Branding 101: What’s Your Story?

by Jami Gold on January 8, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Quilled paper snowflake with text: What Makes Us Special?

With the posts I did last week, about figuring out what went wrong and what went right last year, I mentioned that coming up with the “success” list might be harder for us. That we may feel too boring, too untalented, too full of self-doubt to come up with the good in our lives.

We often see inspirational quotes about how we’re the only one who can write our story. But sometimes we might look at that quote and think we’re not anyone special, so our story wouldn’t be anything special either.

Bah! I don’t want those negative thoughts to hold any of us back. So let’s talk about how we can discover what makes us special. Why might someone care about our stories?

Branding 101: What Is a Brand?

Yep, this is a branding thing. Sorry. *smile* However this isn’t rocket science. Remember that our brand is simply the impression others have of us.

Or as I’ve discussed before:

“Our brand is how we and our stories relate to others. Or more accurately, it’s how others relate to us and our stories.

Do our stories make our readers feel good or frustrated, enlightened or disappointed? Do our social media updates make us seem friendly or whiny, helpful or self-absorbed? Do our blog posts make us seem informal or formal, amusingly crazy or crazy-crazy?”

Before Christmas, I tweeted a link to a great post by Seth Addison that explored this idea. Here’s my favorite line from his article:

“Your brand is the relationship between you and your customer, not a logo or a product.”

Yes. Or as the keenly missed Maya Angelou said:

“People will forget what you said.
People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In other words, our brand is how we relate to others, how they relate to us, and/or how we make them feel. Long after the specifics of our words, characters, plots, stories, websites, avatars, color themes, etc. fade, people will remember how we made them feel. That’s the impression that matters.

The Steps of Building a Brand

So if we create a brand, simply by existing, how do we get the brand we want out in the world? How do we make sure that the impression we want others to have of us is the impression they get?

Eh, I’ll be honest. There are no guarantees. We don’t have the power to control others’ perceptions. But we can try to influence their impression. *smile*

Step 1: Decide Who You Want to Be

This step can be a lot like our high school years. But it’s important to make conscious decisions and not just go along with our previous self-concept:

“If we never ask ourselves who we want to be, we’re extremely likely to let our teenage self-image dictate our lives. If we thought of ourselves as a loser in high school, we’re likely to still think of ourselves that way, no matter how much we accomplish—unless we consciously recognize and create our adult self-image. …

As teenagers, we struggled to figure out who we were, but too many times, we let others dictate those labels. As adults, especially in the online world, we have more power and ability to label ourselves, but only if we make these conscious decisions.

Once we know those labels we want for ourselves, we have our brand.”

Step 2: Define Who You Want to Be

If we agree that writing down our goals helps us focus our efforts, we might see how writing down our self-definition can similarly help us focus our sense of our brand. And what is that self-definition called in the context of the writing world?

Our author tagline. *smile*

“Author taglines help make us more memorable and tell potential readers who we are and why we write what we write:

  • The Who: What overall image do we want our audience to have of us and our work? What makes us, us? How do we want to relate to our audience?
  • The Why: Why should our audience care? What benefits will they get out of paying attention to us? What will they feel or learn?”

Step 3: Be Who You Want to Be

Going back to my post about what a brand is:

“Our brand is the ultimate in “show, don’t tell.” If we want people to think we’re X or our stories are Y, we have to actually be those things.

Our brand isn’t about us, and it’s certainly not about our type fonts or colors. Our brand is about our readers, what they think and feel about us. Who we are—our attitude and our worldview—comes through in everything we do, and once we understand that, we’ll realize that we don’t have to build a brand. The only thing we have to do is show who we are.”

You—and Your Story—Are Special

Great! Maybe we’ve gone through all those steps, but we still don’t feel special. Who are we that others should listen to us?

I’m going to tell you a secret. Remember how people want to relate and feel things—not just see a faceless, emotionless brand? That means that as long as we’re passionate about something and can convey that, people will be interested because we’ve given them an answer to the “So What?” question.

Not sure what that means? Let’s relate this back to the situation where we may have multiple story ideas and need to decide which one to work on. One way we might decide is by figuring which story has a stronger “So What?” factor, which one has:

  • a stronger emotional heart,
  • a more unique premise, or
  • a more memorable, enlightening, or challenging point?

The same concept can apply to us. People will find our passion interesting if there’s a “So What?” factor.

