Guest blog post by Sam Christensen
A successful career in the arts and especially in the performing arts is difficult to think about as a product. After all, a human being is involved. Such a career is usually the result of a life-long desire to tell stories to an audience. I’ll bet that wanting to be on the stage or the screen is featured in your earliest memories. Sometimes there is support from your friends and family, sometimes not. The preparation necessary to an actor is specific and requires an expenditure of dedication, time, and money. Also, unique to the acting art form is the risk of drawing added attention to yourself and the potential for rejection that can result. Because of the very personal nature of the actor’s commitment, it can be especially challenging to think of your art and craft as simply a product on the open market.
In our twenty-first century world, marketing has become a very sophisticated applied science. The proliferation of media and an emphasis on upward mobility have created a marketplace crowded with options and inundated with information proclaiming the virtues of every product from toothpicks to artificial hearts. In this noisy environment, the marketing speeds the progress of a product’s success by focusing the attention of the particular consumers who can most benefit from its use.
The “grandmother” of all marketing principles is the product identity. Without a cleverly discerned and properly articulated statement of product identity, the second two principles, packaging and placement, aren’t even possible. The secret I want to share with you has to do with the all important governing concept of product identity.
Product identity is pretty simple when you’re marketing toothpicks or even artificial hearts. If you’re trying to market one of those products, you can put it on a table in front of you, you can see it from the same angles as any other person, a potential buyer, can see it. You can invite others to look at it with you. You can organize them into “focus groups”. You can appreciate the item from their point of view and, thus, interpret the reactions they have to the product. It isn’t the same when you are the product.
It doesn’t take many interviews or auditions for an actor to realize that there’s more going on in a casting session than simply how proficiently a scene is read. It’s obvious that even with adequate preparation there’s another factor at play besides the quality of your craftsmanship. And because you are not able to see the audition from their point of view – literally, you are inside the experience that they are outside of – it is impossible to understand how they perceive the “product”. The same is true when you look at a series of potential headshots. No matter how you try to look at those two dimensional representations of yourself as others will see them, you cannot help but recall the experience of having the photographs taken. Remember while all the important criteria dictated your agent ran through your head and the photographer was saying, “Relax your brow, over here, smile, chin down, over here.” How could you be anywhere but ‘inside’ your own experience?
There you have it. The extraordinary challenge presented to the actor when trying to define his or her own product identity. You can never see the product from the same the point of view that all of your potential buyers share. Literally, the objectivity any marketing consultant uses when articulating the identity of a product being offered is impossible for you because their point of view is unavailable to you.
So, what do you do about it? After years as a casting director, talent executive, and personal manager this was the question I found myself asking. My answer was to develop a process that affords an artist the chance to take profitable advantage of marketing’s primary tenets. In the process I created I tackle the two unique challenges that the acting artist has in identifying his or her product:
1) finding out what’s going on in that outside point of view and
2) integrating it with the interior point of view.
By taking these two essential actions – finding out and integrating outside perception, the two aspects of personal product identity can be a unified. Once the two halves are brought together an interactive statement can be defined, honoring your own internal identity as well as the perceptions of all those on the outside.
I believe it’s essential for each acting artist to go on a fearless and objective quest to discern the primary patterns of the perceptions of others. This can be done by asking others for their descriptions of us, by reviewing things people have written and said about us in places as obvious as high school annuals and birthday cards. In my classes I work to create a neutral and anonymous environment where this information can be gathered quickly and without the onus of others editing their responses.
Once you have gathered information and trends begin to develop, the second part of the definition of product identity can begin. In this phase of integration, you get to choose how to talk about the key characteristics which have been discerned. Ways to translate the key components discovered by earlier surveys and research into packaging tools and placement decisions can be set.
For example, you might discover there is the indication from others of a “loud” quality in your personality. Your own take on that characteristic might make feel uncomfortable referring to yourself as “loud”. However, you might find it easy to say, “I’m the life of the party” or “the person who can make themselves heard above the crowd” or “the person who speaks up when no one else will”. Owning and marketing all the aspects of yourself, great and not so great, is far easier when you can all it as you see it.
Ultimately, in order to market we must come to a product identity easily recognized and acknowledged by others as well as acceptable and ‘wearable’ to us. Thus, finding out what’s going on in the perception outside of us, integrating it with our own long-held and carefully nurtured interior self and finally being able to articulate that integrated identity easily is key to harnessing the advantages modern marketing. There is undisputed power in words and in the use of the right words to capture human thoughts and feelings. If we verify what is going on with others about us, if we integrate that information with our own self-knowledge and if we put the results into our own words, then captivating headshots, fascinating interviews and winning auditions are ours for the asking.
This unique challenge in defining a product identity makes marketing a little tougher for the artist but it also is the core of what gives a career as an acting storyteller its special joy and reward. You can begin today by gathering the descriptions of you that others can offer. Soon you’ll see trends in their perceptions and you can integrate them with your own. Then you can arrive at self-descriptive vocabularies than empower you as a career marketer.
I know this system works because I’ve employed for nearly twenty-five years with actors who were just staring careers as well as with men and women who have Oscars and Emmys on their mantelpieces. Your skills and craftspersonship are only half of the battle – the other half is the unique personal product identity that creation gave you and that it’s your job to make easily available to the people who are waiting to cast you.
Sam Christensen helps actors find their authenticity and brand through his unique process at the Sam Christensen Studio in Los Angeles and through workshops in various US cities, Canada and Europe.