Studio magazine is a publication that “offers Canadian perspectives on Craft and Design within the global material culture”. The editor stipulated the article could discuss the challenges of marketing and their solutions, but in keeping with the mission of the magazine, the piece needed to be about the meaning and the why of marketing and surviving craft.

It couldn’t be a how-to. So I took a creative tack, showing readers that understanding the big picture of marketing and tailoring their approach could make the task much easier. Most important, the gist of the article was to help professional artists integrate marketing into their creative practice.

The article is reprinted in full below.

Marketing is an idea with unnecessary baggage. Just say the word and you’re guaranteed to get a reaction. There might be a wince of sympathy, or you might notice the person you’re speaking with draw back just a little in case you’re contagious.

Like a trip to the dentist or the annual income tax return, the prospect of marketing can be uncomfortable. Unfortunately, humans will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid discomfort, even if it means lost opportunities or income.

In order to ditch the baggage, it’s important to understand what marketing really is: a process that takes work from the studio to the hands of the customer. While it’s frequently considered synonymous with promotion, marketing is far more than that. (Since we’re dispensing with unneeded baggage, it’s worth noting promotion, often considered loud and obnoxious, can take many forms. It can be wildly effective when it’s subtle and beautiful.)

When industry experts use the word marketing, they understand there’s a structure in place. To the uninitiated, the misperception happens easily enough. Promotion is obvious. We see images and words meant to draw us in, but in order to understand why those particular images and words were chosen, and why they appear in the places they do, we need to look at promotion as part of a complete marketing framework.

In 1960, E. Jerome McCarthy, professor of marketing at Michigan State University, introduced the concept of the marketing mix: product, price, place and promotion. McCarthy’s formula, ‘the 4 Ps’, has evolved over the years, but for someone in the business of craft, understanding this basic structure can make a world of difference.

Far from being restrictive, a structure can offer creative freedom. It eliminates the intimidation of the blank canvas and allows you to explore and push boundaries without losing focus on the work at hand. To apply some borrowed wisdom: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Or just use the rules like an artist. Anyone who’s tried to grip a mug too large for her hands can tell you there’s no such thing as one size fits all. That’s also true in marketing. There’s more than one way to do it. Interpretation of medium is at the foundation of creative practice. That same creativity is at the foundation of marketing: every element, every part of the process, sends a signal to the audience. One person perceives a price as too high, another perceives it as an indicator of high quality.

The promotion phase works the same way. The signals you send must be in sync with your work and your audience. When definitive personal creativity is part of the marketing process, the connection with your audience is strengthened. That connection is important. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

Despite expectations, marketing will not result in immediate sales. Without instant returns, it might appear that marketing doesn’t work or that it’s a waste of time. But we might simply be getting ahead of ourselves. Just like promotion and marketing, sales and marketing are not the same thing. The sale happens at the end of the process. Marketing is about building: to establish a presence, to grow an audience, to enhance recognition, to create confidence and delight. It can work quickly, but the investment in time and attention serves you well in the long run.

Promotion can get people through the door. But when there’s an established connection with the audience, they’re more committed when they walk in. With a more complete understanding of the marketing process, you realize that connection begins long before the audience is aware of it.

Marketing begins with an idea. Not an idea for a promotional campaign, but for a new piece of work, whether it’s destined for a studio production line or a gallery exhibition. That object, whatever it is, will land in front of an audience. That’s not to say you should think “marketing!” while you’re dreaming up an idea. You already consider your audience even if you don’t realize: it’s part of the creating process. That mug has to fit into someone’s hand. The scarf has to drape comfortably. You’re already forging connections and are well into marketing, while perfectly maintaining the integrity of your work.

Another myth to debunk: marketing is not about selling-out. Not when it’s done well. Many artists avoid talking about their work because it feels like bragging. Even in the oversharing age of social media, promotion can still feel unacceptable – a sin committed by the obnoxious or the inauthentic. Promotion feels like a betrayal of sorts, an act that turns a precious object into something crass. The bold pursuit of money seems best suited to the culture of mass-produced, disposable items, not the environment of a fine craft studio.

But consider this: people who shun the cheap and disposable are looking for beautifully designed, finely crafted work. They want to know who makes it and where. They want to see more of it, and they want to share it with people who hold similar values. They wish it was easier to find, because they want to buy it and bring it home. They’re delighted to see that work presented in the same spirit as it was created. Being reminded of the careful work, thoughtful design, and the dedicated person behind it enhances the buying experience. Like interacting with art and fine craft, marketing is also an experience. This is where creativity really comes into play. You can be creative without the pressure to come up something worthy of an advertising award. Marketing works best when it’s seamless. The thought of learning a new set of skills may seem daunting for someone who runs an independent business. But the learning curve isn’t steep. The fundamentals are already part of your work even if you weren’t aware of it.

Marketing expertise can grow from the most basic understanding of the process with practice. Practice is critical. No one masters a medium in a day and marketing is no different. Much of it can become second nature, like the muscle memory any accomplished craftsperson possesses. The eye of a marketing pro is much like that of a good designer: the whole and the sum of the parts are visible, because she’s learned what to look for.

The practice of marketing can create a skillset that turns a surviving practice into a thriving one, and this holds for any medium or industry. The right perspective changes marketing from something to be avoided to an elegant, effective way to reach a welcoming audience.

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