Meaning can come from our stories themselves, but it can also come from us. Our passion, our worldview, our values, our way with words. Our story. Not just the story we write on the pages, but the story we’ve lived, the story we carry in hearts.

That’s what’s unique, that’s what drives our passion that others can relate to. That’s the genesis of the feelings we engender in others and makes us memorable. That’s what creates an impression of us.

Our “So What” Answers

So if we’re not sure what makes us special enough that others should listen to us, think about what creates the story of us. (I can’t remember the source of these great questions, but these give us a start.)

  • What do we love to do most—and why?
  • How did we make the choice to do what we’re doing?
  • If we could share only one thing with the world, what would it be?
  • What was our lowest point or greatest challenge?

Those answers will be unique for each of us. Those answers create our story. Those answers prove that we have a special passion to share with the world.

And that’s the answer to “So What?” when we doubt ourselves and whether we have anything worthwhile to say. We do have something unique to share with the world, and the story of us will come through in the passion we share in our work. *smile*

Have you ever doubted whether or not your story mattered? Have you completed all the steps of building a brand? Do you feel like you have passion to share with others? Or that you have something to say with your stories? Do you struggle with any of these aspects of branding?

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32 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Davonne Burns January 8, 2015 at 8:18 am

I cannot tell you how timely this post is for me. I spent most of yesterday wrestling with a horrible bout of self-doubt. I’ve been struggling since finishing my NaNo novel to come to grips with my ‘brand’ and what it means both for me personally and for my future as a writer.

I am known online for being a gamer-geek with a bit of a sadistic streak when it comes to my characters. I am also known for writing complex characters and complicated plots. But more than that I am known for being willing to talk to people who suffer from mental illness or who are from marginalized/oppressed groups in the various orientation spectrums and gender identities.

I realized last year that my stories about people who do not fit the norm, people who are not cisgendered/heterosexual or who suffer from mental illness, are important. I have had readers come to me thanking me for writing about a character suffering with an eating disorder or hallucinations or coming to grips with their gender identity.

That doesn’t mean I do not suffer doubt. Yesterday was a case in point.

I have been writing down my goals for the year and I hope to build a stronger brand that revolves around the topics I care most about and the characters I most love to write but that also shows why I care so much about it.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Hi Davonne,

It sounds like you already have a great sense of who you are and what impression you want others to have. So as you said, it’s just a matter of being consistent. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Elle Lee Love January 8, 2015 at 8:39 am

Hi Jami,
This post is perfect timing for me, as always. I love the quote by Maya Angelou; it’s one of my favorites. When I read your blog, I feel like I’m talking to a best friend. I enjoy answering your interactive questions. Your brand is definitely helpful and encouraging.

I decided last year to build my brand first, before I even finished my novel. But I don’t have the time/patience/energy to write an encouraging blog like yours. So I posted my novel on Wattpad. It’s readers are mostly teen girls which are my target audience. They can post comments and follow me as a writer. One reader said my prologue was so good that it made her shiver. Wow! Immediate feedback!

I could have waited to get an agent or self-publish on Amazon, but I didn’t want to wait seven years or just read reviews after the book was finished. I wanted to build my brand/ relationship with my customers/readers right now. This post assured me that I made the right decision for me. Thanks for your help.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Hi Elle,

Aww, thank you! 🙂 And great point about keeping our target audience in mind.

I’ve never said that everyone should blog for exactly that reason. If blogging fits in with our goals and strategies, great–but if not, we just have to find what will work for us. It sounds like you’re well on your way to reaching that point. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Carradee January 8, 2015 at 9:42 am

(I know I’ve said much of this before on other posts, but I figure not all readers will, like, be familiar with all those other posts and comments. ^_–)

“Everyone’s crazy somehow—some people just hide it better than others.”

^ This theme permeates all my writing. I’ve noticed that, even though my newsletter is set up so folks can request updates on only the pennames they want, everyone so far wants to know about EVERYTHING I write. Not that I have a whole lot of subscribers yet, but I have enough to be suggestive of patterns in my general fanbase.

People who like “realistic” characters, strong on the psychological elements, tend to like my work—and readers who want to avoid a lot of cursing and gore and on-page sex have told me they’ve come to trust me on that (and they give me a heads-up when I, as an aromantic asexual [“ace of spades”], accidentally write something more suggestive than I intended). My faith does affect how I approach some things, and I every so often get comments that appreciate that.

