Becoming a Brand Name

by James Scott Bell

Power Up Your Fiction is endorsed by Betty Crocker.

Today’s post is brought to you by that new craft book, Power Up Your Fiction: 125 Tips and Techniques for Next-Level Writing. Yes, you too can write fiction that has the extras readers crave. Removes those ugly speed bumps, too. Don’t be the last one in your critique group to own a copy. Get yours today at a special price! And now here’s your host, JSB…

Brought to you by…

In the early years of television, most shows had a single sponsor paying the bills, e.g., Colgate Comedy Hour, Texaco Star Theatre, Goodyear TV Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre. The shows that were “brought to you by” often featured the stars in a commercial.

Father Knows Best, brought to you by Maxwell House Coffee. Good to the last drop.”

Leave it to Beaver has been brought to you by Ralston Purina, makers of the eager eater dog food.”

The Fugitive has been brought to you by Viceroy cigarettes. Viceroy’s got the taste that’s right.”

Speaking of that ubiquitous weed, a plethora of shows were sponsored by tobacco companies. Everybody smoked back then, even cartoon characters:

Even the pious:

Consistent quality was the key

The sponsors hoped the brand would be associated with a quality show and its stars, week after week. Not just quality, but consistent quality, directed to a target audience.

The most popular show of 1953 was I Love Lucy. It worked because Lucille Ball was a brilliant comedic actress, Desi Arnaz a perfect foil and also an astute producer who worked with a great team of writers.

The second most popular show that year was Dragnet, about as polar an opposite of Lucy as you could find. A police drama, it had a consistent style developed by its star, Jack Webb. That style featured staccato dialogue and underplayed acting. It became famous and easily parodied. Fortunately, Jack Webb had a sense of humor about it:

What if you want to write something “off brand”? In the traditional publishing world, this is problematic for obvious commercial reasons. You’re building an audience and helping bookstores know where to shelve your books. Publishers are investing in you, hoping for a long-term relationship that is profitable for all.

This is what hamstrung early John Grisham, whose massively popular legal thrillers made the big bucks. But Grisham wanted to write literary fiction, too. It was only when he had sufficient leverage that his publisher came out with A Painted House.

Indie writers have more flexibility, though they also want to build a brand. But we have short stories and novellas to try things out, and can publish them instantly. The old ad man saying applies here: “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.”

So…build your brand with consistent quality. Meet reader expectations in your genre, but also exceed them by adding unique and memorable touches. Everybody remembers Lucy and Ethel stuffing candy into their mouths, hats and down their uniforms.

Remember famed writer/director John Huston’s axiom: a great movie is made up of “three great scenes, and no weak ones.”

Which also means don’t flood the market with less than your best. For as another movie legend used to say:

32 thoughts on “Becoming a Brand Name

  1. Thanks, Jim, for 125 of your all-time great tips! I’m looking forward to learning and applying what you’ve already figured out. Just in time to show AI who’s boss.

  2. As I recall from seeing old commercials, Chevrolet was a sponsor for Bonanza.

    RE: Building brand shouldn’t be one of the more difficult aspects for me (so I say now LOL) as I’ve really only wanted to write one genre–historical. I’ve never been one who wanted to write in multiple genres. Although technically even that could get confusing if I write a lot of stuff set in the 19th century & then switch to early 20th century. Eh well. If I have multiple books out, that’ll be a nice problem to have.

  3. I write in 2 related genres: Police Procedurals and Romantic Suspense, but I call them all “Mysteries With Relationships.”
    My main takeway from this post: “don’t flood the market with less than your best”

      • Actually, my tagline is “Romance with a Twist of Mystery” because that’s where I started. When I published my first straight mystery, Deadly Secrets, I didn’t want to change all that I’d invested in my logo and other promo. I’m too old to change things.

  4. The Kindle pre-order for my copy of “Power Up Your Fiction” has arrived—I’m very much looking forward to reading it, and learning anew. Congratulations, Jim, on your latest release.

    “Don’t flood the market with less than your best,” is also my main takeaway from this post. Readers will be the ultimate judge, but I will say that I’ve never worked harder on a book than I have with my new 1980s library cozy mystery, “A Shush Before Dying.”

    Hope you have a wonderful Sunday!

  5. Jim, congratulations on your new book! It arrived on my Kindle this a.m. Yaay!

    Love the montage of classic commercials–most of which I remember well when they were originally on TV. I purposely set down my mug while watching the Copper Clapper Caper, knowing it would prompt coffee snorting!

  6. Looking forward to reading it, JSB. Letter follows.

    Dear Ann Landers,

    One thing has confused me though. GM hired a marketing guru/hipster for their Cadillac cars and it seemed that the approach to selling cars was going to be edgy, hip, and definitely located in the hipper areas of Manhattan-Soho, Hell’s Kitchen, the Village although I do not know whether that’s a thing any more.

    So she’s on the teevee, some business segment or other and she says “We don’t build cars. We’re a BRAND.”

