Photographer’s Corner: Being Brand Savvy in the Digital Age

October 6th, 2014
photographers center

Documentary wedding photographer and Zenfolio Pro Team member Kevin Mullins explains why it’s OK to stop stressing over SEO and focus more on your brand.

Let me tell you a little story. I used to be a member of several Facebook groups for photographers. As always with these groups, there were some people who thought the only way forward was to belittle everyone else, try and promote themselves as a rock star, and brag about bookings and fees (which, incidentally, they are either lying to their peers about, or lying to the VAT man… but that’s another story). These were generally the same people who had partaken in some very dubious SEO practices and were, in fairness, reaping the punishments.

I would echo the warning words of Google: don’t try and fool them. They will catch up with you in the end.

And Google did. Google had ejected many of these ultracrepidarian fools, because they didn’t listen. They didn’t listen to Google and they didn’t listen to what the marketing world had been saying about SEO—they saw themselves above all of that. The ones who understand that SEO is just a small portion of the whole branding message and partly responsible for marketing, too, will not have such a sour experience.

The analogy I like to use is to consider that Google is “just another person.” Treat it like a person you are trying to expose your services to, and it will treat you with respect. Treat it like an imbecile, and it will kick you about like a deflated football.

I recently spent three days in different parts of the country running workshops on Branding, Marketing and SEO for other photographers. Most of the folks who attended the seminar did so because of the SEO element. However, I purposefully spent a whole morning, before moving onto the technicalities of SEO for photographers, discussing branding. Yawn… you might think, and there were some faces in the audience when I explained this that did seem to do just that.

During the course of each of the mornings, though, I saw all these little light bulbs ping on one after another. It was like a microwave testing factory. Ping, ping, ping…

What had happened? Well, I spent all this time talking about branding because without a solid brand, I don’t think you can have a solid business.

Branding is different than marketing, and marketing is different than advertising. And neither of them are much related to black hat SEO.

And where does it all start? With your brand. Yes, you can put a website together very quickly, but your brand is your persona. It’s the “voice” of your business, and it’s the opinion that you hold in the mind of potential (and past) clients that ultimately will lead to longevity in an industry that is littered with the carcases of fast burn businesses.

What would happen if Jeff Ascough got booted off of Google? Nothing. What would happen if Jerry Ghionis got booted off of Google? Nothing. Extreme examples, perhaps, but relevant nonetheless. When we think of Jeff we think of gorgeous black and white documentary weddings. When we think of Jerry, we think of beautiful, artistically flavoured fashion wedding photography.

The reason for this is because their brand is working, and they have a place in our mind. Their style is in our mind. If they lost their spot on Google they would still trade.

Too few of us consider our overall brand as part of our visual and psychological identity. I frequently get asked how I manage to get clients who really want wedding photojournalism. And I mean “really” want it. The answer is both simple and very complex; it’s my brand. 

I’ve spent five plus years building a brand where I shoot the way that I want to shoot. My website, my online collateral, my PR, everything, is authentic to my brand. I don’t deviate. I don’t show lots of group shots on my website (in fact, I don’t show any) because my brand does not support that. My brand, your brand, OUR brands are more responsible for the longevity of our businesses than flash-in-the-pan SEO or get business quick schemes.

So, let’s rewind a little to the Facebook groups full of those willy wavers: “I earned 18K from this weekend’s wedding.” – really? And you are still not VAT registered. “I’m shooting three weddings in Australia this summer.” – really? And I presume you have the relevant work permits for that?

What are they achieving? Apart from “bigging” themselves up to the other kids in the playground? Not a lot, as it turns out. They are not helping themselves, and they are not  helping the industry.

There is a great marketer named Al Reis (check out his books). He was cowriter of “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding”. Some of the core laws of branding state:

I think this is very important for everyone in the wedding photography world right now. There is a degree of positive momentum in the minds and eyes of the clients right now. Social media and the accessibility of photography have been seen by some as detrimental to our businesses (everyone is a photographer, right?). But I think it’s helped elucidate photography for people, and they can see what is good and what isn’t.

It’s up to us, as an industry, to keep that momentum going—to heave the boulder over the crest of the hill. One of the points I make at my seminars is that I’m as candid as it gets with my knowledge and my experiences. Other trainers have told me that I give too much away, but I see it like this; if I’m lucky enough to be in the position where people want to listen to me, and are paying for it, then it’s my responsibility to give then uncontrived information. If I do so, hopefully, the industry will become stronger, albeit in a tiny fashion. If we all do so, then the industry will become stronger in a huge fashion.

The core fundamentals of branding are not about your logo, your font, and your business card (although they do play parts); they are about so much more. It’s about what people think about you and your business and services. It’s in the mind, more than anything else, and is something that is continually evolving and always needing attention.

When I explain to people how I attract clients who want the style of photography I offer, it always comes down to the brand doing the work for me. My website, my emails, my PDFs, my persona online, the “voice” of my website, the types of images I promote, the competitions I enter, even the type of cameras I use, are all core facets of the brand. This, primarily, is what prevents people who would rather not have documentary-styled wedding photographs from contacting me.

So, instead of constantly worrying and stressing about SEO, instead of fretting that you have dropped from #3 to #5, think about your brand for a while:

At this point, people always come back with: “There is no such thing as a USP (unique selling point) in photography.” Those people are being quite blinkered in my opinion. You don’t have to have a USP to be unique. Think back to the brand—stop thinking for one moment about Off Camera Flash, about using a 300mm lens, or about using CSCs. Think about your uniqueness in the marketplace. Your brand is all part of that. What makes up your brand is what makes you unique.

I spent a few hours a while back with a new photographer. He had a very strong business, but things weren’t clicking in terms of the marketing and branding. I asked him to let me know what his typical breakdown for marketing was. By far the most time he was spending in a week was on Google Plus; around four to five hours a week. I asked him why (although I already knew the answer)… ”Err… because it’s good for SEO.”

After I pointed out that the chances of any of his target clients being on Google+ were slim and that he would reap far more rewards by spending that time as a trusted contributor on or by building custom target audience ads that appear at 2 a.m. (during the feed!) on Facebook than spending time shouting in an empty room, the penny dropped.

SEO of course has a place, but it’s only a part of the overall marketing effort that ultimately helps define your brand.

So, think about yourself and your business. Think about how you want to be perceived in the minds of real people. Now, remember what I said at the beginning of this article: think of Google as one of those real people. If your brand, marketing, ethical SEO and social media are good for real people, then they will be good for Google too.

Kevin’s images are a breath of fresh air for the wedding industry. Shooting primarily in B&W, his documentary approach to capturing all the special moments that happen throughout an event really brings out the emotion, character and complexity of his subjects. As a leader in the wedding industry, Kevin is not only a photographer to watch, he’s also one to learn from. Read his case study on workflow here [/z/help/free-guides/case-study-workflow-integrated-lab], and see his professional website here:

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