Does Your Brand Sell or Repel?

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I recently stumbled upon an article that featured a line up of best book covers over last 10 years.

Many were cool, very stylized. But, none made me actually want to buy the books. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of any of the books, so I looked them up on amazon. Of the 20 books listed (10 winners and 10 notables), the vast majority had terrible sales ranks. And, of the few that had made it to paperback, a number had cover redesigns, signifying the book didn’t sell nearly as well as was hoped..and the cover was a major culprit.

I see this tension all over the place. Design aesthetic/branding versus sales tool.

So, I’m about to take some heat on this, but…

How can you heap praise on a book cover that fails at it’s essential task?

Not at being pretty or swishy or eclectic and visually provocative. But, at it’s fundamental job. Stopping potential readers in their tracks and compelling them to pick up and then buy the book. Ask any publisher and they’ll tell you somewhere between 70 and 90% of a book’s commercial success comes from the one-two marketing punch delivered by the cover and the title (and subtitle).

I’d love to say that, as consumers, we’re less dog-like, less reactionary than that.

Especially since I’m an author. But I can’t. It’s not enough for a cover to be beautiful or hyper-stylized. That’s not it’s essential role. It’s not enough to make the author, publisher and designer feel gooylicious inside. It’s got to sell books, plain and simple. That’s it’s fundamental job.

Truth is, though, this conversation isn’t about books and covers.

It’s about mood versus money. Big picture branding. Soul. Communications. Vision. Copywriting. Pain. Headlines. Pride. Logos. Sex and Cars. These things are all part of the sales and marketing funnel. Sure, they play a pivotal role in helping to define our brand…

But, who gives a damn WHAT your brand is if nobody wants to buy what you’re selling?

We don’t build brands just to be able to point to them and say, “Hey nice brand, dude.” That’s called branding by ego. And brands built on ego-satisfaction have a name…crapshoots.

We build brands, identities, covers, packaging and messages because they are tools that help define, differentiate and overcome objections. They do all this in anticipation of something else, though. In service of something else…

Make no mistake, branding is sales’ love-slave!

It has no benefit or purpose beyond setting up the sale. Whether we’re talking about pretty book covers, fancy logos, gushingly gorgeous slogans or sizzling hot storefronts…in the end, they all suck if they don’t lead, directly or indirectly, to sales.

Play with that next time you want to go pretty on your postcards, sassy on your book cover or understated on your ads.

Ask yourself,

Will this branding/design element make little Tommy run screaming and throwing elbows to be the first in line to buy what you’re selling?

As always, thinking out loud, here. I’m sure you guys’ll have something to add.

Let ‘er rip in the comments…

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24 responses

24 responses to “Does Your Brand Sell or Repel?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, TwittyBean. TwittyBean said: Does Your Brand Sell Or Repel? […]

  2. Yes, yes, YES!

    Somewhere between direct response marketing and image branding, there’s a melding where you can accomplish both. And Book Covers are a GREAT example of that. If you create a compelling cover, it should grab attention (that’s the visual aspect), but then it should stimulate the sale (that’s the direct response part).

    Gary Vee’s book cover isn’t particularly “pretty”, but it sells books. It stimulates the emotions of buyers that want that kind of book. But it’s also got a graphic hook with the vivid green text on black.

    As business owners, image branding is losing traction – look at advertising rates. Our local paper went from a daily to a three times weekly because advertisers were pulling back. Why do advertisers pull back? Because they’re not getting the results that they want. But the classifieds are brimming in our paper. It’s the display ads, the image branding that’s falling flat.

    Consumers are changing, and if we as business owners don’t respond tothose chanegs, we will go the way of the dinosaur. And if you’re new in business, it’s even more imperative to be adaptable, because people won’t wait around for you to change.

    Great food for thought today, Jonathan!

  3. Karen Putz says:

    All the pretty stuff of marketing is lost if it doesn’t communicate with or “touch” the customer in a way that compels them toward the brand.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by twittybean: Does Your Brand Sell Or Repel?

  5. Ed Gandia says:

    I come across this all the time as a B2B copywriter. Some of my clients and prospects are obsessed with “branding” their B2B products. They want to be perceived as the best. The coolest.

