Branding Defined with Artists in Mind
When you hear the word “branding” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
I see a portfolio pounding professional power-walking around a boardroom table. Over their shoulder is a screen with a venn diagram. It features an infographic, a polar chart, and a pie chart overlapping each other. The speaker jabbers in jargon, traces hieroglyphic stats with a laser pen, and high fives their colleges right across the cheeks.
“It is mission-critical for our business to leverage strategic bleeding edge synergizing techniques to push the envelope outside the box if we hope to achieve vertical growth.”
At least that’s what I imagine when I hear the word branding. As a fiction writer, I figured branding was a word marketers used to inflate the importance of advertising, but it turns out it’s relevant to what I’m doing.
Put simply, branding is the thing that lets customers know what to expect from businesses, products, and even entertainment.
Put even simpler: branding = expectations
Just like in the corporate world, fiction brands let audiences know what to expect, and just like in the corporate world, a handful of brands have a monopoly.
This is why iconic characters enjoy so many reinventions, fiction franchises outlive their originators, and big name authors can pass work to ghost writers. People don’t want to waste hard earned money on bad entertainment. Brands appear to eliminate that risk.
If you want a steamy romance about an untamable Harley driver with borderline disorder just look for the lathered abs on the cover. If you like psychological thrillers about scandalous women, find a book with the word “girl” in the title. If you want a mystery about women who went missing while running, find a book with a foggy forest on the front.
Publishers do everything to ensure that you can judge a book by its cover.
In an era where there are too many options people want to know what they’re getting, but are audiences missing out on anything when they reach for what they know, and are writers, publishers and film producers, delivering the brands people really want?
Characters as Brands
When it comes to iconic characters a few established brands have dug their heels in for generations.
Sherlock Holmes may have been conceived in Victorian England, but his investigations have lasted through the Age of Information. Frankenstein’s monster may have vowed to kill itself at the end of Mary Shelly’s novel, but it has lumbered on into the public domain. Dracula may have been written as an undead fiction, but his immortality is proving true to that depiction.
When so many classic concepts are still in play it’s a challenge for new writers to come up with anything original. Why write a story about a little girl exploring an imaginary realm when Alice is still exploring Wonder Land on the big screen? Why write a new story about a vigilante, who uses fear tactics to fight crime, when Batman is still in every medium imaginable? Why create your own pantheon of horrors when Dante’s hell spawns are still clawing their way through the ground?
This is one reason why so many writers use established brands to our own ends. We hope these iconic characters will lend us their staying power, but we end up reducing theirs.
Rebranding Characters Instead of Creating New Ones
Most horror authors would rather warp mythical figures than create new ones from scratch. So we merge brands, taking the backstory of one character and combining it with the appearance of another. Here’s an examples of such a merger:
The Greek god Pan was always depicted with a beard, horns, shaggy goat legs, and a permanent erection. Hades, the ruler of the underworld, was depicted with a two pronged pitchfork. The god Poseidon had a trident. Lucifer, as depicted in the bible, appeared in many forms, sometimes as a four-headed angel, a serpent, and a dragon.
All of these characters got a coat of red paint and became the modern depiction of Satan.
Authors like Dante and Milton came along and added value to this brand. Stories like Faust and The Devil and Daniel Webster added depth to the character, giving him a motive and a methodology and reinvigorating him for newer generations.
The devil, as a brand in fiction has enjoyed many representations, some adhere to the biblical cannon, some build off of Paradise Lost, and others borrow a hand full of traits and take him in wildly different directions.
There are a lot of benefits to using a communal character like the devil. He’s a brand people know. He evokes fear at the sheer mention of his name, at least he does when everyone isn’t saying it all at once. That’s the thing. If there’s three exorcism movies up on the marque, they all seem a little less scary.
That’s the problem with building onto an established brand, when too many authors use it at once it gets devalued.
In 2016 Hollywood gave audiences as many known brands as they could shove on screen: sequels, reboots/remakes, shared universe comic book movies, adaptations of picture books, teen fantasy fiction, and video games.
The summer movie box office of 2016 bombed. Revenue was down 22% from last 2015. What happened?
