Yesterday while making brunch for my Mother at her home, my sis and I were talking over our feast of food about what makes the difference between success and failure in business. My sister used local massage therapists in the area as an example. She explained that massage therapists in the area are a “dime a dozen” and that some do well while others do not. The difference, she observed, was how those therapists marketed themselves. After all, she observed, there were many very gifted therapists who didn’t do as well as others with less experience or skill. I had to nod in agreement because I was explaining this same principle to my students as we gathered for a reception to celebrate the opening of an exhibit of sculptural glass on the campus of Radford University where I teach sculpture. The world is full of artists who lack great skill and creativity, but its the ones who persist in getting their work out in front of the public that seem to do the best.
I can hear the upset amongst some folks reading this…what about quality? What about a masseuse that is the absolute best in her field who is fair and golden in her approach to working with her clients? Well yes, this is certainly important, vital even, but without the support in the marketing arena, it is like a planted seed that gathers no water or sustenance for its growth. Sometimes the people who are more aggressive in their approach often tend to succeed the most. There is a saying, perhaps another Anon person who said that persistence is key to success, not brains or talent, for certainly there are many people who are gifted in the grey matter department who do nothing with their gift. There is certainly a great deal of uninspired art out there in the world that sells well, but it is selling because someone took the incentive to consider that they might do better if they got their work into a more high profile venue or to exercise one channel over another.
Consider the brand Chef Boyardee. Long before the brand was known with the ubiquity that it has today in our shopping markets, the company landed a deal with the military to provide food for the troops back during WWII. it was a little company back then, but the owner found a way to make a form of Italian food affordably that would keep well for shipment overseas. Landing this contract was huge for the company, and it allowed it to have the resources to put their product on shelves all across the country and to vault it into a top product line in supermarkets. Troops that ate the spaghetti and meatballs would think fondly on their days in the trenches and would buy a can of the food for their kids once they got state side. Ask anyone who prepares pasta and you will know that the worst thing you can probably do when preparing it is to CAN it. And yet, despite its incredibly unremarkable flavor, Chef Boyardee has become a huge name over the years. All of this has been brought to you by marketing. Some of you might want to add “…and a little good luck” and while there might be some truth to it, the owner of Chef Boyardee had to take his idea and shop it to the government in order to get the contract. A huge effort had to be joined in order to make this happen. This could only happen if Chef Boyardee came through on its contract and brought home the bacon. So to speak. Now I know that canned spaghetti might seem a world away from art, but the curious thing is that selling is selling. Some things sell better by presenting them in different ways, but at the end of the day, a dollar is paid per dollar of value created. I know it sounds terribly perfunctory, but its true. Like gravity, you should just realize it is a force and work with it in the most productive way that you can. You might think that working with gravity means you have just sold out to it, but nothing could be further from the truth. Selling is selling and selling out means a compromising of your principles, your vision. In the eyes of some perhaps Chef Boyardee is something great unless you have been to Sicily and had their pasta in fish sauce…it may be more relative than you realize at first. But there is no shame in selling. All the successful artists are doing it, so there must be something to it that is important in the whole success thing, right?
So yes, it is important to return calls, to be attentive, and to have the best product that you can muster. Yes. But just as important, maybe even MORE importantly is how you integrate marketing into your efforts. This folds itself neatly and subtly into everything you do. When you mention your upcoming show to a friend, that is marketing. How you choose to design a postcard for a show or event also is marketing. How you relate to people in a public way in connection to your work is also tied to marketing. It is more than JUST getting the work out front and center but how you design that effort, who you get it out in front of. Its a large inclusive package that isn’t just about creating an ad campaign. The work itself is part of it, as well as everything connected to it.
