This Mystical Thing Called Branding

chaosIt began with a contentment-producing ritual.

Weather permitting, most Saturday mornings, I stroll a safe and pleasant three miles to the mall where I visit the library, the bookstore, and the grocer. I pick up fresh produce for dinner—the more salad-makings the better—then loop around and head home.

On the way back, I’m usually euphoric, flush with endorphins, time outdoors, and the knowledge that I’ve facilitated my family’s health and made a minor contribution to fuel-conservation.

But on one recent occasion, as I waited for a pedestrian light to change, a marketing concept inserted itself into my brain.

Brand as Constrictor or Liberator?

At the time, I was puzzling over the concept of branding, which, like most marketing principles, remains an elusive and scary prospect to me. I know it’s too early to be worrying about this for my fiction, but I’ve been blogging for a few years now. I still don’t know what promise I’m making to my readers in that venue. (My tagline is Art. Attitude. Vitamin C. Screams “unique value proposition”, doesn’t it?)

If branding is this unintuitive a process for blogging, what does that mean for my fiction? Will I inadvertently shoe-horn myself into an ill-fitting concept and have to start all over again? If a little forethought can save me from obvious errors, why not see if I can figure out an approach in advance?

So it was then, as I casually looked down and viewed myself as if through a stranger’s eyes, when I thought, The most accurate tagline for my appearance would be “hot mess”.

“Hot” in the sense of “active”, because despite being married to an engineer, I don’t have one of those Rube Goldberg machines which wake you, clothe you and transport you via conveyor belt to an already-prepared hot breakfast.* No, I chose my outfit. I chose what to carry. There was nothing passive or hands-off about my image whatsoever.

As for the “mess” part of that analysis, let’s begin with my twenty-year-old green sweatpants which taper at the ankle. My daughter considers them a fashion faux pas of the worst kind but I keep them for a quality seldom found in contemporary clothing. Specifically, their lining doesn’t pill after ten washes so that you realize at the end of the day—when you’re crabbier than an overheated PMSing honey badger—that, from the waist down, your skin has been abraded by the equivalent of 5000 scouring pads.

At the same time, I was wearing new, state-of-the-art hiking boots and a trendy fitness t-shirt. I also carried a reasonably up-to-date iPad.

And what kind of media was I carrying in my backpack?

  • A P!nk CD from the library, in which she muses that her younger self would punch-out her lover’s detractor.
  • The book Loving Kindness by Sharon Salsburg, dealing with principles of Buddhist meditation around compassion to self and others.
  • And in my earphones was the voice of Eminem, kindly advising me to shizzle his wizzle, y’all. (If you’re assuming this is Dr. Seussical code for a sexual act involving tonsils, you might want to check your assumptions at the door. Rappers don’t ONLY talk about getting laid, getting high, and bathing in the kind of champagne we laypersons can’t afford to drink. Hip hop frequently tackles deep issues such as racism, overcoming a legacy of poverty, and most critically, how the rapper’s ho looks sliding down a stripper pole.)

But I digress.

What Would Dan and Crystal Do?

The point of this post is that, in that fateful moment at the stoplight, while I took stock of my clothing, I also thought of the kind people here on WU who’ve tried their best to explain authorial marketing principles. If given a glimpse of my appearance and asked to help brand me, I wondered, what would Dan and Crystal do? (WWDaCD?) Would they be struck mute and run? Or would they see me as a challenge and begin a Pygmalion-like transformation in which I emerge as a marketer’s dream and they gain undreamed-of authority within writing circles?

Dan? Crystal? Interested in the latter? Give me a call.

But that afternoon, in the absence of a steadfast mentor, I persisted.

Holding the mental snapshot of me of me in mind’s eye, I started brainstorming descriptors.

Here’s what emerged.

  • Love of irony
  • Love of incongruence and contradictions
  • Earthiness
  • Edginess
  • Lifelong learner
  • Celebrate communal spaces, esp. if facilitates learning
  • Music
  • Humor—contemporary, sexual, inappropriate (!)
  • Health and comfort over appearance
  • Function over form
  • Playfulness and spirituality
  • Interests in the outdoors, the environment

You get the idea. I’m sure you can see much more.

But here’s where it became relevant to brand:

Though my fiction’s tones and themes appear unshaped and chaotic to me, if I have any ability to self-assess, many of these same attributes are detectable within my fiction and blogging. (For example, here’s a recent post on the time I went to a meditation class and provoked the instructor.)

Further, rather than shrinking from these labels and feeling the cold, clammy hand of rules creep up my spine, they excite me. If this is what branding is about, I think I could be happy. I think I could breathe.

