This week our Backstage Experts are divided! One of our readers on Facebook asked: What is the best way to determine your “brand”?
Here are several answers from industry professionals spanning different areas of this business to give you some perspective!
Wondering what this new column is all about? Backstage Experts Answer takes your questions and brings them to our incredible network of Experts. If you missed the last installment, check out “When Is It OK to Turn Down a Role?” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!
Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher
What’s Idris Elba’s “brand”? Or Meryl Streep’s? Ah, but they’re already household names, I hear you say. OK, Samantha Morton’s brand? Anthony Mackie’s? Maggie Q’s? Ben Mendelsohn’s?
I’m sure if 100 of us wrote our answers down we would disagree with one another when they were read out. “Great Actor” isn’t a brand, just like “Great Food” isn’t a brand. Branding is done by advertising agencies and not the producers of the product, meaning, your agent and manager, not you.
Obviously if you know that you are hilarious, then branding yourself as a hardcore tragedian would be an error in judgment. But then, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and in more recent years, Mo’Nique in “Precious” and Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” demonstrate the power in subverting the “brand” we expect of them anyway.
Work on your acting before worrying about branding. In time, you will find that the people who become invested in you and your career will do the branding for you. Until then, your brand just may be “Actor Who Tries Too Hard.”
Steve Braun and Risa Bramon Garcia, The BGB Studio
Brand: the very word makes our skin crawl. If actors spend any time at all figuring out your brand or your type, that’s all you are. We are all for marketing yourself, but the real questions are: How do you put forth your unique voice? How do you attract the industry to you? Here’s how: You do amazing work. You express your bold and specific point of view. You’re unapologetic. People will take notice. People will want to know more. People will applaud you. And they’re applauding you. Not your label. What is Meryl Streep’s brand? She’d laugh at you for even asking.
So the best way to answer this question is to reject it, and rather remind yourself that you are unique—that there is nobody like you in the universe. Sharpen your extraordinary, artistic voice. Bring it to your work, your life, and your marketing. Put it out into the world. Run in the other direction at the mention of that word. Branding is for cows.
David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
I have to answer by first offering a qualification: I find the term “brand” to be too generic to describe a human being. That said, the best way to determine your “brand” is to simply think about and describe yourself, then make sure the world sees you the same way. What are your behaviors, likes, and dislikes? Then ask friends, family, and even relative strangers to describe you. You reflection should be the same as your projection. If, in your case, what you see is not what you get, then you will not only not book jobs, but you will be seen as a worse actor than you are. It is extremely important to acknowledge and eliminate any gap between external and self-perception. Get clear on who you are and then get comfortable with it. Only then will others feel the same way.
Cathryn Hartt, Dallas-based acting teacher
First, look at yourself in pictures and videos. Then, try these three tricks:
- Think of a famous actor that is doing the roles that you are doing. That’s your brand.
- Find your special “hook” that no one else has. Is it your sweet glow? Is it your goofiness? Is it your deep, dark energy? That is your brand.
- Ask others how they see you. What do most people say? That is your brand.
My sister, Morgan Fairchild, has been known throughout her career as a glamorous, bad girl. When she first came to Hollywood, she was cast as the mean girl in a television movie, “The Initiation of Sarah.” She really wanted to play the “good” sister and begged the producer to let her at least read for it. He said, "Young lady, you haven't been out here very long, have you? A pretty girl is a dime a dozen, but a good b**ch is hard to find. You have great power. Own it!”
Tony Howell, founder of Creative Social Media
The best way to determine your branding is to think about the ideal outcome! What’s the purpose of branding yourself? What are your goals? You should reverse engineer your branding to package and position yourself for your dream reality. For example, wanting to be a “globally recognized celebrity” requires different branding than someone wanting to be a “working actor in [your city].” Regardless of your aspirations, you do have to start with where you are. However, too many personal brands spend all of their energy (and sometimes money) getting to know themselves better. That’s one-third of the equation. Match your unique selling points (what I call your “best and truest self”) with the needs of your ideal audience and outcome. It’s similar to “dress for the job you want.” Determine your brand by “dressing” for your ideal future.
Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
Watch the movies and/or TV shows that you really resonate with and would like to be on and see who you're most like in those shows. What qualities do they posses that you posses as well? What’s your essence? What’s your physical type? Do an honest evaluation and inventory. Ask your best friend to tell you what they honestly think. People who embrace their “brand”/type and own it and are empowered are the ones who are booking work. If you’re in denial about your type, you won’t book the job—it’s that simple.
Brian O’Neil, NYC-based acting coach
I’ll tell you. Lose the term “brand” altogether. Get it out of your vocabulary. In the past few years I have worked with, polled, and specifically discussed this buzzword with countless highly successful actors, moderately successful actors, as well as agents and managers, and casting directors. Not one of them I spoke with ever uses the word. Not one. Ever. It’s simply not a part of their business life or jargon. However, agents will usually ask actors: “How do you see yourself?” which is about casting potential. For a free tutorial on this from a former agent’s point of view, watch the video on my homepage or check out my article, “How to Think Beyond Your Brand.”
Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
The best way to determine your brand is through a combination of soul-searching and market research. Do this the old-fashioned way by looking in the mirror with a pen and paper handy and make a list of words and phrases that come to mind. These could be traditionally descriptive adjectives such as impish, weaselly, ordinary-looking, trustworthy, squidgy, or random phrases like “Get off my lawn,” or “I’ll cut you.”
