BLOGGING AND BRANDING – BRAINSTORM

Start Blogging, Start a Business, and Build an Authentic Brand

Bestselling author and successful entrepreneur Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere on building a thriving business.
IMAGE: Getty Images

Some months ago I published a post about commonly misused words. Several hundred thousand people read it, so it was reasonably popular, but as with most posts, in time the views slowed.

Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, tens of thousands of people read it.

I did a little digging and learned that all those readers came from one small link in a post called “Links I Love” on the fashion, food, and lifestyle inspiration blog Cupcakes and Cashmere. That’s far and away the most readers an external link has generated for one of my posts, including tweets from people with millions of Twitter followers.

So I did a little more digging and learned that Emily Schuman has done what countless other people have not been able to do: start a blog, create outstanding content with a unique voice and an authentic point of view, build a large and vibrant community, and turn that blog into a successful business. She’s partnered with retail brands, written a bestselling book, Cupcakes and Cashmere: A Guide for Defining Your Style, Reinventing Your Space, and Entertaining with Ease, will release her second book, Cupcakes and Cashmere at Home, this May, and later this summer will launch a line of products.

So I asked Emily how she did–and does–it.

Tell me where the idea came from, what you were doing at the time, what your hopes were.

I started my blog in 2008 as a purely creative endeavor. I was working in online ad sales at the time, which was a good job, but didn’t provide any sort of outlet for creativity or cover any of my passions, which are fashion, food, beauty and home decor.

I didn’t have any specific goals or ambitions, other than to document ideas and create simple content that I enjoyed and perhaps a handful of others would appreciate. Over the first six months I noticed a slight increase in traffic, which led me to think I might be able to earn a little extra income to supplement my normal salary.

Early on, what challenges did you face and what mistakes did you make?

One of the biggest challenges I faced early on was trying to do everything by myself, rather than delegating or working with other skilled people. I’m not tech savvy, so when my site would crash or I wanted to add a new feature I would spend hours looking up tutorials and sloppily coding pieces into the backend of my site… which would often make things worse.

I eventually turned to people (specifically my then boyfriend, now husband) to help find support for the growing site. Thankfully he worked in the digital media space and called in a few favors, but I definitely learned you can’t build or run a successful enterprise singlehandedly.

How did you differentiate yourself in such crowded space?

One advantage I have is longevity. I started my site when blogging (specifically fashion/lifestyle) was still a nascent area of media, so the fact that I’ve been doing it for over seven years has provided a little bit of legitimacy. I’ve also evolved over time, so rather than focusing on the same content I’ve tried to diversify and expand on the categories I cover.

A lot of the readers have grown up with me, so there is a very personal connection we share and they relate to a lot of the experiences I’ve showcased (like getting married, buying a home, having a baby) that provide a more authentic experience than simply sharing pretty photographs.

Lastly, consistency is key. I haven’t missed a post in seven years, so readers know there will be something new each morning… and I’ve heard from a lot of them that they love starting their day with a cup of coffee and reading the latest post.

Tell me about your overall theme, “aspirational meets attainable.” Intuitively I get it, but I would think striking that balance is tough.

This has been the core idea of the site since day one primarily because I wasn’t making a lot of money–so my goal was to create a lifestyle that felt elevated without draining my bank account. (A lot of this stemmed from my experience at Teen Vogue where I was exposed to a mix of amazing designers and media that was semi-relatable but simply out of reach.)

As my business has grown and I’ve been lucky enough to increase my income, I’ve worked hard to maintain the tenets of the “attainable” tone, primarily through the data we’ve collected. We know the price points readers respond to, we know the retailers they prefer… so while not every piece of content will resonate, we make sure most of what we put out is in line with what people expect to see and makes them feel comfortable.

There are a lot of blogs that suddenly change their tone or content once they begin to grow, but I feel a big part of my long-term success is built on knowing the audience and not straying from the core messaging.

How do you decide on your topic mix? You have food, clothing, household items, career advice, fashion…

Every topic is based on something I’m passionate about, but we also have a set editorial calendar to make planning easier. This has evolved and been refined over the years, based on audience response, but we look at it kind of like TV programming (i.e. Monday = Fashion & Decor, Tuesday = Food & DIY, etc.)

I think consistency and knowing what to expect on a certain day gives the audience a sense of comfort.

You make your living with your blog, which means partnerships and advertising. A great offer from a potential advertiser has to be tempting, even if it isn’t great for your brand or your audience. It’s always tough to turn away revenue.

As with many bloggers in this category I receive dozens of advertising opportunities each week, almost all of which I don’t accept.

However, the advertisers I do work with are a natural fit for the content we’re producing; you wouldn’t see me driving a Hummer in a post.

That’s not one of the advertisers I’ve turned down, but I have had offers from companies who clearly have never read my blog and have offered a lot of money to integrate a product into the site, regardless of whether their audience was even remotely aligned aligned.

You get dozens and often hundreds of comments on every post. Why do you think your audience is so engaged?

I don’t mean to sound redundant, but consistency and authenticity are the key elements to building an engaged audience.

The readers have built an emotional connection with the site and ultimately they look at it as more than just some text and words. I’ve had people approach me on the street and say, “You’re Cupcakes and Cashmere,” rather than calling me by my name, so there is sometimes a disconnect between the brand and myself… but either way, the connection is real and they relate to what I’m creating.

You’ve published one bestselling book and have another book in the works. How have you leveraged your online presence to offline products and ventures? And do you have a longer-term strategy?

