what are you selling?

For me, the most successful brand of any kind feels like a person I want to know and hang out with, a person whose taste and values I relate to or aspire to. It conveys a human nature at its core. Some of the most successful and enduring brands we know are indeed the products of a very singular human being’s vision and values (Disney and Apple, to name a couple of the bigs).

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Corporations commonly spend lots of money and time working with pricey consultants, internal teams and focus groups—analyzing, discussing and reaching consensus on their core values and mission, in an effort to humanize their brands. But if you’re an artist and you’re building a business around the art you love to make, it seems to me you have a real leg up in this whole branding game! To discover and define your brand, you get to spend quality time with yourself and your art, with the goal of cultivating your unique voice and offering. Eventually, the people who respond enthusiastically to what you create will be your voluntary focus group and advertising agency, providing valuable insight into the ways your work inspires them; they’ll help you build your brand by enriching your message and story with their own words and experiences.

Brand exploration and development—whether at the corporate or small business level—can often seem pretty abstracted from the ultimate goal of selling. It’s natural to get a little agitated when we think about that disconnect. You might be saying to yourself: This is a very lovely picture you’re painting, Betsy. And sure, I’m excited to just gaze at my own pretty navel all day and make the art I want to make, but ultimately I need to be sure there’s food in the fridge and a safe, cozy place to rest at night. How is what you’re advising going to help me do that? Can I actually make a living making the art I love to make?

I wish I could definitively answer that question. What I can do is point to many compelling examples of artists who’ve approached their business from this standpoint and are finding great success. I’ll bet you can name many such artists yourself. So let’s assume it works, let’s assume there are real forces at play here. What are they? If this is about commerce and currency, about a system of exchange, what’s being exchanged between an art brand and her customers?

Well, let’s look at where we’re headed as a consuming culture. It seems to me that with each passing year, consumerism becomes more focused around values like originality, personalization, meaningfulness, and lastingness. I see these ideas come up with increasing frequency in all kinds of ways. My conversations with friends and family—despite our different tastes—often reveal our shared interest in these values. Popular books like Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism are underpinned by these same themes. There are new business models like car- and home-sharing, and trends like upcycling. Such movements tap into many desires and pleasures; I would argue that chief among those are the joys we find in more personalized experiences and objects, and satisfying interpersonal exchanges. And, of course, there’s the ever-growing interest in handmade goods and locally-sourced foods, accompanied by a curiosity about the people and the practices behind the things we buy. We especially like stories that ring with authenticity, transparency and humanity, stories we can relate to as well as stories that show us what a single individual with a driving vision can achieve.

I believe we’re increasingly likely to exchange our money for the goods and services offered by these human-centered businesses because the exchange has a more lasting and intrinsic value. Above and beyond the price we pay and the obvious thing we get in return, we get connection with someone else who shares our interests and our values and we both feel elevated by that exchange. This is why I believe there’s real potential for the commercial artist who boldly explores and nurtures her own creative style and themes, and sells her art through channels that encourage a more direct conversation with her customer.

As you no doubt see, this requires quite a different creative mindset than one that’s focused on following trends and building one's portfolio in a specially-prescribed fashion with the goal of attracting the largest possible number of buyers. What would happen if you took a break from trying to figure out the system, a timeout from trying to read minds (the customer’s mind, the influential blogger’s mind, the art director’s mind), a vacation from trying to sell? What would happen if, instead, you focused on cultivating the gifts of your very own creative calling and then offered them to the world along with your story?