On Brand vs. Product and Author vs. Work

Weekends are typically geekfest-type affairs for me, because they often involve hanging out at my father’s place watching movies, talking about geek news, and herding perpetually-hungry cats. Generally, they don’t lead to anything that can be mistaken for “shop talk”.

Last weekend, however, we kind of just wandered into it. While talking about the books we like reading (at the moment, it happens to be The Dresden Files – because I’m in the middle of a series re-read and Dad is on the verge of finishing the latest installment, “Skin Game”), I noted that my father had always been an author loyalist rather than a series loyalist. That is to say, he tended to choose books, TV shows, and comic books based on WHO wrote them rather than what or who the story was about. For example, my Dad collected the Alan Moore run of The Swamp Thing and, as far as I could tell, it was the only run of that comic he actually completed. Another thing: while Dad’s mostly a DC fan, he has no problems getting into Marvel when his favorite DC storytellers move on to work with them – Paul Dini comes to mind. And it really doesn’t matter what genre or form he writes in; Dad will read Neil Gaiman’s work.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind. In fact, I love that I practically inherited that from him. But it did make me wonder why he’s so author-oriented.

Dad’s simple answer? “It’s because working in advertising made me care more about the BRAND instead of just the product.”

Reading in Between Brand Loyalty
The brand I’ve been “branded” with since I was a child.

Brand vs. Product

For those of you who haven’t grown up with the lexicon, it may be easier to think of it this way:

  • a brand is how you PERCEIVE and IDENTIFY with a company
  • a company’s products are the items they actually produce

Many different companies can have the same product, but the branding attracts a different audience for each of them. Pepsi and Coca Cola may both produce refreshing drinks, but Pepsi resonates more with the “bleeding edge cool” identity while Coca Cola resonates with “family- and friendship-focused” identities.

Never thought of myself as cool, so that’s probably why I’m pretty attached to Coke.

In short, branding creates uniqueness for a product that would otherwise be considered run-of-the-mill. Branding is the story that people buy into, that help them emotionally connect with the products they buy. Why do you think there are so many Apple loyalists out there? It’s because its brand story is one of creative innovation, which people have come to admire – and its dearly-departed evangelist Steve Jobs told that story well.

It’s no wonder, then, that the way my dad – a veteran copywriter – sees it, branding is always best attributed to the storyteller that supports it. In fact, I’m inclined to agree that without the proper “author”, a brand won’t be able to take off.

Author vs. Work

There are two things I’ve learned over the course of my love affair with reading and writing:

  • an author’s voice is not limited to style; it also includes themes the author authentically connects with
  • the author can produce work for different genres or in different forms and still retain their voice

Authors are often encouraged to create a particular “voice”, an approach to storytelling, that can be associated with them. That’s why you can easily distinguish the humor of Carl Hiaasen from the humor of Christopher Moore, even with their fairly similar affection for somewhat absurd situations (though Moore’s absurdity is clearly more fantastical in nature, with his vampires and angels). Essentially, you can say that authors are predisposed towards branding in their writing; no matter what work they produce, they always “sound” like themselves and create a sense of familiarity and relatability for the audience they attract.

In other words, authors were brands long before the Internet made personal branding a thing.

For most writers, the branding thing requires them to adopt nom de plumes that allowed them to switch genres; look at Nora Roberts, who was known to have written as JD Robb, Jill March, and Sarah Hardesty. Each pseudonym she used is a sub-brand that represents the PRODUCT that readers can expect to get out of them – that said, Robert’s penchant for strong character development and romance STILL shines through most of the stuff she’s written.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We can all quibble over whether or not Spike Lee is worth the praise piled on him; but we can’t deny that, as a storyteller, he has a very unique and recognizable voice despite having covered various genres in his work. And, as we all know, my hero Neil Gaiman regularly switches from writing articles to adult fiction to children’s fiction to poetry to comics without losing his identity as a writer.

That’s why people like my dad get invested in authors rather than plots; no matter how cool the product is on paper, it’s always the brand that they connect with – and storytellers make the brand come alive.

 

Personal Thoughts: Companies Can Lose Customer Loyalty When They Forget Branding and Get Their “Authors” Wrong

When I was growing up, DC stories felt like they were all about near-epic heroism from very different characters (which serve as “sub-brands” to its “epic heroism brand”). Sure, Batman’s awesome; but in their own way, so are Superman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and The Flash. Each character had a fan base that was attracted to its “brand”. I admit it got cheesy sometimes, but I’d like to think that they mostly stayed true to branding.

When it became clear that DC and its partners wanted to capitalize on Batman’s ever-increasing popularity by rebooting every other character to have a Batman-ish element, I basically lost faith in the company and its partners. Don’t get me started on the WB decision to hire Snyder and Goyer, who have unintentionally loogied on a character brand by virtue of being the wrong “authors” to hire for a Superman story. Nor am I going to go on and on about how they decided to align animated stories with the grittier comics instead of applying the superior storytelling of the animated stuff to influence their comics (I may be biased because Young Justice should not have died).

I’m not saying that every DC thing right now is bad. I’m just saying that they occasionally forget that their brand is MORE than Batman. I’m saying that this publisher should remember that each character is a brand within their brand (a brand identity they keep forgetting) and each have stories that are appropriate and not appropriate for them. And I’m saying they should understand that they should be mindful of the storytellers they choose for each story.

I’ll still give some of their stories the benefit of the doubt. But now I’m cheating on them with other comic companies – especially if the storytellers I love moved to the competitors.

 

Quick question – what are your favorite brands/authors, and why are they your favorites? Did you have a favorite brand/author that stopped being your favorite? If so, why? Do feel free to comment! 

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