Over on Wattpad, I’ve been dubbed “Queen of Plot Twists” and “Twisty Misti”. Fans love that my writing isn’t predictable—and it’s unpredictable in ways that completely fit the foreshadowing that’s existed prior to that point.

I’ve noticed that my novels that are readily available for free also SELL the most copies. (Not that “most” is many, for me, but I do make enough that, with my particular skills, I’ve reached the point where I can use sales from what’s out to fund release of what’s coming (for the ones where I make the covers myself, at least—which is most of them, because I like controlling my cover branding). Some readers have commented that they like how I handle my story topics, and they often dislike how those topics are handled, which would explain those buying patterns—they’re leery and want to see how I handle things before they spend their money.

My sales have also started increasing recently, which is encouraging. 🙂 Due to the unpredictable aspect of my work, I’ll be shocked if I’m ever a bestseller. Some of my individual titles might be blockbusters (like one WiP I’m researching now), but people like predictability too much for me to expect to ever be more than a niche author. I’m fine with that.

But my audience can definitely increase/improve from where it is now. I’m working on some things to hopefully use the Liliana Nirvana technique on one of my pennames. (It’s releasing 5 titles at once, then 1 a month later. I thought it was all in 1 series, but then a friend’s comment made me realize that’s not necessarily the case.)

With the penname I want to use it on, I have 2 titles drafted, 1 about halfway through [which should be last in a mini-series that goes to a publisher], and sequels to the first two started, plus more planned. If I wrap up the one-for-publisher and have the others ready to go when the one comes out from the publisher…then that might work well all around. I figure I might as well try it. 🙂

As a probably pertinent but not 100% related item, I also see myself as always having something available for free or in the discount bin. I’ve spent too much of my life dirt poor to not do that. I try to be personable, and I have a general willingness to…overshare, by some measures of professionalism. But I’ve found that my forthrightness actually gets me better responses than traditional professionalism does, perhaps because traditional professionalism feels uncomfortably like lying, to me. I’m far more comfortable admitting outright that I replied late to an e-mail because my malfunctioning adrenal glands put me to sleep again than just “politely” saying I was occupied.

Don’t ask me how I am unless you want me to answer honestly. I’m the type of person who will call a company’s customer service line and ask the congested service rep if s/he has a cold or allergies, then recommend some natural probably-in-their-kitchen things they could take to help.

Some folks find me annoying, but more like me than not, and my roommate says I’m hilarious to listen to even when furious, because I can eloquently eviscerate someone while using only a handful of PG-13 words.

Non-writers intentionally ask me questions about the writing business and what’s going on in publishing, knowing it will send me on monologues or rants 5–15 minutes long. So I have to be good at explaining things in an entertaining way. I never want to lose that.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Hi Carradee,

I love that your readers have figured out what makes you unique, and that’s why they love your stories, no matter the genre or world. I think that reiterates my point here that readers can relate to us–to what makes us unique–just as much as they can relate to our stories. 🙂

Yes! That post I linked to from Seth Addison was all about him learning that soulless professionalism didn’t build fans. So it makes sense that when you let yourself shine through, people react more. 🙂 And LOL! at imagining your eviscerating someone. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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henya January 8, 2015 at 11:57 am

I discovered you the other day. Lucky me. Good information here. I learned a lot. Thanks!

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 5:23 pm

Hi Henya,

Welcome! And please let me know if you have any questions. 🙂 I’m happy to help!

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Anne R. Allen January 8, 2015 at 12:18 pm

What a fantastic overview of branding! I love it that you quote Maya Angelou instead of a bunch of marketing jargon. This is a must-read. Thanks for another informative post!

