Building A “Baby Brand”: Enter a New Genre by Sub-Branding with Phillip Blume
The world doesn’t need my next brand or small business. I feel almost guilty entertaining such a pessimistic thought. But it’s an honest concern. Standing on the edge of an ocean can make anyone feel small. Today, though, I’m looking across the endless black water and broken sea ice of Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. The first glow of dawn is just beginning to reveal the vast bleakness of this landscape.
I’m at 40,000 feet, my wife and our two young daughters asleep beside me on the airplane. We’re embarking on the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced as a family: on our way to China for the culmination of our adoption process. My wife, Eileen, and I can no longer travel and shoot exotic weddings together as often as we’re used to. We need to be home more to give our kids some sense of stability. The elephant in the room is a simple question: Can our business survive this drastic change?
The answer, we believe, lies in “sub-branding.” We’re building a newborn business we can run from home.
Ultimately, a good sub-brand is a powerful illusion. Similar to a magical illusion, a well-crafted brand inspires wonder in your target audience—something exciting for them to believe in. As a branding magician, then, you’ll want to consider pulling a sub-brand out of your hat whenever you need to conjure a more specific “feeling” for a new client base. The feeling is crucial. After all, no matter what some of us would rather believe about our cold and rational intellects, the neurological fact remains: Our purchasing decisions are made not in our rational brains, but rather in our emotional brains. Feelings sell.
Are you ready to do the legwork? Be warned: You’ll have to push. Upstart success means mastering the tricks of marketing every time you launch a new brand. As the saying goes, perception is reality. Yes, like a baby, your new sub-brand will continue to change and grow for as long as it lives. You don’t have to plan out its entire life. But before you deliver your new sub-brand to the world, you want it to be as well developed as possible.
Here are five tips to help birth your first sub-brand, while strengthening your parent brand.
Give it a loving home. Step one should be clear, but in the exciting anticipation of all that’s to come, it’s easy to forget: Create a nurturing environment for your brand—online. Don’t announce your new arrival to the whole world the moment you conceive the idea. Instead, prepare quietly. Your sub-brand needs this time to gestate and turn into what it’s going to be, before the pressure of the world’s expectations are placed on it. So find and purchase that perfect domain name before anyone else does.
Next, create an email account for your sub-brand. You can always forward email to one inbox if you wish. But a unique email furthers the separation between your brand identities, creating a more focused feel for each. You need that unique email for all the social media accounts you’re about to open up. Save your sub-brand as a username everywhere you can get it, even if you don’t plan to use a particular account right away. Blume Babies has its own Instagram account, even though Eileen strategically posts her newborn work on her personal Instagram account, @eileen_blume, instead.
Heck, I even create accounts for ideas that may never fly. The important thing is that no one else “borrows” your brand names and ideas, potentially watering them down or, worse, misrepresenting them. Sometimes it is this small first step that gives your baby brand the confidence it needs to start walking—then running as it gets its legs under it.
Choose your style. What will your “parenting style” be? Everyone has an opinion about how you should do your job, including you. The same is true in steering your business. You’ve been influenced by your history, and it feels all too easy to imitate what you’ve seen before, to apply the style of your parent brand to the subject matter of your sub-brand. Resist this knee-jerk reaction.
As the parent of a darling new sub-brand, give serious thought to the artistic message you want to convey through it. A sub-brand is an exciting opportunity to stretch your creative muscles and try new things that suit the sub-genre. For years, Eileen has photographed weddings and portraits using natural light almost exclusively. Without the burden of accessory lighting, she felt better able to capture candid moments and honest environments that complemented Blume Photography’s photojournalistic style.
But for Blume Babies, she wanted to create a polished, luxury studio feeling. Decision one was to use a “you come to us” studio model, instead of offering on-location portraits at families’ homes. She traveled for newborn portraits on the side for years. But now our priority is to stay home with our kids, especially now that we have our newly adopted son.
With that decided, she set her focus on mastering studio light for the first time. Now she’s able to deliver consistently shaped lighting and an uncluttered aesthetic to her newborn portraits, which stands apart from the environment-driven energy of our wedding work. Not coincidentally, the new style perfectly suits our studio’s minimalistic vibe and construction from reclaimed materials. Eileen could have gone in another direction using colorful baby props, humorous headpieces, elaborate studio setups—but that wasn’t the niche she chose to fill. To prevent her sub-brand from being all over the place, she limited herself to a consistent style that her clients experience when they visit the website, and on through their first visit to the studio.