Is this so surprising, really? After all, the moment I chose to examine was a suitable microcosm of me, expressing bone-deep values, or my quintessential Jan-ness. Much the same way I can readily conjure iconic images of the ToolMaster which would symbolize his humor, self-sufficiency, playfulness, quest for excellence.

If I were to carry this exercise further, I imagine I’d identify the most dominant and exciting values on this list and try to convey them to my readership in a way that makes a promise to them. Read a piece by Jan O’Hara and expect_______. Then the goal would be to maintain consistency in that presentation, which is obviously easier to do if it’s authentic and gritty and representative of the unfettered self, not the personas we don for public consumption.

So for fun and the sake of learning, are you willing to see if this applies to more than me?

Think of yourself in a time and place where you’re grounded, content, and nakedly yourself. Visualize your clothing, your surroundings, your possessions. Think of the qualities and interests they represent. Now take a moment to jot down the items and their descriptors, as well as the values you’re engaging in the moment.

Do you see these attributes reflected in your voice and in your writing, no matter the type? (Published, unpublished, poetry, prose, essay, etc.) If so, how? Do those descriptors feel confining or liberating?

To those of you who’ve worked with a publicist in any capacity, what process did you use to identify your core promise to your readers? Please share in the comments below.

PS: I’m traveling today but I read all my comments and will do my best to reply when able.

*This is a cool page-turning R-G machine.


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Jan, I think I love you. You just took a largely superficial commercial concept and made it resonant with meaning and spirituality. Thanks for starting my morning off right!

    • says

      What Jeanne said. This is great, Jan.

      I hope that my posts here and my fiction both resonate with stripped-down authenticity.

      I think the million dollar question is: How do you find the readers who will resonate with the values you’ve identified? How do you become known to them?

    • says

      Well I hope it helps, Jeanne. If I’ve understood Dan and Chrystal’s message, you can’t separate the writer from their platform. And in a sense, our writing is the most visible and (to me) personally meaningful aspect of platform, though it’s also the reason a platform exists.

  2. says

    At the end of this excellent post you mention ‘your core promise to your readers’ that encapsulates nicely the idea. It relates directly to the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) that is at the heart of all readership, expecially repeat readership/followership. If that’s ‘brand’, then I get it. Well deliniated, madam.

  3. says

    I did branding for countless years in the ad biz and while it works for products, it doesn’t fit for people, especially writers whose books themselves are the products. So I encourage writers, as does Jan, to imagine what their “promise” is to their readers. What unique experience is a reader going to get from spending time with one of your books? For my memoir of writing a novel with John Grisham, I talk about the seven novels wasting away on my hard drive when Grisham took me under his wing and taught me the secrets of thriller writing. The experience rebooted my writing career and so my book promises ways for writers to avoid the blind alleys so many of us find ourselves going up.

    • says

      You have a unique and eye-catching proposition there, Tony. Also, I don’t mind aimless walking sometimes, but blind alleys become wearisome after a while.

  4. says

    thanks for the info, Jan. Branding is the byword at the moment. I’m still working on my first might-make-it novel, so I’m not going to worry so much about my brand. I think I’ll need a bit of agent/editor input to do it right.

  5. Carmel says

    I remember being very off-put when I first read about branding. Was it just more writer-speak? Then, on hearing that it’s more for non-fiction writers, I exhaled. Then, I realized I had an issue and an event built right into my novel that could be used for what might be called branding — though I still don’t like the word. So I’m using a website (which will be accessible when the book is) to give the reader an opportunity to further explore those two topics. That’s as close to branding as I get.

    And isn’t labeling another word to describe it, which we all tend to avoid?

    Not to dis your post, Jan. I loved it!! Always do! It’s just that writing itself is enough pressure.

    • says

      Carmel, that’s an approach which has worked very well for some authors. (Meeting a reader’s desire for more about the subject.)

      I also hear you on the pressure, and that fretting about this stuff, especially prematurely, is one of the fastest ways to shut down the muse. That’s where it’s probably helpful to take it in baby steps or get outside assistance when it becomes necessary. But the writing needs to be protected or there’s no point to having a brand.

      • Carmel says

        Aww, don’t pay any attention to me. I’m in the middle of a candida diet and quite the crank. :o)

  6. says

    First, hilarious post. Lots of laughs on a Monday morning has got to be a good thing. So I appreciate your slot here.

    Hmm, okay Boss. Challenge accepted.

