Three Branding Lessons From a Grammy Award-Winning Violinist

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If you think the prices you can charge your clients depend entirely on your skills and the quality of your services, you’re dead wrong. Having killer skills is a prerequisite to being successful in the marketplace, but surprisingly enough, those skills can have little to do with what your customers pay you.

Moreover, if your website doesn’t project the right kind of image and speaks the right sort of words to your clients, you’ll be left playing the “cheapest price wins” game, and never be able to charge what you’re really worth.

The difference between hearing crickets and hearing your account cha-ching all day long is your brand.

Every business owner and entrepreneur needs to get right the following three brand elements to get ahead: context, perception, and priorities. And because talking about online branding and website presentation can sometimes feel a little abstract, we will use real-life experiments to see exactly how these three factors can affect your brand and your prices, and how you can successfully incorporate them into your overall website plan.

The Subterranean Musician

Joshua Bell is the Grammy Award-winning violinist who played the Oscar-winning score in the movie “The Red Violin.” In 2007, after a couple of full-house, standing-room-only concerts, with the “cheap tickets” going for $ 100 a pop, the virtuoso fiddler teamed up with a Washington Post reporter to conduct an experiment.

Exchanging a formal concert suit for jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, Bell set up at a corner of L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington DC and played part of his concert program while he stood next to a trash can. Both reporter and musician wanted to see whether people going by would recognize the quality of the playing (even if they didn’t recognize the musician) and whether they would stop to enjoy the music.

1. The context of the experience

What do you think happened that cold January morning in DC? Surprisingly, only a couple of people stopped. The man who has been said to “play like a god” barely got some spare change for his efforts.

Did Joshua Bell play any worse that morning than during his evening concerts? Nope.

Was everyone who happened to pass him by tone-deaf? Again, no.

The problem was not the “service” or “product” but the context. People weren’t at the subway station to enjoy the music. They were furiously shuffling in and out of subway cars, trying to get to work on time, thinking about their big presentation, and planning out the day ahead of them. A busy subway station during morning rush hour is hardly the right context for classical music.

Context frames everything, including the value we ascribe to something. And this same rule of context applies to your website.

With so much emphasis given to online content these days, we’ve forgotten the importance of context. But the right context is what determines the value of your services to your customers.

If your website looks completely amateurish, with half the buttons and links on it not working, and everything simply thrown together willy-nilly—just so you have some content—then you’re practically placing your business next to a trash can in a subway station. Will anyone pay you $ 100 to “play” for them?

Nope—most people won’t even throw a dollar bill your way. For your website to function as a successful base for your online business, it must provide the right professional (and professional-looking), high-value context that will frame your high-quality services or products.

2. Perceptions and expectations

Seven years after the original experiment, Joshua Bell returned to the subway in 2014 to try his luck again. 

This time, Bell made some changes.

Instead of jeans and a T-shirt, he put on on a neat black shirt and ditched the cap. He also took along with him nine students from the National Young Arts Foundation. The classical “orchestra” set up its impromptu concert not next to a trash can but in the main hall of Union Station.

This time, people noticed. Not because they knew who Bell was. And not because they remembered reading a story about a classical violinist in the metro from seven years ago.

People took notice because their perception of Bell and his music was different the second time around. This violinist was a well-dressed musician, accompanied by young talent, playing in the main hall of a station at lunch time, and someone who had obviously gone to great trouble to delight passing audiences. Still not the best context for classical music, but the performance commanded respect and attention, and raised the audience’s expectations.

Same goes with running an online business. It’s not your skills necessarily that will make the difference between getting paid $ 10/hour and $ 100/hour, but the perception your clients have of you. When people don’t have the chance to meet you in person, your online presence will form the basis of their perception of you and set the expectations for your future relationship.

Does your website look like the same old same old and your copy read like some corporate faceless machine typed it up for the frigid-hearted? Then expect to be rewarded with some same old frigidly low payments, too.

Your customers have to perceive your special value first to be willing to pay a special price later. High-quality and professional, of course, are not to be confused with formal. If your style is silly or whimsical, then by all means show that. But show it through high-value graphics, professional pictures (of you sticking your tongue out), and intriguing yet colloquial copy captivates the attention of your ideal clients.

3. Priorities

We’re all busy in life. And we all have lists of priorities that help us make it through the day and crash on the couch in the evening with some traces of sanity still left. And if something’s not topping our list of priorities at a particular moment? We’ll simply ignore it. And this is exactly what happened to Joshua Bell in his first experiment… At 7:15 in the morning, “enjoying some nice violin music” was on no one’s list of priorities.

The second time Bell took to the subway, however, he played at 12:30PM—right in the middle of everybody’s lunch break—when most passersby were looking for a way to clear their heads before returning to the office.

Your clients are busy people, too. So busy in fact, that they may have never stopped to consider the benefits of your products or services to their lives or businesses.

Even though you understand how you can help your clients and why they need to hire you, that doesn’t mean that they do, too. It doesn’t matter how unrealistically low you price your services; if people don’t see the benefit in what you do, they won’t buy. Like Bell playing at 7:15 in the morning, you’ll be completely ignored by everyone.

To communicate your true value to your customers, you first have to understand their priorities, and then position your services accordingly. Targeting young, stressed-out moms? Show them how you can help boost their confidence and restore their sanity. Targeting budding, overwhelmed entrepreneurs? Show them exactly how your services can put their business on the map. Targeting busy, successful business people? Show them how you can save them tons of valuable time.

Prioritize your message according to the benefits for your clients—not the features you’re selling—and they’ll pay whatever you charge—no questions asked.

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Getting paid what you’re worth is a complicated business. In fact, it’s all about what you show. If no one understands your true value or how exactly you can help them solve a problem, you’ll be stuck in low-price land forever.

No matter your skills and talents, the way you brand yourself and your business online plays a huge role on how your ideal customers perceive and reward your value. When you present your skills and services in the right context, create the right perception about the value you can offer, and match the priorities on your ideal customers’ stay-sane list, you’ll be golden.

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