I think it's safe to say that this term and "branding" are the 2 new show business buzz words of the early 21st Century. As actors, we find ourselves bombarded with articles and advice on how to effectively market ourselves. But how much of it is really necessary, or effective?
I always use effectiveness as a litmus test. Whether it's martial arts, or this world we call show business, there can be a lot of wasted energy with little payoff. The trick is figuring out how to get the most bang for your buck, or the most power with the least amount of energy.
When I was a beginner, I wasted a lot of energy in mass mailings, drop-offs, and other various unsolicited submissions that were the equivalent of throwing ninja stars at the side of a barn. Since I wasn't aiming at a target, it was a nice delusion to think that I was being "pro-active".
Sun Tsu stated in "The Art Of War" that one must "know thy enemy and know thyself". I think most new actors would do well to heed this advice. Everyone knows about knowing "thy enemy", or targets -- ie. agents, managers, casting directors, directors, producers, etc. IMDBpro is the perfect resource to do your online intelligence gathering. There's lots of other ways out there, like Google Alerts and trade publications, so suffice to say I don't really need to cover this stuff. But it's the other part of Sun Tsu's quote that I need to address.
To "know thyself" means to know where you fit into this big puzzle of show business -- your strengths, weaknesses, goals -- what do you want to accomplish? "To be a working actor" isn't a strong enough reason, nor does it help you know yourself. You need to have a specific, distinct focus in this business, not just a goal of "winning an Oscar". Everything you do should move you forward to that strategic goal. This is where "branding" comes in.
What the gurus call "branding" isn't really where you're typecast, rather, it's the image that you create for yourself. Your headshots, reel, website, postcards, etc. should communicate this image. Anything that doesn't fit should be eliminated. For example, my focus is on action, martial arts and comedy roles, primarily in film. My materials support this focus. Though I am called in for other roles that don't fit my focus, I look at that as a fringe benefit -- I'm not spending any extra energy chasing them.
There are those that will tell you that you need to adjust your branding to fit the way the industry sees you. I'm here to tell you that will fail. Ultimately you may come to resent the types of roles and projects you're offered. And that will lead to becoming a bitter actor and a major killjoy on a set, which will end up in your perpetual unemployment.
Again, you need to have an ultimate focus. Not an unrealistic goal, but one that can be achieved. If I wanted my ultimate goal to be a teen idol, then I would definitely fail, since I'm way out of that demographic. I love action roles, but another unrealistic goal would be to be cast as Superman. My persona and energy just don't fit in with the Man of Steel. Any action role for a big invincible hero would also fall flat. But I want to do action roles! Does this mean I have to give up that dream?
If your ultimate focus can be molded to fit YOU, then there's nothing stopping you. Going back to myself, if I mold my goal based on Jackie Chan type characters instead of Bruce Lee characters, I then have a better chance of succeeding. Bruce's brand was always presented as a superman type, and this was true to himself, since he had incredible speed and strength. Jackie was always depicted as an everyman thrown into extraordinary circumstances, often with comedic results.
It should be noted that in Jackie's early career, Golden Harvest attempted to pass him off as the next Bruce Lee. If you look at those early movies, you see Jackie trying to come off as an invincible hero. It didn't work, because it wasn't being true to his own persona. Jackie realized this, and changed everything, taking advantage of his Cantonese Opera training to use his comedic talents. His heroes showed a vulnerability that resonated with audiences and catapulted him to the top of Asian cinema. To date, he is the biggest star in the world.
Bruce Lee once said that "to express oneself totally...is very hard to do". But if you can achieve that, then rest assured, you WILL find your place in this art form.
P.S. - If you've never read The Art of War, I highly recommend it as many business professionals around the world use it as a handbook.
The Art of War by Tzu, Sun/ Bu (Google Affiliate Ad)