Defining Your Brand Identity

Communicating the right message about your musical persona tells your audience who you are and why they should care about you.
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When many musicians focus on promoting their careers, they often think about certain tasks such as creating YouTube videos, posting profiles on social media sites, and building personal websites. But without first thinking long and hard about what you are trying to communicate to your target audience, these actions may yield few meaningful results. Properly interpreting and defining a brand identity is crucial to the contemporary musician’s career.

What follows is an overview of how you can start to construct your brand identity. It may also help to polish up the brand you have already developed. I’ll also detail brief case studies of three artists who effectively convey their brands to their fans.

The Process and Benefits of Branding

Interpreting and defining your brand identity involves thinking clearly about the image that best resonates with your target fans, making decisions about important elements (such as your genre, name, logo, personality, looks, and product packaging), and then conveying one consistent, honest, and believable message in all your marketing communications. A company brand represents a promise to fans—it’s what they come to trust and expect from your organization every time they come in contact with you. In essence, a brand is what people say about you when you aren’t in the room.

Defining this identity can project the image you intended in the minds of the fans, present to them a culture that mirrors their own values and culture, win over passionate customers who become your brand ambassadors, create a special position in your fans’ minds that differentiates you from the competition, and increases your company’s value and equity in the future.

With a clear brand identity, your marketing messages will be more engaging and persuasive, and they will inform your target audience that you stand for something clear and unique. This is the essence of smart promotion, building awareness, and, ultimately, making healthy sales. Always remember: the clearer the communication, the greater the remuneration.

Everything you do can affect the way your customers perceive you—from the identity you put forth in your musical style, name, logo, and slogans, to your personality, look, culture, and associations with other companies. Without a clear brand identity, you can become lost in the marketplace, like a tree without roots, reaching out in several different directions but without a firm hold on solid ground. You’ll appear unpredictable—which customers recognize easily and use as a reason to withdraw their allegiance from you, or never to pledge their allegiance in the first place.

Creating a Brand Identity

To begin building a strong company brand and increase your promotional effectiveness, answer the following eight questions and make adjustments to your career as you see necessary.

Bobby Borg has authored Music Marketing for the DIY Musician, Business Basics for Musicians, and is a contributing author to Five Star Music Makeover. He can be reached at bborg@bobbyborg.com.
Bobby Borg has authored Music Marketing for the DIY Musician, Business Basics for Musicians, and is a contributing author to Five Star Music Makeover. He can be reached at bborg@bobbyborg.com.

Do your songs have a cohesive style that can be readily categorized as rap, country, rock, pop, reggae, or some combination of recognizable styles?

Do your lyrics communicate a coherent message that can be summarized in a few words such as world peace, civil rights, life in the 'hood, having fun, etc.?

Does your band name project the vibe of your music and lyrics, and can you explain the meaning behind that name concisely? For example, Marilyn Manson combined the names of movie star Marilyn Monroe and jailed murderer Charles Manson to reinforce the artist’s glam-metal sound.

Do the fonts, colors, and images associated with your logo set a consistent recongizable mood? Pink uses a bold typeface and pink colors in her logo to convey her femininity and strong personality. Mariah Carey displays her name in an elegant typeface paired with a small butterfly to convey her soft, feminine vibe.

Do you have a fashion style that reflects your music and can it be described distinctly? Nicki Minaj’s colorful costumes and wigs match her over-the-top alter-ego personality and animated rap style. Alternatively, Tony Bennett’s neatly pressed suits and ties match his classy behavior and his elegant jazz style.

Are the stage designs for your shows intended to offer fans a distinct experience that can be summed up clearly? Are they visually amazing like those of Pretty Lights, or intimate and stripped down like those of like Arthur Lee Land?

Do the organizations (charities, fund-raisers, foundations, etc.) with which you are associated reinforce your overall values in life and song, and can these values be expressed easily in interviews? Ani DiFranco sang about contemporary social issues and supported certain political campaigns and human rights groups.

Is the brand identity you communicate to your audience cohesive in all aspects of your career, and will it appear to be honest, unique, interesting, and consistent when compared to that of your musical competitors?

The above elements should help you to understand more about who you are and what you’d like to project while also helping better align your identity with your fans. To be sure, whether you’re a country-pop rocker with Christian family values, or a metal madman with a passion for mayhem, interpreting and defining your brand will help you choose the right words and graphics in your advertisements, feature the right colors on your website, use appropriate font families on your promotional flyers, arrange sponsorships with the right product brands, and “look the part” in publicity photos and videos. Overall, you’ll stand for something clear that the fans can identify with and expect.

