The business of being an artist

Back in 1991 Charles Saatchi, an advertising mogul and art collector, who was well aware of the power of brands, commissioned a young Damien Hirst to produce a work of art for £50,000. Hirst had “Shark Wanted’ posters put up in Australian post offices. He paid £6,000 to a fisherman for a large 15-foot Tiger shark.

The shark was packed in ice and shipped to London where it was preserved in a formaldehyde solution then mounted in a giant glass tank. The piece was then named, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and put on display in the Saatchi gallery.

Over the next 14 years Saatchi cultivated the Hirst brand and his value rose considerably. By 2005 Damien Hirst was a star and this shark, now decomposing, was sold by New York art dealer Larry Gagosian for $12 million to venture capitalist Steve Cohen. This was the power of branding. Don Thompson goes into great detail in his fantastic book, The $12 million stuffed shark. The point is, creating a brand for yourself is great advice if you are an artist, author or musician. People buy brands. Understanding that will help you sell your work.

My art will sell itself

Your work will make you famous but there is enormous competition in every market to be seen and noticed. You should give yourself every chance you can to be discovered, to stand out from the talent around you. To do that you need to think of yourself as a brand.

The business of art

As an artist, author or musician, your first priority is always going to be your art, how you express yourself. This is your creativity, why you will be remembered. There is a caveat, your work has to be seen to be remembered.

To a lot of creative people, the very idea of brands is repugnant, some sort of malicious marketing trickery. But it is not. A brand is just the essence of who you are – for any brand that has to be based on truth, otherwise people see through it.

A brand is just a mechanism to quickly understand a personality. Think about it; you live your brand 24/7 but the people who come across your work might only be exposed to it for a few seconds. Speed of understanding of what you offer is crucial. That’s the business of art.

Authors, artists and musicians produce commodities that are exchanged for money. That makes art a business and artists, authors and musicians entrepreneurs. Understanding how your audience makes choices, how they think and behave, what motivates them, will help you get found, established and able to sell your art.

The upside

Your audience live their lives with brands. It is common currency. You’ll prefer Lee or Levis, PlayStation of X-Box, a Mac or PC – we all make choices. Once a customer makes that choice they become very loyal to that brand and buy into what you represent. That results is repeat sales.


Okay, I am not trying to compare you to a tin of beans but the concept is worth examining. Companies make a lot of effort to cultivate brands because they are a powerful mechanism to sell goods and services.

Brands like Mercedes Benz, Nike and Heinz are household names. Everyone knows what they are, what they stand for. Each has a personality, a value that is greater than the sum of the parts. Their brand image makes them distinctive, it builds trust and more importantly, it reduces risk for the consumer. People know what they are going to get. Choice becomes easier.

As consumers we buy into brands, it reflects who we are or what we want to be. Our choices say something about us. We’ve been conditioned to choose brands when we shop for anything and everything. 

Your brand

So how does that help you? Well, people can become brands in the same way a product can. Writers, actors, artists and musicians that are brands dominate shelf space in shops. Julia Donaldson is the best-selling author of the decade in the UK, massively out-selling JK Rowling, she sells a book about every 11 seconds. Tom Cruise, Damien Hirst, Banksy. We call them stars but the publishing houses will think of them as brands.

Publishing houses, art dealers and record labels all turn their artists into brands because it makes it easier for them to make a sale and command a better price.

Before we talk about what you can do to position yourself as a brand, let’s take a moment to look at how people buy. What goes through their head?

It doesn’t matter whether you are buying baked beans or a book, a pair of shoes or a print; people generally go through the same process.

The buying process

People browse for things they like before they are in a buying mindset. They soak up information through recommendations, reviews, trials etc. It is all stored in the back of their mind. Then they get into buying mode and start searching in earnest.

They will have functional needs. It could be that they have moved into a new place and need a print for a wall, or they are going on holiday and need a book, or they want to make their bus trip to work less mundane with some music.

They will have emotional needs. They want to show they’ve made it by splashing out on a piece of art (this is called positional spending.) Maybe they can’t afford to travel, so they use books to see the world, or they want to show their friends they have the same taste in music.

What their friends like. We are social animals, we want to fit in, which means we consume the same sort of things as our friends.

Brand preferences. We all have shortlists of brands we like. Their personalities reflect our personality or how we would like to be seen. The personality of the brand determines whether or not they get onto the shortlist. People will experiment with new brands that reflect their preferences. That’s why Amazon’s, “If you bought this, you might like this,” works so well.

