In business school, especially in marketing, there is a lot of talk about competitive advantage. Positioning yourself or your product to achieve competitive advantage in the market place. In the world of art or craft, no one uses words like that. But, an issue that is always able to stir up interest actually may be all about competitive advantage.
Voice. Your creative voice. In the end, finding your own voice, your style, your own unique way of expression is ultimately the best way to create competitive advantage.
Let's step away from art or craft for a minute, and talk about cola, or tissues, or diapers. Do you think of Coke(TM), Kleenex(TM), or Pampers(TM)? Each of these companies created an identity so strong for their products, that their brand name is virtually synonymous with the product name. Certainly, we can all name products that compete with each of these businesses, but they do not spring to mind as quickly as these.
Back to the world of art. Vincent Van Gogh, Monet, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack. Do you get an immediate visual image with each of these names? I do. These artist each have a voice that is strong and recognizable, that in business terms could be called brand identity.
When I started out selling my work, my focus was on technique. I thought it was all about being good at doing something. Well, that only carries you so far. What truly creates competitive advantage in the business of craft is having a distinctive voice. Kim Cavender is actually running a contest right now that is all about this very thing. Identify the artist for the images shown in her blog post.
By developing a strong and distinctive voice, you will not only have your work become recognizable, but, anyone copying your work will be seen as doing just that. There are painters who are masterly at creating technically accurate copies of another artists work. And much can be learned in that process. But, it is the difference between Coke, and the store brand cola. It will never have the same perceived value in the broader market as the original. Sure, there are plenty of people who might be very satisfied with a brilliantly executed copy at a reduced price. But, will the copyist every reach the same degree of satisfaction in the creation of the work as the originator? And, it will never be valued as highly as the work of the originator.
This past weekend, I attended an open house for a school we are looking at for my younger daughter. This school is very unique in it's approach and philosophy. It follows the guidelines of an essential school. Students do not get letter grades. They build a portfolio of work. They get a narrative assessment of their work. And they are evaluated on a gradient of learning....a learning curve if you will. Everyone starts out as "Just Beginning". You are not expected to master the work when you are just beginning. Mistakes are welcome. They are part of the learning process. Things are learned with practice and experience. Eventually, typically over a period of two years, a student will reach a point of mastery, where expectations are met, and they are ready to move onto a higher level.
When we start our in our craft or our artwork, we are just beginning. We practice and refine our skills by copying that which has come before us. Eventually, we may tire of a technique we master, and then move onto another technique and master that. I recently heard an interview with Nick Lowe, the musician, who described this process beautifully. He talked about how as a musician learn, they mimic the work of other musicians whose work they admire. There is something in that artist's work they connect with. Then they move onto another artist, and another, and another. But at some point, they stop looking outside to learn. They take the pieces that they have learned, and start taking parts of them and putting them together in new and different ways. It is not always about reinventing as much as rethinking. Combining things together in a way that others may not have explored. Taking the pieces that speak to your heart, and inspire you, and putting them together in a way that feels right for you.
I think this quote from Marc Chagall sums it up nicely,
"If I create from the heart,
nearly everything works.
If I create from the head,
Where are you on the continuum of just beginning to mastery? Have you begun to discover your competitive advantage?