In today's world, everyone can have a brand. Everyone is a brand for that matter. With social media, blogging, and more and more opportunities for individuals to sell nothing but themselves and their taste in clothing, home decor, beauty products, etc in order to make a profit, understanding how to create a distinct and visually appealing brand is becoming increasingly important. And as makers, we are no different. We might be sitting on the couch with season after season of the Gilmore Girls or the latest serial killer documentary on in the background while we knit and crochet in stretchy pants all day, but we are still business owners with brands to market. If you want to turn your hobby into a career, you have to treat it as such, and that involves affirming that what you're doing is a real job with the same needs as any other.
I'm totally guilty of downplaying what I do and not feeling brave enough to proudly state my job (why!?), so know that this is a process and we are all growing and no one has it totally figured out. It's only recently that I've felt comfortable saying "I'm a knitwear designer" when someone asks me what I do (and I still have a tendency to follow that up with "but for like, hand knitting and crochet, not like real fashion"). It's so dumb. But behind the scenes you better believe I'm working my butt off, much more so than most people I know who have "real" jobs, to keep my brand going and carve out a space for myself in the fiber industry. And today I'll be sharing my strategy for brand development with all of you so you can get started on building your empires too!
I've always wanted a strong brand identity. The best compliment I can receive is when someone says "I immediately knew that was Two of Wands when I saw it." But in a world where there are only so many ways to knit a hat, how do you stand out in the crowd? I can tell you that if you're coming up with your own ideas, and making or designing things that match your own personal style, your brand will naturally have a mood and cohesive feel to it. So my biggest piece of advice here is to make sure you don't get caught up in what everyone else is doing. It's important to follow trends, but trying to keep up with every other maker and model your brand after another is not only going to be exhausting and unfulfilling, it will not give you a strong brand identity. If anything, trying to emulate another maker or designer is the best way to fail because it's the differentiating factors and what sets you apart from the rest that will make your brand shine and build customer loyalty and trust.
But what makes one brand different from another? Everything from the colors you use, the way you style and edit your photos, the audience you're targeting, the types of items you're selling, and even your price point will shape and define your brand. Even some of those things that don't seem like visual aspects of your brand still influence the choices you make in your marketing and thus become part of the aesthetic. So the first step in creating a brand is to develop it using these factors. I think the easiest way to do this is to answer the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW of your brand. Then each time you're making a decision when it comes to your brand, you can check it against these defining factors to make sure it is aligned. So let's get started!
1. WHO (is your customer)
To be honest, I still feel like my brand needs some refining. I can tell you one struggle with each design is balancing my own idea or aesthetic with what I think my customer will like. To some degree there is an audience for everything, so if you stay consistent and maintain your brand identity, your people will find you. But this is also a business, and in order to make money I have to be conscious of what the consumer is looking for so they will purchase my products. I'm always reminded of episodes of Project Runway where the producers throw the designers a curve ball by bringing in "customers" (usually their parents, random children, etc) for whom they have to design a look. Sometimes these "customers" have very different ideas of what they want than what the designer is hoping to achieve and it results in a hot mess of a look because the designers aren't able to balance the two visions. Understanding your customer is one of the biggest parts of developing your brand.
I studied fashion design and apparel merchandising in college, and one of my favorite exercises was filling out a worksheet to define our target market before starting a collection. It feels like building a whole little world where this customer lives, almost getting to travel there yourself. This idea of digging deep into the life of your customer in order to understand them is something brands big and small do in order to continue to provide products that this customer will want. Did you know Free People has even named the 5 distinct types of girls/personalities they serve ?
Each one has specific characteristics but also some crossovers with the others. Free People never releases a garment or accessory unless they know one of these "girls" would want it. We should all be doing the same thing for our own brands! Take a moment to answer these questions about your target customer, and then read how the answers affect the choices you make with your brand:
a) What are the demographics of your customer - age, sex, location/climate
This informs the types of items you should be marketing to them. If your immediate audience is women ages 45 and up in Colorado, you probably shouldn't be selling crochet bikini tops.
b) What is the income level of your customer
This informs the materials you use and the amount of labor you put into each piece. If you're serving a lower income group, you probably shouldn't be selling worsted weight merino sweaters as the cost of materials and hours of labor would constitute a very high price tag.
c) What does the daily life of this customer look like
This informs the types of items you make. If your customer is sporty, take that into consideration (fingerless gloves, headbands, etc). If your customer is a no frills stay-at-home mom, take that into consideration (cozy wraps and cute cowls that go with everything). Neither of these customers would probably need a sparkly, lacy shawl.
d) Where does this customer already shop
This informs the style of your products and the trends you should pay attention to. For instance, let's say your customer shops at Madewell. Go to their site or store and look for trends - is everything cropped this season? See a lot of stripes? What are the dominant colors? I do not condone simply "knocking off" a design from anyone, even a big brand, but you can use these design details in your own way. Then the items you're selling will match the rest of the wardrobe and taste of your customer. You should also pay attention to the way these stores are marketing their products to your shared customer. What is their photography style? What are the models doing in the photos? What is the setting of their images? They are creating a world your customer wants to live in, so you can use this knowledge to your advantage.
