Purposeful Branding for Seniors with Jeff & Christine Tonkin

Purposeful Branding for Seniors with Jeff & Christine Tonkin

Purposeful Branding for Seniors with Jeff & Christine Tonkin

Branding does not have to be tedious. It should be done with purpose. We think of branding as an effective, memorable characteristic or behavior that will be talked about. This is our purpose. There is much more to branding than cute, trendy packaging, token gifts or stunning logos. While these things are important, we should really be asking ourselves: “What is it about our brand that makes clients choose us?”

Surely studio-branded pens or customized cookies are not the answer. Most likely the client does not even see any of those little gifts until after they have made a purchase. You may believe that if your work is good enough, it will sell itself. That is a misconception. In today’s market, with countless photographers, professional quality is not the only selling point.

Where to Start

Our brand started with three simple words: fun, original, you. To this day, our clients tell us that when they hear DigiSmiles, they think “funny,” “creative” and “focus on personality.” This is exactly what we hope to portray. While these words now make up our slogan, our branding was no accident. Our goal is to make all our interactions with our client fun, humorous and authentic. It is important to keep our focus on who the client is, and to help them achieve the final images they want.

Brainstorm three words that define how you want your business to be remembered. If you specialize in edgy, dramatic, serious images, your branding should reflect that. If your photos are soft, mystical, flowery, then keep that your focus. Which words will tell potential clients what to expect from you? What kind of memories will your seniors experience during their interactions with you? Remember, if they don’t talk about it, your branding is not strong enough.

Drive Your Brand

What drives your brand? For our studio, it looks like this:

Fun – Be goofy, laugh a lot, make silly noises, know what tickles your senior’s funnybone and tease a little.

Original – Create concept/themed shoots, scout special locations, shoot underwater, offer unique props and always incorporate something that is special to your senior.

You – Get to know your senior. Recognize their personality first. Ask about their hobbies and interests, and style the shoot to fit exactly who they are.


At DigiSmiles, we are known for breaking the ice at the beginning of the shoot so seniors don’t look like they are trying too hard. Using funny faces, noises, comments or whatever silliness comes to mind makes the senior feel at ease. With most of our seniors, we sneak in a photo bomb or a group selfie that demonstrates the fun we have and the connections we make with our clients. We link to a dedicated photo gallery on our homepage with these photos, which helps potential clients see the level of fun they can expect from a DigiSmiles experience. We have even had a senior or two remind us to take that all-important photo bomb picture because they were excited to get that special shot like so many of the examples posted on our website.

Part of our brand is also that we are a playful, upbeat and sometimes a bit sarcastic husband-and-wife team. Attitude is everything. No matter how sucky a day we might be having, our clients will never know it because we understand that part of our brand is the fun, crazy experience that they have come to expect.


While our goal is to capture the personality of our client, we must set ourselves apart from our competitors. We offer unique props like a tire swing hanging from a tree, an antique piano in a field, and smoke bombs or fog. We’re always scouting new locations. We shoot underwater, rent iconic venues and create themed shoots that require lots of planning and collaboration.


We start the process with an introduction questionnaire that tells us the interests of each senior. Next, we meet with each senior and their parents to make that vital first impression before the photo day. We customize the shoot to fit their style, wardrobe and preferences, which may or may not include their hobbies, pets or family members. We choose locations where they feel comfortable and that fit their style, not because it would make a great art piece.

Even when creating our promo shoots, we use model background information to match them to specific shoots. Our baking shoot featured four girls who were interested in the culinary arts. Our circus shoot featured seniors who loved the acrobatic arts or circus animals. For the underwater shoots, we simply took an interest of theirs and offered to capture it underwater for a unique take.

The main point is to make every shoot reflect each senior’s personality, hobby, interest or future aspiration. This spotlight on the client’s interests motivates your clients to spread the word about you.

Remember Me?

Now let’s talk about your branding message and the consistent visual presence your business must have in order to be easily recognized.

What do people remember? Think about some of the strongest brands: Walt Disney, Lego, Nike, Coca-Cola, Google. You may have instantly visualized logos as you read through the list. Yes, it will take time and consistency to develop your brand recognition, but once you have it down, you won’t need to fiddle with it.

Several years ago, we redesigned our logo from a text-based format into a simple, bold, easy-to-see stamp design. We determined that a thick stamped background with our name and initials in a simple font would stand out in our market when a majority of other studios were using script logos. Our goal was to stand out, to be in your face.

There are many other areas to consider when marketing your brand. A big part of our brand recognition comes into play through the repeated visibility of our logo, which we have on our shirts, website, custom apps and watermarked sneak-peek images.

You might think you have all or most of those already covered in your marketing, but here’s how we have connected them. We entice our clients to share BTS (behind-the-scenes) photos or videos that must have either one of us wearing our branded shirts in the shot, so our logo is shared among their social media community. After the senior posts a BTS with a short blurb about their experience, we put up a sneak-peek watermarked image for them to repost. When they repost the sneak peek, we post a second watermarked image for them to share. So their reward for sharing their experience with friends and family is getting up to two sneak-peeks.

Why do we encourage clients to take BTS photos and videos and share them? It helps demonstrate our branding slogan: “Fun, Original, YOU.”

If our client’s friends and family see only the finished product and not the experience, they do not see all the reasons a session with us is unique. All of these extras are what makes our brand trustworthy and memorable. When seniors and parents get to know you, they identify with you and your photography. And when clients feel they know and can trust you, they are more likely to purchase from you and recommend you to their friends.

Video Clips on Social Media

Invest in a quick survey of your market’s demographics to determine where your seniors are spending a majority of their social media time. We get great results sharing very short video clips on Snapchat, Instagram Stories and Facebook Live. These are great for showing glimpses of the energy and vibe our seniors experience with us on location. Don’t post the same clips on all platforms; give your target audience a reason to watch and follow your studio on as many media outlets as possible.

Take a few extra seconds to record a clip for each social media account you manage. Even though you’re posting for your own followers, ask your clients to post their own experience. This is effective for reaching your target audience. This works even when they repost video clips that you have already posted. That reinforces your brand in the eyes of your clients’ friends. The combined reach of your business posts along with your clients’ posts has a much stronger chance of attracting new clients.

So tidy up your social media accounts. Keep them consistently updated with fresh content, including strong ties to your brand and easy ways to contact your studio.


Branding is critical because there’s so much competition. Look at your business and ask yourself: If all of us are selling quality portraits, how does a client choose one photographer over another? You hear it all the time: Photographers are selling the experience just as much as the product. If this is true, what can we do to stand out and connect with our clients so they are receiving an experience that will be talked about?

Be purposeful and provide an extraordinary experience that your seniors feel is worthy of promoting among their friends and family.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the November 2016 magazine.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ranger40409

    My problem is nobody is selling the experience. I am breaking ground for my entire regional coverage area but still very difficult to communicate, educate and create that value in experiences here because people prefer the same. Cheap, traditional and cookie cutter photography. My only options are spend 5-7 years in changing that or move to a better geographical market that better understands that and have my chance at actually competing with other senior portrait experience businesses.

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