    Tell that to the boys and girls in the factories in the Heartland where they make them, huh?

    I have yet to understand this. It’s been years and I reckon she’s gone on to greener hipper pastures, Caddies are still mostly driven by older folks with money who like their creature comforts and they mos’ def’ have four wheels and a motor.

    So what am I missing? Am I really Brand X? Did I flunk Marketing For Dummies without even reading the book?

    Sleepless in Des Moines

  7. Good morning, Jim. Congratulations on the release of Power Up Your Fiction. I see it arrived on my iPad this morning, and I’m looking forward to using it to get to the next level.

    It’s no mystery why I write the genre I do. 🙂 I love puzzles, both creating and solving them. At the end of the day, I hope I will be known for clean, clever, clue-filled stories. No claptrap. 🙂 🙂

    Seriously, I try to put my best work out there. I’m very grateful for all I’ve learned here at TKZ.

  8. Downloaded mine this morning, Jim! Another tool hangin’ on my belt. (I think I need a bigger belt . . . ) I love the color pictures on my Kindle . . . makes me happy. 🙂

    But, I think the best parts are the personal notes you took while you were learning the craft. Speaks volumes to me.

    Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.

    I see the saluting crowd forming now under the Power Up Your Fiction flag.

    Happy Sunday everyone!

  9. Perfect timing, Jim. I’m dealing with new branding now. For most of my career, I wrote psychological thrillers/serial killer thrillers (dark and frightening). The last three books, however, are Native American metaphysical thrillers (emotional, dark, yet hopeful). I switched slowly over the course of six books.

    My Mayhem Series started as pure psychological thrillers with a clear investigative thread. With each new release, the investigative thread dwindled as I inched into my new genre. In book five, the investigative thread no longer existed. By easing my audience into my new genre, little by little, it seemed like a natural progression. And I think that’s key when one series twists and turns into an entirely new genre. Well-developed characters also play a vital role in making the transition.

    The best part is my marketing is more targeted than ever before — I know exactly who I’m writing for. Plus, I feel destined to write these stories. Only took me 9 or 10 years to figure out. LOL

  10. The big question is: What, exactly is the author’s brand? There’s the obvious physical branding–you can tell a Tom Clancy book from across the room, even without being able to read the text because his covers all have the same basic look. Since I’ve been with Kensington (17 years now), my covers all have a similar look. Certainly, the layout of my name and the title on the cover have pretty much the same style.

    I work hard to make “John Gilstrap” my brand. I want people to think solid thrillers with a big heart. And to a degree, I think that’s been successful. BUT . . .

    When I put out a non-Jonathan Grave book, the sales numbers are nowhere near as high as the Jonathan books. I have reason to believe that the same is true of other authors when they stray from their main series characters.

    This begs the question (I did that for you, Jim): Is the author the brand, or are the author’s stories/characters the brand? I don’t know that there’s an answer.

    • Good question, John. Maybe there isn’t one right answer, but there are examples. I’m sure that Michael Connelly’s Bosch books sell the best, but he’s also managed a hit series with The Lincoln Lawyer.

      Parker had Spenser, then Jesse Stone. Both those series continue now, written by other authors.

      Of course, these are similar in genre.

      Traditionally, authors who wanted to write more in different genres would need to use a pseudonym. I think of Evan Hunter, a literary writer, writing police procedurals as Ed McBain. He wrote more under the latter because that’s where the money was.

      And that, it seems to me, is usually the answer. What will bring in the bucks? And if it doesn’t bring in the bucks, it’s dropped in favor of more of what does.

      • Had the same issue, John re wanting to get away from the one that brung you to the dance. Deep into our Kincaid series, I had an idea for a stand alone thriller. Just HAD to get it off my chest.

        My agent had this to say: “No one is waiting for your stand alone.”

        I didn’t care. Wrote it anyway. S&S, to their credit, put it out. It sold okay. I still don’t care. I love that book. 🙂

  11. A new craft book by JSB? Take my money now!

    BTW, Mr. Bell, I love your pulpier stuff. Trouble is My Beat and Force of Habit are my favorites. I hope to see a lot more like those coming from you (not that I don’t appreciate Romeo—they’re great—but I love the They Don’t Make Em Like This Anymore factor of the former titles).

  12. Yay! Your new book is on my queue and it’s all I can do not read it until I’m solidly off book for the show.

    Loved the dragnet clip. One of the characters in our show is in idiot cop who my character sneeringly refers to as Joe Friday. (Him: You think I’m an idiot, don’t you? Me: Only if you’ve been studying.)

    Branding isn’t an issue for me (yet) but I love to write different things, from sci fi to romance to horror to comedy so it may be in future. Guess I’ll see what sells.

    Congratulations again on your new book!

    • “See what sells.”

      “Let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks”

      “Let’s put it in a saucer and see if the cat licks it up”

      (Ad men talking after a 3 martini lunch.)

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