Building Your Brand Image

Brand Image: Overview

One of the hardest things for many woodturners to do is to effectively market themselves when selling their woodturnings. As hard as it is to do, building your image is one of the most important things you can do as a woodturner. What worked yesterday, may not work today. You have to constantly reassess what is working and abandon techniques that do not offer a sufficient return on your invested time, effort and money. Your time is precious, whether you are doing this for a living as I have done for sixteen years, or you’re turning for the sheer pleasure of it.

I’ve been in sales all of my adult life. For me, many of the techniques I use in my studio to market my products and services come naturally. It was not always so however… A line from one of Jimmy Buffet’s early songs always comes to mind: “I’m just trying to get by, being quiet and shy, in a world full of push and shove.” That sums it up for me since I’m basically shy and becoming gregarious and comfortable when dealing with the public was a difficult skill to master. I know many excellent woodturners who will readily admit that they do not like working directly with the public. Some will go so far as to say they abhor working with the public.

Many of those same turners are happy to toil away in their studios turning projects and leave the sales side of the business to a gallery, boutique, store, website, or catalog. This approach can work and indeed some are successful at this type of plan, others will readily admit that they need to do a better job of marketing themselves. Therein lies the rub in selling to the public… How do you successfully market yourself to the public? There is no easy answer from this side of the keyboard.

We all live in different areas, have different viewpoints and have different strengths, weaknesses and abilities. Incomes range all over the map, as does the available time that can be devoted to marketing, even if you turn full time. The key is to recognize the fact that most of the approaches you try will not result in success. That should not deter you, in fact like Thomas Edison’s early attempts to create a light bulb - it should embolden you to try harder.

Brand Image: The Law of Large Numbers

When I was marketing life insurance products back in the day, we lived by the law of large numbers… That means that we recognized that we would need to sift through a large volume of potential customers to find the few that were interested in our products. Sales are sales for the most part, no matter whether you are selling woodturnings or widgets.

This article will concentrate on a few ways of marketing yourself and building your brand image as an artist, or craftsperson. Since everyone has their own viewpoints and beliefs, I will limit my examples to a few things that have worked for me over the years. If just one of these ideas helps you, then great. If not, then you can enjoy the journey of finding your own unique way to market yourself. The key is to try many different approaches and stick with the ones that show some promise.

As you continually work to refine the productive marketing techniques you discover, remember to add a few new ones from time to time. You never know when you will hit upon a great method to build your brand. The following topics are listed in no particular order.

Brand Image: Get the Word Out

Don’t be a silent artist! When you’re at parties and other social events, you should always mention in conversation that you’re a woodturner and be able to give a quick review of what you’ve been working on in the studio recently. Also, let everyone know that you accept custom work (if you do of course), since many artists do not and this can be a valuable source of new customers. Whilst the people you converse with at the party may not be interested in collecting, their friends might…

Brand Image: Build a Sphere of Influence

Once you begin to accumulate collectors and customers, you need to keep in contact with them on some kind of a regular basis. Consider writing a newsletter or a blog to let your collectors know what you are working on and when new series will become available. Install a program whereby collectors and buyers can reserve production pieces in advance if they desire. Offer a pre-production discount for pre-paid orders. This will help with your overall cash flow as you build your business.

Brand Image: Build Your Image with Third-Party News Features

Raise awareness of yourself as an artist/craftsperson in your community by offering a feature to a local or neighborhood newspaper (usually in the Lifestyle section of the paper) on you and your work. Most cities and towns, as well as large communities have some type of weekly paper with an editor that is always hungry for new features. Some communities also have “Spotlight” pages on their websites that profile various community business people and what they do in their business. These types of promotion are usually free of charge and can be a valuable tool to build your brand and increase your image as an artist, or a professional craftsperson in your community.

Brand Image: Host Private Receptions for Collectors and Potential Customers

Once you begin to build a collector base, host private receptions where you introduce major new pieces that you have completed. We have typically hosted these as wine and cheese parties and they have been very successful in the past. Remember, if no one knows what you’re doing or what you’re working on, whom are you going to sell to? Dedicated collectors enjoy knowing what you’re working on in the studio. Many times in the past, I have taken orders for pieces that were discussed for the first time at one of these receptions.

Brand Image: Obtain Feedback with Focus Groups

Invite some of your close friends to participate in a focus group where you show new production or one-off items that you are considering selling. Get their feedback on what they like and dislike about your new work. Ask them to be brutal; you want to know their likes and dislikes! These kinds of focus groups have been very valuable to me in the past. Include a few friends that are always on the cutting edge of fashion, own the latest gadgets and technology and those who are seasoned collectors of any type of art. Include both women and men in your focus group.