My second book, Cupcakes and Cashmere at Home, comes out on May 19 and I can’t wait to share some of my favorite interior design and entertaining tips.

I’ve been working with a licensing agent for the past two years to explore and expand retail opportunities with the brand and we’re actually launching a new product line this summer. I can’t say more about it yet but it is within one of the main categories I cover on the site. We’ve locked in two large retail partners (one is brick/mortar online, one purely e-comm) and we’ve been in the process of developing two other product lines within another category.

The long-term goal is to establish a successful line of branded products that benefit from the blog but are a stand-alone business.

Say I meet you in an airport lounge, find out what you do, and say, “I’ve always wanted to start a site on (my passion.) Any quick tips you’d give me, and common mistakes to avoid?

Tips:

  • Be patient with your goals since success will most likely come slowly, if at all.
  • If you’re creating original content, be prepared for it to consume a lot of your time.
  • For areas that you’re not skilled in, find great collaborators.
  • Get a basic understanding of the digital media landscape. Learn about analytics, do some research on advertising, and be able to speak about your audience value.
  • Be authentic and learn to differentiate yourself. Most likely the category you’ll cover is overly saturated with content, so you need to find a way to make your work stand out.

Mistakes to avoid:

  • Sacrificing quality over quantity. Your audience will be built on trust and the entertainment value you provide. If your quality slips, so will they.
  • Taking every offer that comes your way. At first it’s very tempting to accept offers from an advertiser, but ultimately, it degrades your credibility if you become an advocate for anyone willing to pay you. Be selective.

CREATION AND DISCOVERY – INVENTION AND INVESTMENT

A very interesting perspective and one I agree with to a large extent. Actually I think one should set out to create a Brand – with a certain type of Vision, and adapt accordingly as one meets particular circumstances in and through the world. (Which is basically what he says later in the article.)

In other words one begins with a Vision and then discovers and develops as one goes along. It is not either/or, but both…

 

You Don’t Create Your Company’s Brand — You Discover It.
Matt Hanses

Contributor
Writer & Consultant

April 15, 2015

Over $500 billion is spent on advertising each year. The average American is exposed to an estimated 3,000 ads per day. Fifteen minutes out of every hour of television programming is devoted to commercials.

Branding: 2 Key Lessons in Brand Building

That’s a lot of marketing. And a lot of marketers. With six million companies in the United States alone, that’s a lot of people competing to get their message out. How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you get noticed?

This is where branding comes in.
What is branding?

Branding is the art of distinguishing a product or service from its competitors. It’s the term for creating a recognizable “personality” which people will remember and react to.

A company with poor branding is throwing away marketing dollars. Why? Because without a focused message, companies weak in branding are invisible. Nobody remembers them and they blend in. They become just another leaf swirling in the wind, amid all those marketing messages consumers see each day.

In marketing, the point is to actually reach someone, to connect. The way to do this is by focusing attention, not dispersing it.
Discovering your brand

Too often, people try to “dream up” a brand for their company. However, a brand isn’t something you dream up — it’s something you discover. Specifically, it’s something you have to discover about yourself.

True branding must be based solely on the mission and culture of the organization. When people try to create branding separate from the company itself, the result may be pretentious, clichéd or ambiguous marketing. It waters down the company’s message.

Instead, a brand should reflect the company’s business plan, its mission and values. It has to be authentic. Therefore, when you brand a company (or anything else for that matter), you’re trying to capture its core identity. You have to look past the clutter and opinion and distill its true essence. This is what you convey to consumers — your brand. And your fonts, your design, your writing — all aspects of your marketing — should all align with that central concept. Now, you have focus. Now, you have penetration, because you’ve conveyed your company’s identity by first discovering yourself.

Related: The Basics of Branding
The ingredients of a brand

While there is probably no foolproof formula for discovering a company’s brand, there are pathways to accomplish that. Consider the following points the “ingredients” that go into making an authentic brand:

Company mission. This is the most important element of branding. Your mission is the spirit of your company, it’s the beating heart of what you do. In fact, your brand can be thought of as the outward expression of your company’s internal mission. Think of it this way: Why does your organization exist? What is it there for? You have assets, employees, vendors, relationships and internal systems. . . but why?
Values. What’s important to your company? What do you stand for? Every company has certain ideals that define what it is and does. These ideals could be environmental, social or ethical or could be standards of quality Whatever your company’s values are, they’re the very center of why you’re unique and are a crucial part of your brand.
Culture. Each company in the world has its own ethos — a particular style or panache. Whatever you call yours, embrace it. There may be a million competitors in your market space, but there’s only one you. Your company’s group culture is part of the fabric of who you are.
History. Your history tells a lot about you. Look to the company’s founders to help define your identity today. What were their values? What were they trying to accomplish? Every company came from somewhere. Your roots are an integral part of your company’s brand.
Plans. When you look at your next 10 years, where do you see yourself going? Your business plan and marketing strategy both influence how you present yourself and should be included in your branding. If you’re going after an entry-level market segment, don’t position yourself as a luxury brand. Your brand must encompass your real-world objectives.
Consumers. This is really what it’s all about. Your customers are the reason you exist. What are their needs? What do they think? Understanding your customers is a vital part of branding. Because if you don’t know whom you’re talking to, why bother to say anything at all?

It might take a bit of soul-searching to get at the essence of what makes your company special. The trick is to take a clear-eyed look and see what’s actually there. Because every brand is beautiful, every brand is inspiring.

Each just has to be discovered.

 

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