    Clothing: Casual, comfortable, unpretentious. Durable. I too am loath to part with my most comfortable clothes in the name of fashion or a bit of wear and tear… I’ll consider that loyalty.

    Music: (I’ll use what’s currently playing–the new Washed Out album, Paracosm.) Swirling, atmospheric, ethereal, and emotionally evocative. Reminiscent and yet innovative.

    Surroundings: An Arts & Crafts bungalow in the forest. House, built to be modern and comfortable and yet evocative of the past. The elements of (architectural) function (wood and stone, exposed beams and brackets, broad eves, etc.) are also the elements of style. Sturdy. Location, a shady respite, near water, selected to capture serenity. Cozy.

    So, in summary: Durable and loyal. Reminiscent and yet innovative. Sturdy and yet cozy. Yeah, I’d take that for a brand. Good idea. I’ll strive for it. Thanks, Jan.

    • says

      I love it, V. Know what? From what I know about your fiction, many of those qualities exist in your main characters, setting and conflict. Am I right/

  7. says

    First, I’m with Vaughn, HILARIOUS way to start the morning, thank you for that! Second, I’ll hang onto these branding tips for future reference. After reading, I tried to come up with some way to describe my brand (in these comments) but I’m at a loss… apparently like almost everything else in my life, it’s a work in progress.

    • says

      This is where your readers might be a big help. Bet if you asked them to list a number of qualities they see embodied in your fiction, you’d find some overlap. Sometimes it’s easier for others to see qualities in our writing to which we are blind.

  8. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Jan, I think I love you, too. So what am I so afraid of? I think it’s been this branding thing. And if you got the Partridge family reference, somewhere deep down, you’re still a prepubescent dreamer with a crush on one of those singing family members, beneath the cultivated layers of your rapper heart. But back to the point here, branding. I think you’re offering a far less painless way of using branding. Which brings me full circle into the mystic/soul-searching answer to branding I’ve been on the lookout for of late. The branding is you. Brilliant. Thank you.

    • says

      I’m happy if it helps, B. I’d love it if Dan and Chrystal had a chance to comment and point out if/where my thinking has gone astray.

  9. Thea says

    I just don’t know how you keep all of you contained in one little head, hon.

    I have only this to say about branding. when I think of it, I think Rowdy Yates from Rawhide, a hot sizzling branding iron with the initial ‘t’, that fleshing burning odor, and the bellows of screaming cows. Oh, and I’d have to eat canned beans and bad coffee. And I see Dan. Have I hit all the six nonsenses yet?

  10. says

    Can I have a time machine? Please?
    And perhaps a few extra lives. Because I really need them for this exercise–oh, wait. I already have that. My work in progress is all those things: what I am now, what I once was, what I strive to be–my failures successes, explorations, and musings, the worst and the best of me.

    (shakes head) I can’t lock on to just one quintessential something (the very thought feels claustrophobic). Don’t even know what to call my brand. It has to encompass the freedom for shape-shifting at will to include all the facets.

    Oh, wait . . . maybe I do. ;) Fantasy.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post, and brightening my day with your humor!

    • says

      Yes, that’s the challenge, D: to find something which isn’t limiting, yet it specific enough your readers will know what you stand for. I’ll be interested to see how your description evolves.

  11. says

    Read a piece by Jan O’Hara and expect_______. That’s the best prompt for developing a tag line I’ve read so far, so thanks!

    I’ve been stressing over branding since last spring, and had to take a break this summer to actually do some other things (like plot and work on the second book.) However, the need to fancy up my webpage and get an actual tag line has been crowding back into my brain, so your post is timely. I wish I had someone to make me over, too.

    So many things about the business side of writing a book, so little time. :P

    • says

      When I’ve had friends work with website designers, I’m told it helps both parties to have clarity about branding in advance. Maybe your time away will have helped, just like plot holes are often filled while taking a shower. G’luck, Lara!

  12. says

    I totally agree with you, Jan. Branding is being you, only a bit louder, IMO. :) And when I discuss branding with clients, the first thing I ask is usually the same question you’ve posed: when reading one of your books, the reader can expect…. what?

    Great post!

  13. Jen says

    Thank you for this. It is nice to know, if anything, that someone else listens to Eminem for inspiration.

    Okay, I don’t know if that was your intention, but if it was, I can totally relate. :)

  14. says

    Jan, I identify with your comment, “But on one recent occasion, as I waited for a pedestrian light to change, a marketing concept inserted itself into my brain.” I love the alliteration. Isn’t it incredible how many ideas come to us while walking?