Prove your competence. Now you’ve got your baby brand home and have settled into the routines of feeding (marketing) and diaper-changing (day-to-day business). So why does your mother-in-law keep popping in to offer unsolicited advice?
You don’t want to remain in a place where your clients are constantly asking for customizations or wondering, “Why doesn’t she offer the same products and services as the photographer across the street?” You’ve thought carefully about how you do things, and you know you can’t please everybody. So kindly ask your mother-in-law to take a hike. Your goal should be to find the right clients who value what you do, not to cater to just anyone.
Young brands are often tempted to make exceptions in order to boost business early on. But doing so undermines the brand in the long-term. The best way to set healthy boundaries and attract the right clients is by building credibility. Prove to the world you’re competent at what you do, that you’re an expert. You can gift newborn sessions to friends or friends of friends who fit your preferred demographic. Reel them in with a gorgeous gift certificate, then give them the best experience possible so they become your ambassadors to friends who can afford you.
On the public relations front, ask yourself: How can I project myself as an expert in my market? Perhaps offer a small workshop for mothers interested in learning photography, or partner with a baby boutique to photograph their clothes on their favorite “model” clients. In these scenarios, everyone wins. You are marketing by serving your market as an expert, which is infinitely different than putting your business cards out, essentially begging for business.
Schedule doctor appointments. I’ve been using the term baby brand generically to refer to any young sub-brand, no matter the genre. (You could be starting a senior brand, glamour, headshots, whatever.) But let me speak now about a literal baby brand, which is what Eileen set up when she created Blume Babies as a sub-brand of Blume Photography. When it comes to newborns, the typical vendor relationships that are the bedrock of our wedding brand don’t exist. There aren’t many event planners who specialize in newborn showers.
So what professional gets closest to an expectant mother before she delivers your next newborn subject? Of course the answer is her OB/GYN, as well as the mother-baby unit at the hospital where she delivers.
This is where legwork is critical. An email or phone call won’t cut it. For Blume Babies, I scheduled a day and made the rounds. I drove to a few OB/GYN offices, where I asked to speak with the person in charge of marketing and public relations. Not every office was receptive. So we created a program and promoted it to just one OB/GYN and one hospital mother-baby unit as exclusive to them. We created luxurious gift certificates for our newborn sessions that the offices can use to improve patients’ experience.
You see, photographers aren’t the only businesses looking to give their customers an “experience.” It’s important to all businesses, and you’re making it easy for them.
Additionally, we did a promotion for Blume Babies’ launch in which we smartly combined a newborn workshop for photographers with the opportunity for patients to get a free newborn session at our studio. Because the babies had to be born at the right time for the workshop, we needed to print a lot of promotional pieces, which the hospital gladly provided to all its patients due near those dates in return for offering our photo to the hospital’s marketing department.
Welcome community. The promotional plan above can be used by anyone. But I didn’t mention an additional layer of excitement we used to create buzz. Thanks to real friendships and the community we’ve fostered in the industry over the years, the one and only Julia Kelleher of California, one of the top names in newborn photography, called looking for a place to host a workshop in Atlanta.
We ended up hosting an official Julia Kelleher workshop at Blume Photography Studios. Partnering with such a strong name made it easy to create buzz, build our studio’s reputation for newborn photography and earn confidence in the eyes of hospitals and clients. Plus, it was a wonderful experience getting to know and learning from Julia. You’re never done learning. We continue to learn and look up to photographers like her, even as we market ourselves as experts. In the end, it all comes down to community.
Change is why many businesses buckle. Not us. We adapt. We grow. Through the power of sub-branding, Eileen and I have created a newborn business she can run from home, which serves our values and goals. To customers, huge changes to your business structure can look like panic, an attempt to survive when your winning formula runs out. Through sub-branding, you can create just the opposite impression.
“Are we close to Santa’s workshop?” asks a tiny voice beside me in the airplane. My older daughter, five years old, is awake from her nap. She rests her baby-soft cheek against mine, and together we press our noses against the cold oval window. We watch spellbound as the rising sun sparkles across the endless ice 40,000 feet below us. I can almost imagine spying that white and red striped pole in the distant snow. But we aren’t stopping off at the North Pole to spend a holiday. Soon we’ll be in China, and we’ll return home as a family of five.
The outlook is brighter now. In the light, it’s easier to remember where my work and I fit into the world. Our brands put food on the table for our kids. Our businesses allowed us to bring home an orphaned boy to his forever family. Maybe our brands do matter to the world after all.