. Certain projects also include post launch support and follow up.
It takes more time than you expect to launch a brand regardless of how you do it. Once you create your logo and website and all the other branding tools, you’ll need to have a great marketing strategy. It all takes time, including time for these new branding and marketing tools to start paying off with leads and new revenue.
A great brand won’t guarantee a great business, but it’s hard to create a great business without one.
Jennifer Idol is an expert in diving as well as in design and visual storytelling. Through her diving, photography and films she connects people to the natural world so they, too, can experience its wonders. She showcased local waters in her book, An American Immersion, a quest in which she became the first woman to dive all 50 states. Her underwater photography and stories have been shared in periodicals such as DIVER, SCUBA Diving, and Alert Diver. Her connection to local waters led to her being recognized as a PADI® Ambassadiver (2017 and 2018) and as a member of the Ocean Artists Society and The Explorer’s Club.