Q&A with an Oho : Branding & Client Experience, part one

I don’t think anyone knew how hard it was for me to hit publish on the first Q&A with an Oho. I sat at my desk and debated scrubbing the whole thing and pulling out bits and pieces for another (less opinionated) blogpost. Out of nowhere, my iPhone chimed with a text from a dear friend I hadn’t talked with in months.

“I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you for building a business that is so true to who you are.”

Seconds before, I had decided to not publish. I was going to leave the public advice giving to the people who were experts and keep my safe, comfortable blog safe and comfortable. But here’s the thing. I’m an opinionated person. And I’ve done my research. I don’t know everything and that is ok but if I am so passionate about building a business that is authentic to who I am, that business – this blog – has to include the open book side of me. I mean, I already told you about Chuck Norris; why would my opinion on film be any more shocking?

Something surprising happened when I did hit publish. Over the last two months I have received more emails from young photographers than ever. I didn’t expect that; I really didn’t. But it told me something. That this, this kind of openness, is needed. And desperately wanted.

Here’s the thing. The honest to goodness truth is that I want you to succeed. I want you and your business to blow up and for you to be so busy that you are turning away business. Because when your business is successful in the true, authentic, brand-driven way, that turns up the heat for all of us. THAT pushes me to be better and do more for my clients and up my game to not be left behind. And when we all are pushing ourselves to do and be better, that is how the wedding industry elevates as a whole. And that, my friends, is good for everyone.

Now, let’s talk about target clients…

I am having a hard time attracting the type of clients I want to serve in my business. How do you find clients you love and who love you?

This is such a huge, huge topic. Can I say huge again because it is. Huge. Big enough, even, that I’m going to tackle this question in two parts; the first being my thoughts about the importance of a solid, cohesive, true-to-you BRAND. The second, of which I will cover next week, is that unique client experience that only you can create for your clients.

Let’s be honest, my first website was a flash-based nightmare. I loved my logo but hated everything else about the slow, clunky, esthetically seizure inducing mess of a website I had. My marketing collateral was anything but consistent with a navy blue and gray logo on my website and coral/light blue business cards that I adored to (not) match. My blog was an incredibly well known and commonly used template that I liked well enough but wasn’t perfect – and about 40 other Minneapolis photographers were using some version of that template at the time.  This followed through even to my communication with clients and my blog writing and email writing were incredibly inconsistent and, truly, just a bunch of nonsense most days. I looked to what my friends were doing and tried to implement their methods. I looked to what industry peers were doing and I tried their processes. I looked anywhere but at myself to see that what I was actually doing was the exact opposite of a solid business practice. I was marketing to some pretend generic client that never really existed, pieced together from so many different sources and in the process was likely alienating some of the people I actually did want to work with.

After all of that, it really was a MIRACLE that these amazing clients who were so wonderful and perfect for me fell into my lap. I am, literally, at a loss for words about that since there really is no rhyme or reason to how or why that happened; it just did. (To my clients who were the beginnings of Melissa Oholendt Photography, THANK YOU. And I’m sorry.)

During the early stages of the Great Rebrand Of 2010, I gained some advice from an much loved mentor of mine who asked me point blank – who exactly is this client you are targeting? I assume she could tell that the way I was currently operating was…all over the place. I was flailing around trying to hit something, anything, that resembled some version of a target client and in the process, not actually accomplishing anything.

She encouraged me to take literal pen to paper and detail this ideal bride I wanted to work with. Things she liked to do. Places she shopped. Things that were important to her. Places she like to eat. Did she prioritize her career over having children right away? Did she love animals? Did she get regular pedicures? Did she like to cook? What kind of music did she listen to? What were her great loves in life? On a free day would she head to an art museum or would she stay at home and watch movies? Questions like that, anything really, that could better help me understand this person I was trying to market to.

And it really did all start there for me. Detailing this target client was the beginning part of my brand. I had ideas of the emotions I wanted to convey and the colors I wanted to use and while most of those things changed during the branding process, one thing never did; that target client. I was fortunate enough to have the ability to enlist the help of a brilliant designer who worked and reworked until we both felt like it was a brand worthy of this bride. But even if you don’t – this is a concept that goes WAY beyond a logo & beautiful marketing materials.

Since the beginning of my business, I knew one thing: I wanted to create a business that was 100% me. I am the girl who loves J.Crew, the smell of grapefruit and can talk endlessly about her dog. I’m the girl who is scared of lightening but loves rainy days. I’m the girl who thinks of a person as a friend the first time she meets them and truly does believe in happily ever after. And even though I’m not always great at blogging about my personal life, if you look at my business and my brand, every single, little, simple, big thing is a reflection of who I am.

