A model program

Using senior spokesmodels to brand a campaign

By Jeff Kent
Images By Christian Michael Bouldin, Cr.Photog.
First published in October 2004

Where to find the customers for his new emphasis on seniors? Christian Michael Bouldin came up with a strategy: He would involve A-list kids to promote his new seniors portrait product, the Real You Collection.

Branding is what distinguishes you from every shutter-snapping fool who wants to make a buck with a camera.

If there’s one area where branding is paramount, it’s senior photography. Teenagers are all about whatever’s cool. Convincing them that your studio is the bomb is the first step to success in senior portraits.

That’s what Christian Michael Bouldin, Cr.Photog., was doing when he launched a senior spokesmodel program and the Real You branding campaign last spring. Christian Michael Photography, in Gadsden, Ala., had been doing mostly weddings and child portraiture, but the portraiture wasn’t progressing the way Bouldin wanted it to. His sales averages weren’t stellar and the volume of the work was growing chaotic.

“One day as I was photographing a 2-year-old, a red light came on,” says Bouldin. “The child was crying and being difficult. Next, I did a session with a high school senior. The contrast was remarkable. He stood where I told him to stand, did what I asked him to do. I thought to myself, let’s just see how these two sessions turn out.

“The 2-year-old’s session ultimately brought in about $300. The senior session netted $1,000,” says Bouldin.

Changing his market emphasis to seniors was an easy decision. There was just one problem: Where to find the customers? Bouldin needed a branding and marketing strategy to draw this new clientele.

He looked to ideas he’d gleaned from PPA seminars, including those presented by Michael Redford, PPA Certified, M.Photog.Cr., on using high school spokesmodels. He was also mindful of the way name-brand apparel companies commission influential, high-profile people to be seen at all the right places wearing their clothing and accessories.

Synthesizing these ideas, Bouldin came up with a strategy of his own. He would get A-list kids from the class of rising seniors involved in promoting his new seniors portrait product, the Real You Collection.

“The TV-industrial complex marketing of the last century is over,” says Bouldin. Now, “the advertising is in the product— you have to build the marketing into your product.”

Canvassing guidance counselors, principals and youth ministers, Bouldin came up with a list of 54 influential girls at several nearby high schools. These were girls who set high standards both in conduct and academically. He sent each of them a formal invitation to the Real You kickoff party last March at Christian Michael Photography. The professionally catered event was designed like a New York fashion show.

That night, several monitors displayed slideshows, and upbeat club music throbbed throughout. About half of the invitees showed up for the party—a good return in mail marketing. As they arrived, Bouldin photographed each of them.

“It was pretty exciting,” says Bouldin. “We wanted to hit every stimulus. People around here weren’t used to anything like this, so it really made an impression.”

Bouldin also asked two outside judges to the studio to choose the girls who would become the Real You spokesmodels. The judges spoke briefly with each girl, then reviewed Bouldin’s photographs. From the 25 or so girls in attendance, the judges selected one from each of six high schools.

The rest of the process was fairly simple. Bouldin presented each girl with a straight-forward contract that promised a free portrait sitting and a set of images custom-bound in an album from General Products. In exchange, the girls would provide the studio with a list of their peers, and promise to help recruit the next year’s Real You spokesmodels.

As an extra incentive, Bouldin also offered a scholarship program. The studio awarded the girls $5 for each person from her respective school who came in for a session. There was a $10 reward for every person the girls brought in from other schools, new leads whom the studio had not already contacted. The money was held in individual accounts Bouldin set up for each girl.

Dovetailing with the program, Bouldin decorated the windows of his studio with an upscale fashion look. Photographs of the spokesmodels adorn the windows, and the two-tone Real You logo is displayed throughout.

Last spring, Bouldin sent out mailers to the schools and the names on lists he received. The spokesmodels’ faces are on everything.

Response has been excellent. As of late August, senior portrait sessions had increased more than 200 percent over the previous year. Projections indicate the increase will grow to 300 to 400 percent by the time the Real You promotion winds down at the end of October.

Not only have sessions jumped, but sales averages have increased as well. Building on a $500 to $600 average in 2004, Bouldin is now averaging closer to $900 a session. Taking into account the increase in sessions, that’s at least a $30,000 gross sales increase with two months of the promotion still to go.

Part of this sales bump comes from a restructured incentive program that encourages customers to settle on their packages sooner. “We did a study and realized that our typical client was making about five trips to our studio. That’s five trips for one sale. So we thought, ‘Is there any way we can offer some incentives to make the sale initially and limit the number of trips the customer has to make?’ That would be a win-win for us and the customer,” says Bouldin.

The new sales plan encourages earlier purchases by offering bundled collections at more attractive rates. Bouldin doesn’t use the word “discount,” but he makes sure to point out that the up-front purchase of a collection has the session fee built in and provides more images for less money than buying a la carte. Also, collection buyers get a free DVD slideshow set to music, a $155 item if acquired separately. Customers who opt to purchase a collection right away don’t need to select their images. They merely make their collection order and then select the images to go with it at a later time.

With all the success of the Real You Collection and spokesmodel program, Bouldin’s biggest task now is to stay on the cutting edge. “We offer a fashion flair that that the girls find very appealing,” he says. “The challenge is making sure everything matches that sense of style. Next year, the Real You logo will stay the same, but we’re not sure about the other materials. We’re going to study the clothes the kids are wearing. We keep up with the trends and we pay attention to what the hot companies are doing. These companies spend a lot of money designing a brand and marketing style. We borrow and adapt some of those looks for our promotional pieces. It’s always a study.”

To learn more about Christian Michael Photography, visit www.christianmichaelphoto.com.

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