The thing about marketing also is that it is incredibly creative. You can very easily set yourself apart by designing work and advertisements that simply LOOk different or express a new sense of style or taste. This isn’t always a lock that people will respond, but you will certainly create a look that stands out from others. Persistence is key, though, and being able to build brand recognition is big. By doing this in the same way companies use a logo to clue their customers into who they are, you can, in a brief second, create the recognition of who you are in the newspaper, on the internet, or even on a billboard as people fly past going twenty miles over the speed limit. It takes a fraction of a second for someone to recognize the Nike “swoosh” on a billboard and know that the ad is about Nike shoes instead of New Balance.
As artists, we wear so many hats. Being an artist is the same as being a small business owner. You wind up doing everything at least for a while (until you hire someone to do the books or packaging or…), and you have to do each task or wear each hat with the same effectiveness and style as all the others. After we create a work, though, we wind up turning our attention to other things. We feel like we have put our all into it and want to move on to other things. And yet, most often what is necessary is that we stick with the project in order to do a good job promoting it and giving it the best chance for success. But as is sometimes the case, this part of the process feels like the most uncreative part of the whole effort and it often gets assigned to a gallery to take care of or is done in a more perfunctory way. Sometimes artists actually FEEL funny about showing their work as they have some unresolved issues sometimes related to success and being shy about putting their work “out there.” Some of us have a hard time assigning a price to our work. The joy of making such a wonderful thing is like suddenly having to put a price on a child and selling them off to strangers who will adopt them.
I “grew up” in a very critical environment creatively as an undergraduate art student. Our critiques were hand-wringing affairs full of anxiety and an on your toes approach where we had to perform. Looking back at it, it was a b lade with two sides. ON the one side, it was incredibly useful to learn how to talk about your work as well as to identify what needed to be improved just as much as knowing what was good about it. The other side of this sword was that when I started my business, I was incredibly hard on myself. My work was developing, growing, yes, but it was not where I wanted it to be. I had a relentless drive to bring it to the level I felt it needed to be. I wanted it to be better, always better! The downside to this was that I had a hard time taking compliments about my work. I don’t know about you, but I have since learned how it feels when someone says what I said about my work when being complimented and it sure doesn’t strike me as very positive. I remember hearing someone paying me a compliment about the work and I’d engage them and explain what I was going to do different and BETTER on the next piece. It was entirely possible that I put a LOT of people off with this false sense of humility. Imagine someone saying how handsome your son is and you turn and say “But I have another child who is going to turn out even better!” Oh dear. Now you get the point, right? Well, I was late to the party, but I did manage to get it through my thick head that there was more than just my relentless drive for perfection. There was also how the public responded to the work and I needed to honor that portion of the process just as much as I might have had a singular focus on becoming better and better.
Be willing to be complimented and capitalize on that because it is energy and energy can transform into success. For each person who takes the time to say something to you that is complimentary, they are just as likely to crow about what they saw at a gallery, craft show, or open studio to their friends. Word of mouth is the single most powerful tool in building businesses. It speaks more loudly than any brightly printed advertisement and it involves close personal relationships. Most often our friends are our friends because we trust and like them. So then, too, will we listen when they mention something that they saw that they liked. The truth is, as humans we LIKE to make deals with people we are introduced to first. Somehow, by coming into the circle of friends, we feel more at home sometimes than when we meet someone we have never met. We kind of borrow that friend’s own sense of interest and put our trust in that. Certainly we don’t do this blindly, no, but it certainly lends credence to the idea that its “who you know” not always WHAT you know.
As artist, we might be dreaming of new worlds, or trying to change the world. In the midst of that, we still have to deal with the REAL world and the best way of doing that is being realistic about human nature and how alliances are forged and how vast networks happen. This cab lead you to shaking lots of hands, asking questions, and listening a lot as an artist. Listening to what people say they like, or don’t like. All of this is rich compost for helping those seeds you are planting to grow.
You can be a dime a dozen, but how you go about running your business will make a huge difference. A big part of this is how you go about getting yourself “out there.” It can be a marvelously rewarding process where the energy of one person’s excitement feeds off another. It seems to be catching, and we need only foster it, encourage it and be graceful and thankful for when it comes.