Business Trends
Building Your Upscale Portrait Clientele

Photos © Sandra David, Fine Art Photography, 1999

The Sandra David project began in 1992 when David Rigg and Sandra Crebbin formed a company for marketing their fine art images in galleries and in print.

David G. Rigg is a former Navy photographer with secondary training as a photojournalist and multimedia specialist and taught intelligence and surveillance techniques at the fleet intelligence center in San Diego, California. Rigg joined Professional Photographers of America in 1990 and was PPA Certified in 1992. He received his Fellowship from Professional Photographers of California in 1993 and the PPA Photographic Craftsman degree award in 1998.

Sandra K. Crebbin owned a retail photographic operation in Yreka, California and then a full-time portrait studio. She relocated from Northern California to Southern California in 1993. Part of the PPA traveling loan collection, Crebbin's work was displayed at the EPCOT Center in Florida and she was awarded the Fuji "Master-piece" in 1998. Both Crebbin and Rigg conduct workshops and lectures for professional associations.

Today, Crebbin and Rigg reside in a 4000 square foot custom home in a suburban area of Southern California. With a layout that provides for complete separation between living and client areas, it is ideal for marketing the upscale portrait experience. Located in one of the oldest upscale neighborhoods, Crebbin and Rigg have turned their 3/4 acre lot into a portrait park. It is filled with gardens and landscaping specifically designed to enhance the client's environmental portrait experience by providing a private, peaceful setting in which to explore a subject's personality.

For many photography consumers, portraits have become more commonplace and less a valued experience. It is the classic chicken and the egg problem. Which came first, the high volume retail store portrait studios or the consumer's demand for quick and inexpensive photos of their kids? This puts most photographers in the impossible situation of competing with the retailers or finding their own corner of the better paying upscale market. As the retail outlets continue to devalue the portrait experience (and the perceived value of the product) the average portrait photographer must turn toward either the upscale market or down to compete with the retailers.

Crebbin and Rigg decided to target the upscale market from the start. The Sandra David clients are mostly business owners and white-collar professionals of above average net worth. They are ordinary hard working, successful people who are very careful how they invest their disposable income and look for value and exceptional service. Rigg says, "Until recently, studio owners of average competency have been able to make a comfortable living by targeting the middle segment of the market through discount oriented promotions. These `loss leader' promotions generally work on the principal of thirds. One third of the respondents will make purchases that will pay for the promotion and make up for the third who will `ace' the promotion. The final third will make above average purchases and provide the profit structure and become loyal, repeat clients. The Sandra David concept is to dump the two thirds that drain your creativity and profit margins, and concentrate on the third that value what we do and are willing to invest in it."

Marketing to an upscale clientele is not a new area; many other types of businesses take the time, energy, and attention to seek out this particular demographic. Start with a profile of your typical client, including their location, job title, salary, marital status, and number of children. Then identify your opportunities in the community to reach these clients. These will include advertising, direct mail, joining organizations, working with local schools. At all times you need to keep in mind your objective is to have your target client call you. Your self-promotion goal is to make your portrait-marketing message unique and special. Rigg, "We don't really care what the studio down the street is doing. Most likely, they are going out of business anyway and we certainly won't let them drag us down with them by devoting any energy or thought toward them. Some of the worst advice I can think of is `know what your competition is doing.' Most people in setting up a new photographic business will go to every studio in town and pretend to be a prospect, just to get a price list. The problem with this is twofold; one, it is just plain unprofessional. The other problem is that what someone else charges is totally irrelevant to what you need charge! Your overhead and cost of sales and your expected return on your investment are what counts. As Tom Winninger says, `So what if they can get $500 off on a Chevy down the street, we're selling a Lexus.'"

One of the most successful marketing techniques for the upscale clientele is "lifecycle selling." This is a marketing strategy that pre-sells clients to return at their next "cycle" of life for another portrait. They become lifelong clients. For example when clients come to Sandra David about senior portraits, they are already pre-sold through the studio's reputation, marketing, and telephone consulting. Since a hard sell isn't necessary, the discussion (in a relaxed, homelike environment) moves to the beautiful family portraits on the wall. A future sale is born! This leads the Sandra David clients to make major portrait investments with the studio five to six times in a lifetime. They do not use inexpensive prices to sell or loss leader "specials." When a client asks if they have any specials, Sandra David tells them, "Everything we do is special. What do you have in mind? When can you come for a visit so we can show you some work we have done for other clients and give you all the details regarding having a portrait created?" It is a marketing technique that qualifies and closes the sale. Rigg, "Truth is, we don't get a lot of the `How much is an 8x10?' calls anymore. The types of people who are drawn to our marketing are the types who are intelligent enough to know that it won't be cheap. Having a reputation for being expensive is the best thing that can happen to you. So, in a sense, the marketing itself becomes a screening device. That gold signature in the corner of the stretched canvas, in its exquisite frame that Crebbin picked out, has become a status symbol in finer homes and offices in the community. We find that sometimes the value of the investment is often exaggerated when inquired about by the owner's friends and associates. Occasionally we will get prospects who are relieved to find out that it is `only going to cost a few thousand dollars' for what they really want."

Sandra David's tips for a more successful portrait business:
· Choose to be in the portrait business. Not for family or friends but because it is something you are pas-
sionate about.

· Connect with your clients. Your ability to relate on the spiritual level will influence the viewer's emotional response and is the very essence of sales.

· Consistency and an investment in your self-promotion and in your image are vital. Sandra David markets from a "king of the hill" market position.

· Consider your pricing carefully. Don't underprice yourself! The last thing you want is to have people calling you because you're inexpensive. It will be counterproductive to your efforts if you build up a referral chain based on price, only to kill it off when you raise your prices to the level that they need to be at to sustain your efforts.

· Continue to learn to earn with business and photography workshops and classes. Rigg, "Professional image-makers have to consistently balance their business and photographic skills to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. Charles Lewis said it best, `Take the time to learn the things you don't want to know!'"