From your list, start building a greater sense of what you have to consistently offer the industry. Use your pen and paper for this part of the exercise, finishing the sentence, “I’m the ____ who ____.” For instance,this could be “I’m the sweet-faced guy who gets kicked around.” “I’m the ivy-league lawbreaker who eats Vicodin for breakfast.” Often your brand is connected to your acting “sweet spot” and it’s worth exploring them both—here’s my article on the subject: “How To Find Your Acting Sweet Spot.”
The final step in determining your own personal brand revolves around reaching out to your closest friends and asking them for adjectives and phrases that describe you. Most importantly, give your friends permission to not be complimentary. In my career coaching program, I help actors discover their acting “singularity”—the exclusive combination of attitudes and behaviors that make them an original.
Jackie Reid, manager, and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited
Practically speaking, your brand idea needs to be consistent with what your strengths are. To say my brand is a “serious dramatic actor” while you day in and day out crack everyone up with your comedic talents may have you swimming upstream. As you consider your brand, also keep in mind where you are in your development.
The best way to determine your brand is to figure out who you really are. That may sound very existential, but it’s easier than you think. Let’s pretend that you are writing a profile for an online dating site. You would only list your best, most intriguing qualities. Instead of writing descriptive sentences, we will just use the adjectives: great smile, funny, athletic, intense, quirky, etc.
Ask some friends and family members to make a list of five qualities that pop into their heads when they think of you. You’ll be surprised several of their impressions will appear over and over again in the lists and you will know that’s you. Are you the edgy rocker chick? Are you the awkward nerd who is scared of girls? Are you the handsome, serious, intense detective?
Branding is not necessarily instinctive. Like everything else you have to work at being that brand, whether it is from constant practicing, training, or real life experience.
Mae Ross, founder of 3-2-1- Acting Studios
The word brand is used similarly to “typecast.” For an actor to brand themselves, they are marketing themselves according to their physical appearance and personality, both of which dictate what types of characters they are likely to be offered to play. To find your brand, find working actors on TV and in films who look like you and observe what types of roles they are playing. Do you look like the all-American blonde cheerleader? Do you look like a mobster? How you describe your castability will determine how to brand yourself in headshots, on your website, in workshops, etc. Good luck!
John Swanbeck, director-author
One way to determine your brand is to look at the marketplace of film and television roles as one big pie and ask yourself into which slice of the pie do you most easily fit. Are you the best friend, the bad girl, the geek, young leading man, etc.? Then, of all the actors currently working in that slice of the pie, whom do you most resemble in look, physical type, and age? With that you want to emphasize a trait of your own personality. It can be the trait of your personality that is the most dominant or one you most enjoy about yourself. If it stands a little bit in contrast to your “type,” that’s OK. A slight contrasting element added to a classic type emphasizes a brand’s uniqueness.
Pamela Vanderway, founder of DialectCoaches.com
The most important thing to know about your brand is that a brand is not something you sit down and design from scratch. Instead, branding is taking targeted action that supports the perceptions others already seem to have about you. To determine your brand, you must look outside of your personal experience of yourself and focus on what others have said, written, or implied about you. What do people (whether strangers, friends, or casting entities) often seem to assume about you? Despite your range, are there certain personality traits that the characters in your wheelhouse often share? Find out and you’ll have the seeds of your brand. With these in hand, you’ll be able to make sure that everything about the way you interface with the public (from your haircut and wardrobe to your headshots and reel to your webpage and social media posts to the very skills you acquire as an actor) support these perceptions, which in turn can help casting and producing entities to recognize and remember you for their next project.
Ben Whitehair, L.A.-based actor
There are many ways to determine your brand, and for me it’s been a continual process. I’m a big fan of asking lots of people—especially strangers—their first impression of you.
My friend and stellar actor Landall Goolsby proffers the following questions as a starting point. Is your essence:
- Character type or sexually attractive?
- Blue collar or white collar?
- Low class, middle class, or high class?
This is a great foundation for your brand, but know that it’s imperative to get über specific. For example, “best friend” or “girl next door” are fine starting points, but are you the best friend of someone in the inner city? In the Hamptons? On a space colony? Happy branding!
Writing and directing commercials myself, I once put a lot of thought into branding. A couple things that apply to the modern film actor are:
1. Have one clear message (unless you have a big budget). Decide exactly “who” you are selling to casting directors. Then have every audio/visual element of your promotional material support this one, clear concept. Like an ad campaign.
2. Brand the reality. When I read what McDonald’s is accused of serving, I am not “lovin’' it.” Deliver on your promise. Who do people assume you are within five seconds of meeting you? Sell that. Branch out later when you have fame as leverage.
3. Create a strong video presence. Huge today! In my weekly on-camera acting class, we shoot fully produced 4k reel, on location. You want to access the good rooms? Present solid video. Buy a pro camera and lights or make friends with someone who has them.
4. Earn a brand. The lead in Spike Lee’s new film went to one of my students recently. He had never studied before my class and had limited credits. So how did he even get that audition? He shot a great reel in class. But what got him the part? He earned it. He worked hard in weekly scene study, learned text analysis, applied our on-camera system, and delivered emotional work. This backed up his brand promise. He wasn’t selling the invisible. His vision became his reality.
Want to be more involved in the Backstage community? Became a subscriber here!