Choice. After weighing up all those things, we then make a choice based on availability and cost.

There is always an element of risk in any purchase – “Will I like it, will my friends like it, will it work?” Brands reduce that risk, they manage expectations.

The selling process

A business will reflect how a consumer buys. They will segment their range to cover their market. Mercedes have expensive to very expensive cars. They have sports, off-road, 4-door, 2-door, estate, saloon and compact versions of their brand. They are filling in the market gaps.

It is the same in the art world, a publisher will have a range of writers to fill the different sections and sub-sections. Their brands are thriller writers or romance writers, or science fiction. Even if the publisher specialises, something like guided tours, they will have a range, otherwise they will limit their sales. These are packaged to consumers to help them make choices.

It is the same in the art world or the music business, they create brands because that is how people shop in all walks of life.

Three things you can do to start your brand

Any brand takes a long time to set up because people only spend very short moments with them. Any contact people have with you gives them a glimpse of your personality and that personality should be consistent. If I only get to meet you for a few seconds every month, I don’t want to have to keep working out what kind of person you are.
Brands are based on simplicity and clarity, so there are three things you should do to develop your own brand.

1. Define your brand

One of the first things I would do when I work on a brand is define the brand tone of voice. This gives me a clear picture in my mind, every time I write for the brand, how it would speak. It gives me a consistent voice and message. As an artist, author or musician, you are halfway there, you already have a body of work.

The aim is to underline the personality of your work, each time a customer comes in contact with it. What will they think about you, after knowing your for just a few seconds?

A good way to do that is think of 5 words that describe your work. How do you want people to react? What’s the take out or feeling you want to leave them with?

Next think about your elevator pitch. You are stuck in an elevator with a publisher/art dealer/producer – you have 30 seconds to tell them what you do.

This is what you should be telling your audience over and over again. Say it in different ways but the take out should always be the same. That is how you build a brand.

2. Get on people's radar

As an artist, writer, musician, you want exposure. What your customer wants is to know a little more about you. How can they connect with you?

Social media is a no-brainer for anyone who wants to connect with the public. For an artist it is obvious, you have a visual medium. But this is just as crucial for a writer. People want to get to know you. It’s not just a channel to show what you’re working on but also what you see, what inspires you, what research you do. It all paints a picture for your customer. People will follow you if they can relate to you. Let them get to know you.

Use your social media to build a public profile. People are intrigued by the person behind the art.

This is Karin Slaughter’s Facebook page. She posts once a day. There are book launches and promos on there but also small insights into her personality – she likes cats (just that fact in itself will appeal to half her followers.)

Her website is not exciting but there are small things that confirm her brand. She writes thrillers, so she has links to great crime sites, sites where you can do a virtual autopsy. The people who read her books will eat this stuff up.

2. Start a list

You can message everyone that joins you on Facebook. You can do live chats to answer questions, in effect a virtual bookstore or exhibition.

If you have a website, start capturing email addresses straight away.

An email list is the best way to build a relationship with your fans (customers). It’s personal, people get an email in their inbox from you. It’s a very powerful medium because you are having a one-to-one conversation.

It is also very simple to implement. There are lots of different email capture software out there you can use, like MailChimp. If you are starting out, there is a free version that lets you have up to 2000 contacts.

They come with lots of marketing tools to help you build your list. You create newsletters or landing pages. Useful if you have an exhibition, a book launch or gig coming up. With a landing page you can get them to register for the event and build up the excitement. The more you can get people involved, the more likely you are to get a committed fan on your side and a sale.

These are your superfans, the people that will actively spread news of you to the people around them, like a ripple in a pond, so they are extremely valuable to your brand.

To capture an email address, you will need an incentive, something that makes them feel special. Can be a newsletter, the opportunity to be the first people to see new releases, sneak previews, work in progress or even the chance to be in a poll to choose artwork.

With email marketing you can make sales right from an inbox. It also drives people back to your site. The more contact with the site, the more they get to know your brand.


Sometimes you have to think like an entrepreneur to succeed as an artist. Branding is one tool you can use to get your work to stand out. It just reflects how your fans are already shopping. It doesn’t compromise who you are and your creativity, it just makes it easier for people to see what you have to offer appeals to them. 

Branding is about presenting a consistent image to your fans. In world where we only give any information we see seconds before our thumbs skip to the next piece of information, simplicity and consistency are key to building your audience.

About the author

Steve Girdlestone is a professional copywriter and Creative Director who has spent a career working on some of the world’s most well-known brands. Find out more