Case Study 1: Gaby Moreno

Gaby Moreno’s core audience consists of Guatemalan-American music fans that appreciate quality music, meaningful lyrics, family values, art, and travel. Her genre is world music: a blend of Latin, blues, pop, soul, and jazz. Her lyrics are down to earth and sung in Spanish and English. Her look is classy and retro: she wears vintage flapper dresses, beaded headbands, and fancy hats. Her personality is friendly, warm, and gentle.

Moreno posts pictures of her travels on social networks, seeks interviews in a variety of cultural magazines, and performs on radio stations with world music formats (such as KCRW in Santa Monica, CA).

Additionally, Moreno performs at art galleries and world music festivals, her album artwork features scenic paintings and photographs, and her performances highlight a variety of musicians and instruments. She also supports charities for needy kids in Guatemala.

Moreno’s brand is seamless. From her products to her promotion, she conveys a consistent, clear, relevant, believable, and endearing brand identity to her audience in everything she does. As a worldly, sophisticated, bilingual artist, she’s attracted an extremely loyal fanbase that views her as one of their tribe.

Case Study 2: Cypress Hill

Dedicated to meeting the needs of those who seek more than the typical hip-hop band, Cypress Hill targets young, hard-edged hip-hop fans who are part of the marijuana culture. To be clear, I am not advocating for the group’s behavior, I’m using the group to demonstrate a brand that is strong, clear, and consistent.

Since their first record release in 1991, Cypress Hill has delivered powerful and direct brand messages to a target market advocating (or celebrating) marijuana use as a lifestyle and attitude. They established their identity by releasing songs with titles such as “Mr. Green Thumb,” and got banned from Saturday Night Live for lighting up a joint on the air and also secured interviews in High Times magazine. They have also created a number of T-shirt designs incorporating a marijuana leaf.

In October 2010, they organized the Cypress Hill Smokeout Festival—an event positioned as an “all-day, mind-opening music festival” featuring several high-energy bands and panel discussions advocating for Proposition 19 and the legalization of medical marijuana in California. It has become a hugely successful annual event with new lineups of bands and panel discussion topics.

Cypress Hill understands their fans and knows how to customize their products and services to appeal to the market, and how to place their products and services where their audience wants and expects them. They understand how to craft emotionally appealing brand communications across all media to connect with their audience. With 18 million albums sold worldwide, and 11 million sold in the United States alone, Cypress Hill is a strong brand that hits its market bull’s-eye.

Case Study 3: Ani DiFranco

Singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco cultivated an audience of politically active college students, particularly those of the left wing, who believe in social change and equality for all. Her musical style is alternative folk-rock that feels authentic and natural, and is not the fare of commercial radio stations. Her look is anti-corporate—she often sports a shaved head and wears muscle shirts giving off a somewhat masculine, powerful look. She is opinionated about current events and open about her sexual attitudes. DiFranco writes songs about homophobia, racism, and reproductive rights. In 2004, she organized her own tour called “Vote Dammit!” to urge people to vote for the rights of the oppressed and marginalized.

As a testament to her strong brand, DiFranco received the Woman of Courage Award in 2006 at the National Organization for Women Conference and Young Feminist Summit in Albany, NY. In 2009, she became a Woody Guthrie Award recipient as a voice of positive social change. Needless to say, these awards only further established her already strong brand identity.

DiFranco executes one clear and consistent brand across multiple media channels and scores big with her fans. Amid the clutter of the music business and the thousands of other artists with whom she competes for attention, DiFranco stands for something clear and distinctive in the minds of her target fans.

Rising Above the Fray

Interpreting and defining your brand identity through your name, image, genre, logo, personality, and product packaging will convey a consistent, honest, and believable message in your marketing communications. Without a clear idea of what you are trying to communicate to your audience, you could very easily go unnoticed in an overcrowded marketplace.

As you work to define what your brand is all about, research what other artists in your genre are doing, and seek feedback from those in your target audience. I also recommend consulting with professionals—graphic designers, stylists, and music business consultants—who come highly recommended from trusted sources. Peace and good luck.

This article is an edited excerpt from Five Star Music Makeover, Hal Leonard Book, 2016, reprinted with permission from the author.