Brand new day

Marketing ace Sarah Petty on the importance of a strong identity

By Jeff Kent
Images By ęSarah Petty
First published in April 2006

Sarah Petty divides marketing into two categories, the drip and the hammer: “The drip goes on constantly. The hammer is the bam!”

Growing up in a family of small business owners, Sarah Petty, PPA Certified, always knew she wanted to run her own company. It wasn’t until taking a photography class as a senior in college that the possibility of professional photography entered into the picture.

Still, Petty’s path to opening her own studio was circuitous. Her first post-college job was in the marketing arm of Coca-Cola. She returned to school and earned a master’s degree in business administration, then became head of marketing at a small ad agency. In the late ’90s, Petty started making portraits of her friends’ children during her free time, and realized she had some true talent. She went to photo seminars and workshops, and began to travel to work with other photographers. Before long, Petty had a small but dedicated clientele.

Then, early in 2000, and pregnant with twins, Petty got sick enough to be hospitalized. Clients kept calling while she was recuperating, to wish her well and say they’d put off having their children’s portraits made until she was well. By the time she left the hospital, Petty had a legal pad full of portrait jobs. If all these people had sought her services and were willing to wait, Petty thought, what would happen if she focused her marketing skills on building a photography business? Petty’s twins were born in the fall of 2000, and she began to transition from working at the agency to establishing a career in portraiture. Petty officially opened her studio in August 2001—two weeks before the September 11th attacks. Despite the ensuing recession, Petty’s business in Springfield, Ill., took off.

Now she manages a busy studio that averages about $2,500 per sale. Her clients are well-educated families looking for personalized art for their homes. Petty spends time with each client in a thorough pre-session consultation, then takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half photographing the sitting. She includes archival framing with all of her prints, and unlike many portrait photographers, she sells everything a la carte—that’s right, no packages.

Aside from making great portraits, Petty’s jumpstart owes in part to her early efforts to establish a business identity as an artist who creates timeless family heirlooms. That held a great deal of value at a time when Americans were suddenly and acutely aware of the fragility of life. “You cannot build a strong brand on a weak identity,” she explains. “Brand is tied up with emotion. Brand is how people feel about you. None of that comes together unless you have a strong, consistent identity.”

If customers are going to invest a lot of money with a photographer, says Petty, they want more than a nameless robot to click the shutter button. They want customization. They want a relationship. A photographer accomplishes that only by defining an identity. The next step is wowing potential customers with cogent marketing pieces. What’s missing in many photographers’ marketing is what she calls the “whoa factor,” that take-your-breath-away sort of power that makes people pause mid-sentence and say whoa. If photographers can gain this effect with their photography, then they should strive for the same result with their marketing.

It doesn’t all have to be huge, expensive campaigns either. Petty divides marketing into two categories, “the drip” and “the hammer.” “The drip goes on constantly,” she says. “It’s sending out press releases, getting into the news in local papers, distributing newsletters. It’s constant contact and little bits of news. It’s generally low in cost but high in frequency. “The hammer is the bam! It’s that big event or promotion that knocks people out.” As with any creative enterprise, success in marketing requires a bit of experimentation. “One of the biggest misconceptions about marketing is that there’s a magic combination that works for everyone,” says Petty. “I say everything works or doesn’t work, depending on how it’s executed. That can be scary— people want someone just to tell them what works. That’s why it’s so important to do it, to practice, to try different things. You can’t learn marketing by reading a book.”

“If you don’t hire a professional for anything else, hire a pro to create a logo for you,” says Petty. “Your logo should last you 20 years or more, and it shouldn’t change. Do it right from the beginning. Never, never, never just type your name in a font. “You need a look that communicates what you’re all about, but simple is better. You don’t want a bunch of crazy graphics on your images to distract viewers. Think simple, memorable and something that communicates a message.

“Make sure your logo is created as vector art, in a program like Adobe Illustrator. Vector art can be blown up 1,000 times and look the same. Do not have a logo created in bitmap art like a photograph. When you blow up bitmap art, it gets pixilated. “Your identity is more than your logo. It’s your sign. It’s what your packaging looks like. It’s what your studio looks like. When you’re creating your identity, everything needs to be consistent. “Identify your sustainable competitive advantage. It’s what you do that’s unique and different.

You can’t be all things to all people. Similarly, you can’t create a marketing piece and show all things well. So, look at your target market and determine that sustainable competitive advantage. “When I’m talking to moms of toddlers, I show different work and speak differently than I would to a senior client. My logo and studio packaging remains the same, but I communicate in different ways, playing up distinct skills and capabilities. You can have multiple target markets as long as you communicate appropriately with each.”


1. Try for that added opportunity to sell. When parents come in for a portrait of their kids, I always ask if I can photograph them as well. There’s no risk, and they aren’t pressured to buy anything, but it gives me an extra opportunity to provide another heirloom that could be invaluable to their family down the road.

2. Put your logo on your computer desktop. Have it accessible and ready to send off whenever you distribute any studio materials. Always present the logo in the same way. Basic, maybe, but photographers aren’t doing this.

3. Police your logo. Photographers are adamant about the reproduction of their images, down to the last highlight and detail. However, they’re fine with letting a newspaper set their logo in a completely different font. Don’t let that happen.

4. Use words that evoke emotion. Inspirational quotes work well. For example, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” Words should draw the viewer in. It’s got to be so much more than your photography.

5. Put on an event. Events are an important way for photographers to create excitement and let people know that they’re going places. It’s crazy how much feedback I get after events.

6. Make newsletters about your clients. Don’t make it about you, but what you can do for your clients. Talk about their families and the things you can offer them. Make it speak to the target market.

7. Focus on your target market. In their marketing, photographers often try to be all things to all people. It’s much more effective to break it down by your different target markets. For example, don’t send the same promotional piece to high school seniors that you send to expectant mothers.

1. Be creative. If you don’t have money, maybe you have time. Spend that time developing more creative ideas for marketing yourself.

2. Go small. You can get really nice materials done in smaller quantities. Just mail 100 marketing pieces instead of 1,000.

3. Use the press. Read about seniors of the week, or prominent teens who are featured in the paper. Look up birth notices. Then send these potential customers a hand-written note.

4. Make it personal. Making personal contact takes more time than anything else, but it goes a long way toward establishing a relationship.

5. PDA—public displays of art. Mall displays and hanging images in local businesses are good ways to get your work out there without spending a lot of money.

6. Spread the word. Speak to groups. We talk to new mom groups about how to take better photos. You get in with one of those groups and you’re in with all of them.

7. Network. You can’t build your business until you build your network.

8. Guerilla market. Print up beautiful images on note cards and start sending them to everyone you can think of.

9. Make a trade. Photographers can trade for anything. Trade portraits of a graphic designer’s child for graphics work on your logo or marketing pieces. Local magazines always need great photos. They will trade for ad space, or maybe share their mailing list.

To see more from Sarah Petty, check out

Professional Photographer Magazine - Portraits Professional Photographer Magazine - Weddings Professional Photographer Magazine - Senior Portraits Professional Photographer Magazine - Commercial