    Per your questions, I am grounded on a second floor condo balcony in retired (as in no longer a classroom teacher) clothing including a feels-like-fall sweater. I am also grounded in turning my 1960-65 diary entries
    into a memoir.

    On the subject of branding, Susan Gunelius wrote Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomena. It was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008.

    • says

      Walking, cooking, and journaling are my most productive non-writing writing activities, Barbara.

      I can only imagine there would be many elements of your personal life that would overlap with your memoir. Now to find the descriptors that are iconic to your writing and make sense to a reader. ;)

      As for the Gunelius book, is that about branding? Thank you for the reference.

  15. says

    A couple of years ago, I attended the Be Your Own Publicist workshop offered through the Writers Union of Canada. I walked away with a clear understand of who I was as a writer.
    Author Leanne Dyck: I’m a women’s fiction author. My stories are about strong women and the challenges they face.
    Leanne Dyck’s blog: I promote my creations and celebrate your creativity.

  16. says

    When I designed my blog with colourful diamond-pane windows, I had in mind a quiet chapel frequented by earnest spiritual seekers. Then I used the branding to allude to Gothic mansions, damp cellars and sinister plotters. Now I prefer the image of quaint coffee-shops and antique shops because it fits in better with the contemporary setting of my novel “Jozi Gold”. What I am saying is, a brand needs to be flexible because, just as we change over time, so do our interests, writing styles and even genres. What do you think?

    • says

      Leanne, I’ve seen authors redecorate their blog with each book, pulling a sense of setting and atmosphere into the graphics. That can be fun and IMHO and uneducated opinion, works well when the core promise remains constant. (e.g. Katie MacAlister, who writes over-the-top screwball romantic comedy which is both historical and contemporary)

      Do you have a sense of who you are as a writer? It can take some authors multiple books before they know.

      Others can’t be limited to one brand and write under pseudonyms, because their stories and readership are so different that they feel they need to make the different promises explicit from the ground up.

      And of course, all things have changed with the advent of self-publishing. Some authors like Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch are pulling their pseudonyms together under one name.

  17. says

    “Holding the mental snapshot of me of me in mind’s eye, I started brainstorming descriptors.” – Every word listed under that snapshot is Me. I definitely try to reflect those attributes in my writing – blog on practical spirituality and my first book taking shape called “Divine Inscrutability – My Spiritual Journey with Autism”

    Thank you for labeling what I live

  18. Ronda Roaring says

    Unfortunately, I disagree with many of you, and I, too, have some experience with branding. Branding is not promoting who or what you are, it’s promoting who or what you want others to THINK you are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a cookie, a car or a big city. You want to project a certain image. But that image isn’t necessarily the truth. Look at Ralph Lauren. With a name like Ralph, do you envisage a guy who’s swank. He worked hard to create that image, and you, if you want to be successful, need to work on your image, too, whatever it might be.

    We all know that the nasty Lemony Snicket is really the mild-mannered Daniel Handler. But when Lemony Snicket walks into a children’s classroom, which person do you think the kids want to see. This is marketing, and marketing is a business. You as an author are also a business. Stop taking everything so personally and act like a business.

    • says

      Ah, good to have an alternate point of view, Ronda. And yes, I take your point that branding is ultimately about business. Must it be divorced from the personal? That’s where I think I must disagree. Unless we are talking about basic survival, I’ve always needed to have both entwined to be at my best.

      As for Ralph Lauren, to be quite honest, I don’t think of him at all, and that’s not only a product of my proclivities for green-sweatpants. I have a loose understanding of what his clothing stands for, but of him, I could make no pronouncements. Does he communicate with his purchasers except through his merchandise and advertising? (I honestly don’t know.)

      Personally, my role models for authorship are quite different. I’m thinking of Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Neil Gaiman–all very strong brands and savvy promoters, yet people I’d say lead with their hearts.

      • MJ says

        As an advertising copywriter who this very minute is supposed to be nailing down a universal value proposition for a client, I have to chime in with Ronda. Brand isn’t who you say you are; it’s who your customers say you are.

        Or, for writers, brand is who your readers say you are.

        So your job is, yes, to understand who you are/want to be (and Jan, you’ve come up with a delightful path to that goal)–and then do what you can to get readers to see you in that way.

        • says

          “So your job is, yes, to understand who you are/want to be (and Jan, you’ve come up with a delightful path to that goal)–and then do what you can to get readers to see you in that way.”

          Gotcha, MJ. Thanks for the clarification on Ronda’s comment. This makes sense to me.

