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Creative Startup Branding: Time to Hang Up the Beret

When a fine artist goes into the studio to paint, their first thought is not likely to be sales. Only after creating their work does it eventually end up on a gallery wall where someone might buy it. However, gallery owners understand that buyers don’t simply purchase a painting because they like the colors. An art buyer is also investing in the artist—their reputation, prestige, history, story, and vision. In the world of fine arts, the artist becomes the brand, and gallery owners sell not just paintings but brands.

Fine artists, therefore, need to “paint pictures” of themselves by building their persona and brand as much as they need to put paint to canvas. This is a significant aspect of marketing for fine artists. However, the field of creative services, as commercial art, differs from fine art. Gasp!

Design is Art, But Not Fine Art

Don’t get me wrong; the products of creative services are art as well. Every designer knows the artistic effort poured into their work, and we should celebrate and appreciate the achievements of great designers. But when was the last time you went into your studio, created a beautiful logo, a gorgeous layout, a refined typographical treatment, and then sought out a client who would buy it?

When it comes to selling creative services and branding a design firm, it’s not often about the designer and their story, vision, or history. It’s about what the work can accomplish for the client. Your buyers, your clients, don’t care as much about your personal story, history, or artistic personality. They care about what your skills can do for them.

Yet, many design firm websites focus precisely on artistic elements and expressions. When I look at creative service firm websites, I can tell you that the default positioning of most firms leverages their artistic vision more than their professional expertise. It’s more about them than what they can do for their clients. I admit that I find many of these websites entertaining, interesting, creative, and clever. I often think it must be very fun to work there (which is not an irrelevant function of a design firm’s site but also not the main thing).

Design is art, and the practice of good design is a deeply artful endeavor. However, design is commercial art, not fine art. Selling design is not at all like selling fine art, and your brand needs to reflect this.

Frustrated Artists?

Some creatives may indeed be frustrated fine artists. They wish they could just go into the studio and create without being affected by clients’ demands, which often dilute and downgrade the work. However, not all designers are frustrated fine artists, and I don’t believe any of them should be. Commercial art is not inferior to fine art simply because it’s purchased in advance and has defined parameters. (I wish some fine artists had more defined parameters—it might lead to better art!)

I wonder, though, if when it comes to a design firm’s brand, their inner fine artist re-emerges. Designing their own brand is like going into the studio without parameters and with no client shooting down the best ideas. Finally, all their creative ideas can flow unhindered!

Creative Freedom is Not Good for Creative Startup Branding

While this results in clever and creative design firm brands, it does not serve them well in the end. The agency brand is way too important to be left to the fine artist. The commercial aspect needs to drive their brand, their positioning, and how that is articulated and proven on the site. The firm’s marketing and business development future depend on it. The crafting of the agency brand or the design firm website needs to be built according to definite and exacting commercial constraints. It’s not time to play and create; it’s time to be rigorous about building a platform for the future success of your firm.

Selling commercial art is about what your artistic abilities can accomplish for your client, not about your vision or your story. A prospect is not interested in your pets, your superpowers, the pubs you frequent, or your favorite latte. The work you do for them will not be framed and hung over a mantle; it will go to work for them in a competitive marketplace. Your work needs to give them an edge, and your branding needs to make the case for how you can help them succeed. They are not concerned with providing you an opportunity to be creative—they are paying for effectiveness. And good design, properly implemented, can be very effective.

Take Another Look at Your Website

So take a look at your website again and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does my branding say more about who we are than what we do for our clients?
  2. Is our branding primarily expressed through our story, history, and personality, or by the expertise we bring to solving our clients’ problems?
  3. Does our website feel more like a portfolio piece showcasing our unencumbered creativity or does it demonstrate the kind of work that convinces a prospect we are the right firm for them?

If your brand is more about you and your inner artist, perhaps it’s time to rethink your brand without the beret.

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