These focus group meetings could be in conjunction with one of your private receptions, or hosted as a separate party. Offer some type of nice door prize for coming to the meeting; say a salad bowl set or a nice hollow form for one lucky recipient. Remember, everyone’s time is valuable, recognize this through the quality of the gift you offer, or by the quality of the food and drink you serve at the event. Perception is reality.

Brand Image: Ask Probing Questions of Buyers

Whenever possible and in a low-key way, ask why a particular piece appealed to the buyer. Was it the colour, style, wood, finish etc… This type of post-sale audit is extremely valuable to you. It can help you to zero in on what buyers in your area want most in the pieces they collect. Most people are very happy to relate why they wanted to acquire a particular piece. Not asking these types of questions is like leaving gold nuggets on the ground because you did not want to bend over to pick them up!

Brand Image: Ask for Referrals

There’s an old saying: “Birds of a feather flock together”… That means that people tend to associate with other people who have similar interests. What other things are you interested in? I’m very active in the Mercedes-Benz Club and have been for more than 25 years. Take a guess of how many people I know that drive high-end luxury cars? If you sell a major piece to a lawyer for example, do you think that your new collector might know other lawyers who are also into collecting art?

In a gentle way, ask your new collector if they know of any of their friends who are also collecting wood art, or those who may be interested in starting a new collection. If they say they do not know of anyone, that’s ok. Chances are though, that they do… Remember, friends are always talking about what their latest new phone is, what car they just bought and what type of new art they have purchased to decorate/redecorate their home. Think outside the box here…

There are many ways to find buyers. Don’t limit yourself to the same old tired conventional marketing techniques. Find new ways to market yourself and build your brand, and you will find new sources of buyers and collectors.

Brand Image: Network with Other Artists

If you’re not doing some type of networking with other artists, start now. Join a local artist's guild or a woodturning association. Don’t limit yourself to woodturning specific organizations. Look in your area for artists associations for oil, acrylic or watercolour artists, also textile artists and potters. Join one or two of these associations and start attending meetings (even if you do not throw pots, or paint). Why you ask? Because, many collectors of these other types of art may also collect wood art.

This is a good way for you to also expand you knowledge of art in general. Potters look for pure sweet curves, just as woodturners do. Painters have a good eye for colours that work together, textile artists are excellent sources of ideas on texture… You can learn a lot from many different types of artists, but you have to be open to new ideas and new techniques. These artists can also learn a lot from you…

Brand Image: Write Articles for Magazines or Websites

If you are comfortable with writing about how you do your work, consider writing articles for magazines or websites that focus on art. Traditional woodturning magazines can be one outlet to find new collectors (who may notice your work in the magazine), but don’t forget that collectors of wood art may also be into collecting hot glass, ceramics, textiles, handmade paper etc. You may be able to write a general interest article on artistic techniques/design that would appeal to magazines that cater to artists who do not work with wood.

Brand Image: Demonstrate Woodturning Techniques

Demonstrations are another way to raise awareness of you and your work in the area where you live, as well as other parts of the country when you demonstrate at symposiums and woodturning roundups. Many woodturners also collect woodturnings… In addition, there may be other collectors in attendance at demonstrations, especially at ones that feature groups of artists demonstrating different art technique.

Brand Image: Participate in Charitable Events

Most areas of the country and all around the world for that matter, have annual charitable events to raise funds for local art related causes. Consider volunteering at one of the next events in your area. You will not only get to know other artists in your community, but more importantly, you will get to know the sponsors, supporters and collectors of art in your community.

Many high-end art collectors support art in their community through these types of events. If you’re serious about selling your work, especially high-end pieces, you need to raise awareness of yourself in your community through these types of events.

Brand Image: Final Thoughts

Successful marketing is as challenging, as it is rewarding. You have to develop a thick skin and roll with the punches to succeed. You have to be willing to fall flat on your face and fail miserably a few times to find the right recipe for you and your work. Don’t dwell on the failures though, concentrate on what is working and perfect the techniques that offer the biggest return on your investment.

Always be open to new ideas and think outside the box, because most people cannot and therefore you are much more likely to succeed when you don’t follow the same old methods that others use. You can succeed, if you are truly passionate about your work, you hold yourself to a high standard and you are willing to fail at first to succeed. Good luck to you and best wishes in all of your woodturning endeavors!

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.