When I was growing up I rented every zombie film I could get my hands on. These days, with zombies at peak saturation in film, TV, books, comics, and video games, I could go a long time without seeing another undead epic, because for me, the zombie brand has been spread too thin.
The same thing is happening with brands on the big screen. Audiences have sequelitis, reboot revulsion, and franchise fatigue. They’ve been satiated with superheroes, flooded with found footage, and awash with adaptations.
Even franchise films with huge openings, in 2016, found their earnings down by half the following weekend. By then word of mouth had gotten around. Recognition gets viewers into theaters, but once they’re there they want something new and exciting. We’re fickle like that. We want something familiar only different.
This is where branding is hurting the film industry. Hollywood is doing everything it can to cater to audiences’ expectations, selling men their childhood action figures back to them, but they’ve forgotten how to awe them.
Nothing seems all that amazing when you know exactly what you’re getting.
The problem with reboots are the very expectations that lure viewers into to see them. Easter eggs, homages, call backs, and cameos from old cast members become obligatory, there isn’t as much room for originality as there would be in a brand new property.
But that’s film. How does brand over-saturation affect the world of fiction?
Beware of Ghostwriters
In my novella, The Devil You Don’t Know (working title), an author named Barkley Carver hires a fleet of ghost writers to compose his fiction with the promise that his name will guarantee them bestseller placement. The hero, Noel Blackwood, is one of these ghost writers. Carver puts Noel up in a hotel where he once had a paranormal encounter. He wants her to write a novel based on his experience, but once Noel has an encounter of her own she opts to take the story in another direction, one that promises to get to the bottom of what’s really happening.
Barkley Carver is an amalgamation of authors like Tom Clancy and James Patterson who ran their fiction factories like newspaper editors handing out assignments.
“Johnson, I need another espionage thriller with an AR-15 on the cover.”
“Smith, what do we have for juvenile readers that looks like Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Nothing. Drop whatever you’re doing and get on that.”
“Stevens, I need another story about an FBI agent hell bent on revenge after a serial killer kills his wife and daughter.”
“Hey boss. What if this time the killer kills the agents wife and son, instead of the daughter? You know, mix it up a little.”
“Stevens, you’re fired!”
Argentine polo player, and Ralph Lauren model, Nacho Figueras has a series of polo themed romance novels bearing his name. Each one is written by Jessica Whitman, but they feature Figueras’s likeness on the front and back covers, because sometimes branding is just that transparent.
Robert Ludlum, Stieg Larsson, Vince Flynn, and Tom Clancy are still publishing posthumously. They’re ghosts with ghostwriters giving life to their characters. There’s something to be said for brands that are so beloved that they outlive their originators. I envy any writer with a legacy worth continuing…BUT, this over-saturation presents a challenge for aspiring writers without name recognition.
How can writers use branding to our advantage while surprising readers enough to get their endorsements?
When I was a script reader I criticized writers for aiming for delivering too familiar only slightly different. I wanted to meet characters I didn’t recognize right away. I wanted hear lines that didn’t rhyme with ones I’d heard before. I wanted to read about situations that made my eyes widen.
I wanted to be shocked, now I think “too familiar only slightly different” is a noble ambition.
If you find success paying homage to your favorite movies from the 80s while telling an original story more power to you.
At this point I’d rather see a movie that rips off A Nightmare on Elm Street than another entry in the series. I’d rather have Pacific Rim than another Power Rangers movie. I’d rather have Stranger Things than a reboot of Goonies.
Writers should work to evoke brands to get audiences to crack their books open, but once we have their attention we need to surprise them. We have to resist using the story beats that just sort of fall into place, because subconsciously we’ve seen them work before.
How do we do this with old brands like vampires, ghosts, and drop dead gorgeous polo players? We must subvert audiences expectations. Formula fiction is easy, we need to throw new elements into the mix. We need to play with genre clichés. Hang lanterns on tropes and let audiences know we’re going to go another way. We need to spin brands on their heads until we’ve made them our own.
We need to trick our audiences. Give them what they think they want and hit them with something they had no idea they wanted.