Even this target client. This wasn’t someone I pulled out of thin air, this is someone I would be – and in a lot of cases am already – friends with. This is someone I knew I would connect with on a deeper level than just the fact that we both love J.Crew & dogs. I knew that given the opportunity outside of a business setting, we would likely be friends. And I knew that for my brand to be a good representation of me, this target client would need to be someone I truly wanted in my life.

I know for some in the industry, they have built a brand around the wedding they would like to photograph (destination, glamourous, vintage, etc) and believe me when I say, that is a perfectly wonderful way to build a brand. I chose to keep my brand centered around targeting a specific type of person because I believe that is where I shine. You have to do what is right for your business and I do believe this means examining what motivates you to do and be better for your clients. If that is a stunning, detail-heavy wedding? By all means. I know, for myself, that truly getting to know my clients and falling even just a little bit in love with them pushes me to do the very best job I could ever do because I want to do that for them.

Now is every inquiry a perfect fit? No. Not at all. But the majority of the potential clients I end up meeting are. And that, to me, is a sign that this brand is a genuine reflection of who I am and where I want to be.

I know what you’re thinking; “I don’t have the money to hire a fancy-schmancy designer to hand me everything on a silver platter”. I want to be honest and very, very clear about this. I THOUGHT I DIDN’T EITHER. Really. But I made it happen. I made this happen because I knew how important it was. And if you really just can’t afford to hire a designer for the full monty, you certainly can take on a few extra sessions and hire a designer to create a logo. I cannot stress enough how much this is going to pay off for you in the long run and it’s worth making a small sacrifice now to get it done sooner rather than later. If I were 2012 Melissa giving 2009 “am I going to rebrand or not” Melissa advice? I’d tell myself to quit making excuses and just do it. It’s 1,000,000% worth it.

You can fumble around the first couple years of being in business like I did and hope the right clients come to you or you can consciously brand yourself to those clients and get them in the door from day one.

I’m not an expert in branding and I don’t think I will ever claim to be one but this is what is working for me to get the clients who make my heart sing. I’ve been blessed enough to have some wonderful, wise counsel from a variety of trusted sources and while my brand – any brand – is a work in progress, this is a brand I am extremely proud of and that has come a long way even from a year and a half ago.

There are some incredible educational sources out there and if you don’t listen to me, I would – without a doubt – listen to what these folks have to say.

Lara Casey : Get Branded Twitter Series
Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh
Making Brands Happen
Linchpin by Seth Godin

Next week, I’ll talk about how I went about creating that unique client experience. A solid, authentic brand will get someone in the door; a unique & special client experience will create a fan for a lifetime…

(6) Comments

  1. Bravo, friend :) Keep on sharing! Proud of you!

  2. You. I love you. I adore you. I think you are far wiser than you give yourself credit for. I am so grateful for you. For your ability to BE friends with someone who blog stalks you and leaves crazy comments. :) For your openness. For everything.

    I agree threethousdany percent with you on branding. On Making It Happen. I didn’t think I Had the money either. I need lenses, and other things. Then I realized that the one thing I can’t rent is my brand. The one thing I need to get me more business is the only thing I can’t rent, lease, or borrow. So F my fancy tilt shift and wide angles. Branding is more important.

    My new – THE new – Athena Pelton Photography will launch in March, and I’m marketing to myself. Becuase after much thought and hard work and lists upon lists of “Ideal clients” I realized that when it was all said and done I just want to work with people like me. :)

    So I’m targeting them.

    Because of you.

    You’re a big factor behind my decision.
    The quiet, reassuring voice in my head.

    And the crazy friend who I wish I saw WAY more often.


  3. Jen Wright

    Thanks so much, Melissa. As a writer, I find myself focusing on my reader – thank you for your encouragement towards that end. When I see that person’s face, imagine their emotions as they read… it pushes me to be a better writer and keeps me writing. And as you have noted, it also keeps my writing focused. Taking time to understand your audience or customer is time well-spent, and helps to hone your skills.

  4. you read my mind! can’t wait for kings next week. xoxo.

  5. Gosh, every single time I look at your website/blog I not only get inspired, but I feel the need to let you know that your work, your brand…everything…is amazing. You’re a serious rock star!! Keep up the great work! Sorry if I’ve said this before! LOL

  6. Lana

    This post was so informative and your photos are amazing! I would love to see a blog about your editing process…..as far as how you upload the photos, if you use Lightroom, and how you store/organize them.