So what is the takeaway here? All of these bits of information you can gather from asking questions about your customer become super important when making any decision about your brand's aesthetic, strategy, and development. If you sell products online, your photography and branding should speak to this customer. If you sell products in person at markets, the decor you put in your booth and the way you display your pieces should speak to your customer. We are in constant conversation with our consumer whether we realize it or not!
2. WHAT (are you providing)
In all of the marketing books I've read, podcasts I've listened to, and seminars I've seen, one strategy remains consistent. Make the customer the hero of the story. Brands often try to make their product the hero, but if you want to give your customer a beautiful experience that has them coming back for more, you need to market your product as a tool or a guide for them to reach fulfillment. For example, if you're selling chunky winter accessories, you're selling warmth. You're selling function, style, and confidence. It's hard to look cute in the dead of winter with a million layers, and you're helping your customer achieve that feat. Make sure that when you talk about your products on social media, in person, even in the listing descriptions of your items, that you're projecting this idea.
You can look at this concept as: "what is the problem my products are solving?" That is what you need to communicate to the consumer. What is the gap in the market that your products are filling? Identify the differentiating factors from other established brands and use this to build a relationship with your customer. You can have the same general concept as someone else (again, there are only so many ways to knit a hat), but you can use visuals and storytelling to make your products distinct.
3. WHEN (do your products get used)
I know photography can be a pain point for many as it takes some practice (and many times another person) to get it right. There is a lot of merit to a simple photo in front of a solid color wall as it shows a clean, visually "to the point" image of the product. This is very useful for online shopping on platforms like Etsy where search results show endless tiny thumbnails and it's hard to stand out. A simple, bright photo is often the best option for this scenario. But when marketing on social media, it's more about setting a scene. Showing your product in use in the way it was intended helps the customer put themselves in that place to better understand and desire the product. If you're selling online, photography is probably the most important component of your business. If you're selling in person, it's important to create a mood with your booth or table so your customer wants to be part of it. Use decor that fits the setting for the world your products live in. You can read my Top 7 Market Tips from Prep to Display on my blog .
4. WHERE (can you find your products)
The gift of the internet has made it possible for us to sell items to customers across the globe from the comfort of our living rooms. Even if you only sell items in person, it's important to have an online presence to maintain customer communication. To this end, I think photography is a huge aspect of your business even if you don't sell a single thing online. Understanding where your customer finds you will help you make decisions about how to invest your time and money. There are inexpensive photography classes you can take on sites like Bluprint or even YouTube that will help you step up your game in no time. You can honestly take wonderful photos from your smartphone without having to invest in expensive camera gear.
In today's world, finding someone on the internet is just a click away. The strongest brands have a consistent aesthetic across every platform on which they are present. Google yourself or your brand - what sites show up? Whatever you can do to create the same mood across all of these channels, go for it. Having a branded look on Etsy, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, you own site, etc will build customer trust and loyalty so that they turn into repeat buyers. Once you have the content and the aesthetic defined, it's easy to implement everywhere your brand has a presence.
5. WHY (is your brand worthy)
This goes back to believing that your maker path can be treated like a "real" job. Treating it as such will keep you motivated to continue building your brand. When you think of the "why" of your business, you should take into consideration both your customer and yourself. We already answered the "what" for your customer, which plays into this as well because it also speaks to the purpose of your brand in the marketplace, and now it's time to answer this question for yourself. Why did you start this journey? What does designing and making mean to you? This is something I feel should be shared with your customer. Giving them something to relate to is the best way to build a connection with them. Share your story! Why did you start this brand? Why do you continue to do it? Tell them what it means to you to receive their orders and send off your beautiful handmade items.
6. HOW (do you translate all of this to your audience)
Visuals, storytelling, and consistency. If you nail down those three components, you will have a strong brand with a loyal following. It may not happen overnight, but that's where the consistency comes into play. And the great part about it is if you only have a small audience in the beginning, it gives you freedom to test out different ideas without the fear of shocking or ostracizing your audience. You can refine and develop your brand as you go along.
I've touched on all of these points in the sections above, but now I will share with you my personal tips, tricks, and tools for achieving each of them.