    Yet what I try to explain is that in B2B, you can’t afford to build a “brand” like you can in consumer marketing. Many reasons for this, but biggest one is that consumers make decisions emotionally and justify the purchase (to themselves) logically. Businesses are still people (people are making the decisions, let’s not forget). BUT…they have a boss, a committee, a board of directors to answer to. Which means they must build a strong business case.

    Bottom line: Don’t obsess about branding if you’re selling B2B products and services. Instead, focus on conversions and sales. The rest will follow.

  6. Ade Shokoya says:

    Your brand is only as good as what your target market perceives it to be. So think of your brand as the overall experience your customer gets from using your product/service.

    Ade Shokoya

  7. Andy says:


    Surely effective branding means that it doesn’t matter what the cover is like, your customers will buy it, so long as they know it is yours of course. You just need to make sure the prospect knows what brand they are buying when they see the cover.

    I sell B2B services myself, and it always helps if they have heard of my company before I turn up. Thats branding. Sales is so much harder when you don’t have a brand. You can’t ignore one at the expense of the other. They are equally important aren’t they?

  8. Jeffrey Luke says:

    Brands are ultimately what the public makes them out to be – and it’s much easier for the public to sway a brand if it is not authentic. If businesses are not living the brand – they will never match what they are preaching.

    I always remember the story of a FedEx driver who couldn’t get one of his drop boxes open. So he rammed it with his truck, knocked it off the cement base and took the whole box into the distribution center – where they cracked it open.

    He was living the brand “when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

    If you build the brand into your culture – or your culture becomes your brand, then you will win the game.

  9. Jonathan Fields says:

    Great comments as always guys.

    Thing is, this post isn’t really about what your brand, identity or design is or isnt or who decides.

    It’s about what your brand DOES. And the fact that all too often, we lose sight of the fact that brands don’t exist to make us feel good.

    In the end, they exist for a single purpose…to sell more stuff. If they aren’t serving that end, they fail.

  10. George says:

    You make a great point. It’s list of the “best book covers”. But they weren’t good enough to sell the book!

    I think it is pretty common that people lose sight of the goal of the book cover, web site, or whatever. Ultimately, the goal is to sell, and if that doesn’t happen it is a failure. But for many people are not yet aware of this.

  11. Naomi Niles says:

    I probably spend more time than I should looking at book covers although I don’t design them myself. Comes with the territory of being a designer I suppose, ha!

    As far as design goes, to me the most important part about the aesthetic aspect of it is that it helps with the credibility of the book or whatever else the design is for. So, I think “beauty” if you want to call it that is still very important, but main for that reason alone. Obviously, that ties in with sales in one way or another.

    I absolutely agree with you regarding books that it’s main job is increasing sales. This can be done in a lot of ways, not just by making the design “beautiful”. Beauty is a subjective thing anyway. I’m not really sure it’s a good goal unto itself anyway.

    I see this sort of thing happening all the time with website designs too. The sites that often win design awards are usually flash sites that are almost totally unusable and wholly impractical. But, they are “innovative”. I don’t get it and never will, but that’s a rant for another day…

    I was mentioning the other day on Twitter how much I love the Malcolm Gladwell books, for example. They are gorgeous aesthetically, but what I really like them is that they stand out with their minimalistic cover design. They are not what you’d expect from “business” books and I think that’s exactly what they are (not typical business books). Plus, they looked really good all laying out together on a table like Barnes & Noble had them together the other day. They would have caught my attention even if I wasn’t familiar with them already.

    On the other hand, I have a lot of books in my wishlist that I would have never bought if I just looked at them in the store. They look cheap or just a little “off” for some reason. I don’t have sales their numbers, but I’d imagine the covers didn’t help.

    I also saw 3 book covers the other day using the same typographic treatment and very similar colors. I’m not sure that helps sales much either although maybe they were fine since they were all in different sections. That said, if they were in different sections, why did they have similar cover designs?

    Ok…I’m stopping now! 🙂 By the way, whenever I go to the book store, I pull Career Renegade out a little more than the rest. Maybe it helps. Like a little subliminal psychology!

  12. Naomi Niles says:

    By the way, do you have link to that article about the best book covers? I’m curious now. 🙂

  13. Now that book covers are becoming digital-only, there’s no reason why we can’t split test them just like anything else on a web page.

