The Importance of Branding in the Sale of Art

Moos of panic filled the dusty air as cowboys pressed the hot branding iron against the flesh of the cattle out West. This painful exercise, branding, served the purpose of marking ownership of the cow. But the mark on the cow was less important than the reputation of the rancher. For instance, cattle rustlers knew which farmers would overlook the loss of an occasional cow and which were so tough they would hang cattle thieves on sight. Rustlers would avoid stealing cattle with certain brands. The behavior of the rancher became the meaning of the brand.

If you're marketing art, you've probably heard a lot about branding, and you may be wondering how it relates to you. We know companies like Apple, Coke, and McDonald's have the most recognizable brands, but those brands also have meaning. For instance, the McDonald's brand means consistent quality and fast service.

Think about the meaning of each of these brands.

Harley-Davidson: Loud, thunderous mufflers, radical, non-conforming
Apple: Innovation
Louis Vuitton: Elegance
Walmart: Lowest prices
Target: Low prices with style

Smart marketers seek to define a brand and make everything they do a relentless reinforcement of that image. Once established, a brand never, ever changes.

If I were to ask art collectors for the names of the most successful artists who command the highest prices, I would hear the same names, over and over. Though there may be painters whose quality of work is equal to or better than those top names, they cannot command the same prices and see little demand for their artwork because their brands are not strong in the eyes of the collectors. I could also ask art collectors for the names of the most successful galleries in the world, and they would cite the same top galleries.

A Strong Brand = Goals Achieved
A strong, quality brand brings higher prices because the brand gives buyers confidence. I know a dealer who recently commanded a premium of about 40 percent for paintings he sold — though collectors could buy equally good paintings, from the same artists, from other dealers for less money. The brand of this dealer is so strong that collectors feel more comfortable buying from him, knowing they won't get a fraud, knowing he will stand behind them, and knowing he always finds the best paintings.

Galleries with strong brands have worked tirelessly to make sure everything they do is a reinforcement of that brand. If the brand is about top price and top quality, you will never see that gallery running a sale. These owners invest in elaborate decor for their galleries and have elegant locations in the best neighborhoods, giving confidence to high-end art buyers.

Branding Is Either Controlled or Accidental
Think of your brand as the position you hold in the mind of the potential buyer. If you have a brand at all, either you have defined it intentionally or it has been created for you, unintentionally. If you show up drunk at openings and you look like a slob, that becomes the image others have of your brand. If you drive a Bentley and are a natty dresser, you're sending a signal of success.

But brand isn't just about appearance, it's about the whole of what you project over a long period of time. It's about the quality of your work, the frames you use, the people you're known to associate with, your politics, the pictures and opinions you post on Facebook, the look and design of your ads and brochures, and everything else seen by the public. Smart brands rarely broadcast their opinions about religion or politics because that's an automatic turn-off to a large portion of the buying public (though a few brands are all about being radical, irreverent, or political). Sometimes a brand position isn't about original art sales at all, but about other goals, like acceptance into major museums, selling prints, obtaining licensing deals, or just getting press.

Are You Walmart or Lexus?
One of the keys to brilliant success starts with defining what you want your brand to be and how you will project and reinforce it. What about you? Are you in control of your brand? Is every touchpoint a reinforcement of that brand? What is your brand? Does it accomplish what you need it to accomplish? Does it match the perceptions you need from the people you want as customers? Are you Walmart or Lexus? Each position is valuable, depending on whom you're targeting and the desired end result.

One of Three Brand Positions
Even if you've never stopped to think about your brand, you have one of three brand positions. You are either unknown and have no brand, or you have a brand you've intentionally created, or you have a brand that has been created for you by others.

Do you have a brand? Do you know how others perceive your brand? Is it accomplishing the desired result? If you have no brand yet, you have the potential to build one. If your brand isn't accomplishing your goals, you have the potential for re-branding.

Finding Brand Clarity
Branding is critical to the success of any business or product, including artists and art galleries, but branding is a tactic, based on a solid marketing strategy that is rooted in knowing your exact goals. Once you understand where you want to be and what you need to accomplish, the brand position you need to take will become clear.

For instance, if you need highly affluent people to buy your artwork, you need to determine a brand position you can own in their minds and develop a step-by-step process to build that position. (Branding is a long-term process; it takes lots of repetition over time.)

For some, it's too much effort to think about creating or managing a brand — and as a result, their careers will go whichever way the wind is blowing. For others who have specific goals,  branding is a critical process that requires a branding plan.

What about you? Does everything you do reflect your brand? Your website, your ads, your business cards, your appearance, and your representatives? Can the people you are targeting reflect your position back to you, or does it exist only in your mind? Implementing a solid branding plan is one of the many critical keys to success as an artist. It's worth thinking about if you're not where you want to be.

Eric Rhoads

PS: I am frequently asked by artists if I'll be their agent or handle their marketing. Because of my insane life as an art publisher, I'm simply unable to help with those requests. But I have agreed to create a Marketing Boot Camp for three early mornings, for those attending our Plein Air Convention. My goal in the three 90-minute sessions is to arm you with the tools to take your career to the next level, so you can double your art sales within one year. We'll discuss the entire branding process in depth at that time. I hope to see you at the Plein Air Convention in April; of the 750 seats available, almost 50 percent are already sold.