Not to sounds like a broken record, but photography is key for any brand in today's world. Again, even if you aren't selling online, you still have a presence on the web that needs to match your aesthetic if you want your brand to be recognized and respected. You can invest in fancy camera equipment if you want, but I've seen gorgeous images made using an iPhone and some good editing skills. My favorite editing apps are VSCO, Colorstory, and InShot (this one I use for video). I use the same 2 or 3 filters on everything to keep my photos evoking the same mood. One of them is better for outdoor shots, one for indoor, and one that kind of swings both ways depending on the lighting. There are free and paid versions of each of these apps, so I would recommend downloading the free versions, pulling in the same 5-10 shots into each one, and getting a feel for how they work. You may prefer the workflow or results of one over another. Other popular apps that I don't personally use but I hear good things about are Snapseed and Afterlight.
I think these apps are a great place to start if you're a beginner and just starting to build your brand. It's an easy way to get beautiful images without investing any money. Once you get a little more advanced you can invest in pro equipment and use more expensive and robust programs like Lightroom and Photoshop to take your pictures to the next level.
If you've defined your brand following all of the steps above, you should have a good sense of the story you want your brand to represent. Storytelling can be done textually or visually. You can literally tell your story in the about/bio section of Etsy, Instagram, Facebook, Ravelry, etc, but you can also continue to touch on aspects of your brand each time you post to instagram or send a newsletter.
Years ago I took an Instagram "course" that I still find helpful to this day. One of my biggest takeaways was the idea that your most recent 9 posts should tell a complete story of your brand. What are the defining bits of the story you're trying to tell? For me, I want to evoke a modern, youthful approach to a timeless art form. I want to showcase style, slow fashion, meditative stitches, and the ability to create something that empowers you and makes you proud of your work. I want my customers to feel fashion forward and confident when they make one of my patterns. In order to tell this story, I often talk about the inspiration behind my designs, the mood or feeling that inspired them, the meditative quality of the stitches I used, and how I wear the finished piece. I showcase a balance of finished piece styled shots with WIP (work in progress) images. I use the same language in the blog posts and listing descriptions of my designs to keep a consistent story.
Visually, colors and styling tell the story for you. When I'm designing a collection, I always start with a mood board. This helps me design a cohesive collection that all speaks to the same mood/vibe/feeling. Here is an example of the mood board I made when I was designing my 2019 S/S collection for We Are Knitters:
I chose three main locations to shoot all of the pieces so they would have the same aesthetic. I edited all of the photos with the same presets so that they have similar coloration and lighting. This tells a consistent story, and when I use these images across all channels - Instagram, newsletter, Pinterest, etc - it all feels like the same brand.
In the past when I was selling finished pieces, I sold my items both online and in person at markets. Storytelling is just as important in person, and again, colors and styling are what you use to do so. Booths with a hodgepodge of colors and items can feel overwhelming to the consumer, so try to pair down your offerings depending on the show. Think about this like a big brand - you have Macy's department stores in cities across the US, but they don't all have the same products. The buyers for each store are selecting items from all of the brands available to curate a store that their customers in their city would want.
The easiest way to do this in our industry is to define your color story and stick to it. I always chose a limited amount of colors based on the season and current trends to showcase online and at a market in person. Online all of my photos would be in these colors, but I would include a color card with more options available. In person I had a swatch key ring of alllllll the colors in which the pieces could be made available in case someone wanted something custom, although in my booth I only showcased the limited color options. This makes your brand super identifiable and clean.
Staying consistent is important in any relationship, and this is no different when it comes to the relationship you have with your customers. Your brand needs to be consistent to gain a loyal following. If you order a product from a company, and you have a wonderful shopping experience with great customer service and beautiful packaging, you will likely shop with them again. But if the next time you order the experience isn't as delightful, you will lose trust in that brand and find another quickly. Strategic planning and time management are key when it comes to staying consistent.
Two of my favorite tools for staying consistent are Airtable and Later. Airtable allows me to map out my strategies and keep all of the links and details for each design in one place. I basically use it to catalogue all of my ideas and patterns. Later is a scheduling tool for Instagram that allows you to build out a social media calendar and see your feed before you post anything. My marketing and social media calendar go hand-in-hand. It's all based around pattern releases, promos, events, etc, so building out a social media calendar actually helps me stick to deadlines and stay on track. Bonus: Later has an amazing blog full of Instagram tips that you can have emailed to you weekly if you sign up for their service. I have learned a TON from these posts!
In summary, I know that all of this may feel overwhelming, but if you take it one step at a time and give yourself some grace to shift a little, you have the ability to create a beautiful brand with staying power and scalability. It took me several years to get it right, and I am still learning! So don't put too much pressure on yourself to have every single detail figured out before you dive in. The biggest trap you can fall into is paralysis by analysis. I hope this method is inspiring to you and that you're able to use these tools to create the brand of your dreams!