    Tim Ferriss tested book titles using Google AdWords, and we all know how well that worked for him. No reason why we can’t start doing the same with cover designs.

    Are you listening, Bezos? 🙂

  14. Dennis Leger says:

    Talked with a publicist about my novel. She said “Not with THAT cover!” With help for cover and back text I now have a much more marketable product. I’m proud of the way it looks, but that doesn’t make it sell.

    Besides, how about content?

  15. I see this crap in fashion websites, which seem to more concerned with pushing a cool website with cool effects and a cool logo… than with pushing product out the door.

    Like I’m going to spend $160 on a pair of jeans when the picture is like 50 x 75 pixels… under a logo that’s 900 x 400 px. I swear this is true. That just might be a nice looking tush in those jeans. But I can’t tell. If you’re going the T&A route, be considerate and at least show some T&A. Stupid. I won’t link to it because it’s a current clients designer.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Dave – yeah, you see this very same thing on websites all the time. If pretty sells, go pretty. But, if it doesn’t, do what you need to do to stay in business

  16. Becky says:

    This correlates well with a book that I just had the opportunity of previewing (the book comes out Feb 1st) titled, “Built To Sell: Turn Your Business Into One You Can Sell” by John Warrillow. The book is a parable about a business owner who tries to sell his company only to find out it is un-sellable. The same is true for books…you can write a book, but it doesn’t mean that the book will mean anything to someone else. One must learn how to make their business, book, product (whatever it is) worth something to somebody and market that. So I agree with Johnathan… it is not the pretty book cover that sells a book.. it is what the book can DO for someone.

  17. Cathy says:

    Splashy book covers and/or titles will almost always get me to at least pick up the book if I’m in a brick-mortar bookstore. But even before that, it’s gotta be a book in a section I’m already interested in — I won’t even notice new books in, say, the Computer section or Automotive section.

    Then I have to find the back cover and the flap copy interesting. Then the first couple of pages have to be compelling.

    The first part of this flies out the window if I’m hearing about the book from a personal friend or a “brand” I trust. (E.g. I read “Career Renegade” because Pam Slim mentioned it in her workshop. And I trusted Pam. But the back cover, the flap copy and the first pages had to pass muster with me or I would’ve ended up thinking I won’t listen to Pam’s recommendations in the future.)

  18. Christian says:

    Totally agree. In fact this is a challenge I face on an ongoing basis in the health care world. I try and build marketing creatives (and systems) that are a mix between both “artsy” creatives and direct response adv. The artsy part is loved by everyone within the company. Makes them feel good about the promotion, but it’s the emotionally charged – make it clear – direct response component of the marketing iniative I am most concerned about – and of course tracking the dollars out = X dollars in. I believe the idea of building a brand/image/position of course is important, but my idea of branding is that it is made by others tooting our horn, then by chest thumping promotion and advertising. The more credible third parties talk, rave, and chest thump for us, the more traction our brand gains.

  19. Branding or Substance? Which is it? As T Harv Ecker would say: Both/And. I work in the psychotherapy field, and there are many therapists who have excellent skills and training, yet don’t know how to put their brand out there in an attractive manner that converts prospects into customers. On the other hand, I have seen slick ‘therapists’ market themselves with little substance. Putting top competence and integrity together with effective marketing seems to be the ideal to aim for.

  20. I like the idea of looking at brands. What I was wondering is what do you do when your brand literally does nothing. It doesn’t say much about you but doesn’t repulse the consumer. Should we mess with it or just focus on other areas of marketing?

  21. kevin says:

    There will always be a a struggle between people concerned about design and those who are only concerned about response.

    IMO, a designer designs what they think looks (unless they have direct response experience). How it pulls is secondary.

    Someone concerned about response doesn’t care how the piece looks. It could be pretty as a picture {so to speak} or drab and boring. As long as it maximizes conversions it stays.

    Look at the number of commercials that win awards but result in declining sales for the product. In the director’s eyes the commercial is a success. After all it’s been praised by his/her colleagues and won numerous advertising awards.

    In the company’s eyes the commercial is a failure. It lost money because.

    I think designers have a tendency to over design things because they believe in aesthetic
    and that beautiful, creative designs equal increased sales but usually this is not the case.

  22. kevin says:

    Please excuse my typos in the previous post (really I canz reed an writee).