  19. says

    I’m somewhat new to the “branding” process and confess to being a bit curmudgeonly about having to create one. Like Tony Vanderwarker’s comment earlier, I’ve been led to believe an author’s brand is what we promise to our readers. I like your exercise of bullet-pointing who we are, but not sure it fits what I’m supposed to do. Yes, some of those personal highlights sneak into my characters, but technically, it aint about us. In creating my brand, I had to address two things. What was I going blog about on a regular basis that was meaningful, and how does it relate to the stories I’m hoping to sell? I tend to write about future trends, dystopian musing as it relates to contemporary subjects, with a little humor if the subject is amenable. My characters … and this took a while to ferret out of my cluttered mind … all end up in dark places, looking for a little light to guide them through it. My brand — “Searching For Light in the Darkness”. Now, I focus on living up to it. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be fun. If you get a chance, Jan, love your opinion of what you think of my online interpretation at

    • says

      I’m no marketing genius, DT, but whenever I hear the word “fun”, that implies good things to me. Namely, that you’ve found a tagline which hits personal sweet spots, however you got there.

      As for your blog, I love the header photo. Gorgeous. And the colors, font and subjects seem in keeping with your tagline. Nicely done.

  20. says

    Love a post that’s both funny and makes me think — thanks, Jan.

    I recently switched from looking at my blog analytics daily to looking at them (only!) monthly, which led me to notice that the posts my readers respond to most are the ones in which I’m transparent about my faults, my struggles (both past and present). I’ve done a few other kinds of posts, but that’s what people read and comment on the most. And that fits for those times I’m most engaged with my friends, when we’re talking about those self-discovery moments, times of struggle, making fun of ourselves along the way. And that kind of fits with my fiction, which is certainly about people struggling, dealing with their faults and the repercussions of the faults of others — but written with affection for the characters. Clear-sighted but affectionate. That’s the part of me people respond to both online and in person, so I believe I’ll be pursuing that more overtly, as my brand (although it does feel silly to be talking about that when I’m oh so unpublished).

    As for what brand-me is wearing, something is black, something is probably from a thrift store, and my earrings are dangly and made by my husband’s cousin. I’m probably wearing my slippers: leopard ones for winter (which I take with me to friends’ houses) and funky ikat blue and orange ones for summer. I’m likely moving to a rhythm only I can hear (like now).

    • says

      “Clear-sighted but affectionate” is an appealing descriptor, Natalie. As for your outfit, you have a lot of heart and personality. Will be fascinating to perhaps get to meet you in person at a WU retreat and to see how it manifests in your fiction.

  21. says

    Wow, so many strong opinions and perspectives on the same subject!

    The bottom line for me is consistency and sustainability. Therefore, it has to be something you enjoy and have fun with, or you won’t stick with it. In a blogging (and sometimes book) sense, this also means that people who found you and liked what you have to say will continue to come back to read more.

    You will not believe this, but as I was typing this message I suddenly had an epiphany about my next blog post and want to rush off and compose it! My poor blog that has been languishing for six months without a new post. So, thank you, Jan! Yay for inspiration!

  22. says

    Part of my brand came about almost accidentally. The editorial team thought I’d put too much humor into my second novel. They posed the question: Do you want to be taken seriously? I thought, not too seriously. I realized I’d found the tagline for my website: Putting Fun Into Sci-fi.

    Right now my clothes are a reflection of the changes I’m going through. (Sadly, not yet menopause.) I’m going from novelist to screenwriter. Screenwriting is a very precise form of writing–no character introspection or long scenic descriptions. And my clothes have become too large as I’ve lost weight. It’s that awkward stage between shrinking what I have and buying new outfits, while still trying to appear presentable.

    (There’s no secret to the weight loss. I was under too much stress for one person. Now that the situation has changed my body is responding to healthy eating and exercise habits.)

    • says

      I love moments of serendipity, Phyllis. And that tagline perfectly captures your personal vibe as well as what I’ve seen of your film work.

      Glad you’re starting to feel better!

  23. says

    Jan, bravo! Love the prompt and your advice on hip-hop. For me, distillation wasn’t an option. I knew I needed my brand, so I did the painstaking work of pulling themes from my work and figuring out why they were in there, i.e., shrinking myself as you’ve done, essentially. Will readers find value? I’m getting ready to find out and then, if they don’t find enough value, to tweak my brand and my distillation process even more. Thanks for this. Very helpful.

    • says

      I’m delighted that it was helpful, but sounds like you might have written this post yourself. Probably kept it shorter, too. ;) Cheers, Mary. Good luck on the launch.