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 5:24 pm

Hi Anne,

LOL! Yeah, I’ve never looked at branding that way, and it kind of tickles me that I’m now seeing some of the marketing people say the same things I’ve said for years. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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darlene beck jacobson January 8, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Comprehensive and very informative article Jami. Thanks for the information. Every author can benefit from some of the ideas.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 5:24 pm

Hi Darlene,

I hope it’s helpful for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Christina Hawthorne January 8, 2015 at 2:12 pm

To lace our words with honesty is to write one’s brand, or so it seems to me. I know I haven’t been doing that, have avoided in my fiction that which I hint at in my blog. Oh wow, my blog. Except for poetry it’s fallen silent since November because I’ve been in crisis, hospitalized crisis. I’ve struggled with the next post, which remains partially written.
I’m not going to whine about my problems here (whew, big relief!), but I can share that I’ve often talked about depression on my blog. When last I checked my fiction received few views, but those few times I chronicled my efforts to overcome my mental health issues the posts were well received. Honesty. It goes to show how what’s genuine bleeds through for readers to see. Similarly, my poetry is often read and I’m guessing people see the connections to the blog posts.
It’s difficult to know because I don’t get that many comments, but have a steady flow of new followers—even when I’m not posting.
My problem is that part of moving on for me was to not live in the past, to forgive, and to move on as a fiction writer. Instead, the fiction languished while the mental health blog posts pulled at me to return to the past for the sake of those out there struggling. That led to my renewed struggle, the hospital, and therapy.
Yes, therapy. After what I’ve admitted on the blog I’m not afraid to admit that.
So, what happens? My therapist reads my poetry book in one night and informs me I need to write my story. Sound familiar? Then, she requests that I write, in brief, my story, each installment covering five years. After the first installment she sat in stunned silence (tough to do to a therapist). After the second installment she said, “Oh my God.” She also reiterated that my story needs to be told, to be shared.
That which I most want to leave behind is the key to my writing. That, too, should sound familiar. I tell myself to do it to help others, which is what started all this, but it remains a battle within that I must master before I take that path. IF I take that path. I wanted to thank you, though, for this post and for being a voice that informs and cares, because the caring does comes through.

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Christina Hawthorne January 8, 2015 at 5:57 pm

I stand behind my comment above, Jami, but upon reading it I can see where it’s too forthcoming and casts me in a light that was unintended. My apologies for that. Feel free to delete it, but I thank you just the same for all you’ve done.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Hi Christina,

I didn’t take away anything bad or negative from your comment! 🙂 But if you want me to delete or edit anything for you, just let me know. *hugs* (I was in the process of replying to you when you left this comment, so I’m not sure if there are crossed wires or not too. 😉 )

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Hi Christina,

*hugs* I hope your heath improves.

Great point! I’ve often thought that being genuine was a big key to showing who we are and your idea of honesty is the same thing. I’m a naturally private person, so I don’t talk about my day job or family here, but what I do share comes from a place of deep honesty and genuineness. I share my struggles, even if I don’t go into the gory details. 🙂

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you and your stories to find their way in the world! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Sharla Rae January 8, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Another great blog Jami. I struggle with this all the time. I love humor and can be a bit of nut but I know that people who don’t know me often see me as quiet and thoughtful. I keep thinking, oh, boy if they only knew the “real” me. Ha! But none of that makes it easier to brand my myself. I still have a lot to learn in this department.

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Hi Sharla,

Oh, I’m a total dork, so I understand. 🙂 I do a lot of serious and thoughtful posts, but I’m a goofball in many ways too. LOL! *fist bump to the fellow nut* Thanks for stopping by!

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Karen McFarland January 8, 2015 at 4:53 pm

Hi Jami! What an excellent way to describe our brand. It’s a toughie too. So many of us may not be comfortable in our own skin. So to recognize our strengths and who we are can be difficult. But you really simplified the process. I think if we’re honest, our personality with shine through our brand. Yet, I doubt myself everyday. lol. Thank you for writing this post! 🙂

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Jami Gold January 8, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Hi Karen,

Good point about not being comfortable in our own skin! I know that’s how I was throughout much of my younger years. Maturity and figuring out the “who do I want to be” questions helped a lot with that. 🙂 Good luck working through these issues, and thanks for the comment!

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Killion Slade January 8, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Hi Jami! I figured out my brand quite a while ago when I realized that I could never be as scary as the scariest horror writer, nor the most romantic. I wanted to fall somewhere in the middle and serve it up on a platter of fun. When I created the tagline of “Where Scary Can Be Funny!” that was me to the core.

I’m one of those really weird sickos who laughs at life, especially when things go wrong. When I’m in a haunted house, my defense mechanism is laughter. The emotions between laughing, crying, fear and {sex!} are very similar – they get the emotions riled and the adrenaline a pumping!

I have learned that with all that is awful in this world, I try to maintain an inner peace which all ways reflects in my brand. I purposefully stay away from politics, religion, and a lot of current events simply because my brand isn’t the platform to discuss the issues. Many times people will become offended if I turn their very serious topic into a funny, but it is the only way I can process it internally.

If I choose to take on a controversial topic in a story, then I want readers to know they are safe to explore it with me. I’ll look at both sides, play a devil’s advocate with my characters, and even question the bad guy to learn if they are right. A different POV can shed new light.

Kindness is my guide in every decision I make in my personal and business life, because at the end of the day I want a person to walk away from the experience they with me and say – wow, that was nice. I simply do not wish to work with anyone who is not kind. There’s no room for that in my life. So when my characters experience these scenarios, the emotional impact is huge. My brand has defined me and has made me a better person over all. 🙂

Thanks for such a fabulous post! Always a pleasure 😀

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Jami Gold January 9, 2015 at 8:21 am

Hi Killion,

I love your description of your brand! I’m one of those who can laugh at inappropriate times, just because the emotions are uncomfortable, so I can relate to the idea of laughing in a haunted house. (Er, in fact, I probably have done just that. 🙂 )

I also love how you’ve consciously decided to stay away from many controversial topics–not just because of the “brand tarnishing” aspect, but also because of the desire for inner peace. I’m much the same way, and like you, I enjoy exploring those gray areas in life and in my stories.

“My brand has defined me and has made me a better person over all.”

Yes! If we go through these questions and figure out that we want to be a “better” version of ourselves, that means we have to be that person. So I’ve appreciated the opportunity to ditch the parts of me I didn’t want to keep. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your great insights!

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Julie Musil January 8, 2015 at 10:24 pm

It’s weird…I’ve never given any thought to branding. I guess I just am who I am, and write what I write, which does seem to have a certain brand (by accident!)

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Jami Gold January 9, 2015 at 8:22 am

Hi Julie,

LOL! Yep, you’re a genius who figured out that your brand is just being you. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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Emerald O'Brien January 9, 2015 at 8:10 am

Thanks for this great post Jami! I asked myself the questions you posed again and it reinforces what I’ve been creating for my brand. Expect Mystery, Suspect Everyone.
In the first part, I literally say what I write, and then it’s just a play on words for the rest because I love unpredictable stories with twists.
Suspense is key to me in reading and writing, but I like to think a bit too, and guess whodunit. Trust is also an underlying theme in my books, so it works for that as well.
You’ve done a great job at creating your brand. I also look to other authors like you to help me incorporate mine into everything I can.

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Jami Gold January 9, 2015 at 8:23 am

Hi Emerald,

That’s a great tagline! And it goes well with what you’ve defined for yourself. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your answers!

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Deborah Makarios January 12, 2015 at 3:06 pm

That tapping sound you hear is me nailing the freak flag to the mast 🙂
I read Kristen Lamb’s blogging book “Rise of the Machines” and worked through some of the exercises in that, which led to an entirely new ‘About’ page, and a new blog motto: The Eccentric Ethic and AEsthetic.
But a brand for me as a writer? I dunno. Possibly the closest I’ve thought of is “Old-Fashioned Fruitcake” which isn’t exactly exact…

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Jami Gold January 12, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Hi Deborah,

LOL! Yep, Kristen and I are on the same page about being ourselves and genuine with our branding. I think some of those blog-brand exercises you did with that would help you here, at least in giving you a perspective to dig into deeper. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Nicole Evelina January 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm

Great post, Jami! I’ll be linking back to it on my own blog when I write about my personal mission statements for the genres I write in. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but your connection to brand made me realize I need to commit it to writing. Thanks as always for your wonderful posts.

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Jami Gold January 17, 2015 at 8:44 pm

Hi Nicole,

I’m happy to help! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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P.D. Workman February 8, 2015 at 9:24 pm

I wrote for decades and didn’t publish. It wasn’t until I started to publish that I had to try to qualify what it was that I was writing, and why. What was the common thread? Why was I writing, other than for my own enjoyment? I started to go through each book, identifying what it was about and why I had written it, what place it had come from inside me, in order to figure out my ‘brand’.

I write riveting young adult and suspense fiction about mental illness, addiction, and abuse.

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Jami Gold February 9, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Hi P.D.,

Those are great questions to ask yourself while trying to figure this out. 🙂 Sounds like you have a good handle on your brand! Thanks for sharing!

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