Years ago I spoke at a conference focused on crafting association business strategies. This was in the late nineties while in the Marketing and Customer Management Practice at PW (now PwC). My work to that point focused on professional service businesses and consumer products. To tell the truth I was filling in for a colleague who fell ill.
The presentation went well but it was the conversations following that stuck with me. In short, I was rocked by the complexities of the industry and the challenges faced by these entities. Associations have always been “up against it”. All share certain issues. After working with four associations in the past two years, we have discovered the following:
Cost Not a Benefit: in many cases, members join to maintain accreditation or there is a penalty for not keeping membership but not necessarily claimable upsides.
The “Nonprofit” Label: it suggests a softer culture, less talented employees than the private sector (but stronger than the public sector!), and lack of depth and sophistication in leadership, management and planning. Let me be clear…this is perception not reality.
Overlap: one only has to look at the marketing and advertising industry to see that an agency in the United States could belong to easily over twenty different associations. Imagine being a retailer or in healthcare and that number is many times higher. This makes it important for associations to differentiate. When you think about it associations are competing against every other association out there and be held to the standards of the best. Also note there are associations for every conceivable group in the world…there are even several associations for associations!
Pricing: of course there is an annual membership but then many other services come a la carte like conferences and training. This turns off members who equate this with a “money grab”.
Results Over Communications: ironically members demand value and benefits but get easily turned off if they are “over-communicated” to and asked to get involved in activities. They press “delete” or toss materials and begin to become jaded. Associations are then caught trying to demonstrate value…subtly and succinctly.
These issues bring value, relevance, and differentiation into question. No one knows this better than the leadership of associations. The cool news is increasingly associations are addressing their business and brand strategies and proving to be extremely progressive and inventive in the process.
A little side observation here. It has been amazing to work with these organizations because they truly appreciate and value our expertise. Put this into context. Coca-Cola interacts with hundreds of different agencies around the world every day. I know from experience they are treated like commodities. When an association engages a communications agency it is a big deal. This makes the relationship closer, warmer and actually adds more pressure to perform because it becomes very personal.
Branding is a deep intervention into the running of an association and one never to be taken lightly.
Clients approach us because they have lost what first made them unique, relevance is in question, there are negative perceptions, and the brand no longer supports the strategy. This makes the branding effort a deep intervention into the running of the association and one never to be taken lightly. This leads us to the trends in association branding.
Trend One: Brand Story Focus
In all cases we have found that the associations’ stories have become muddled and mixed over time. This is often attributed to trying to serve a varied membership. Different audiences have different interests and drivers. Before you know it the communications even confuses association staff.
Associations all have an amazing story to tell. They exist for incredibly important societal issues, advocacy and do critical work to maintain a network of professionalism. Unfortunately, the day-to-day running of the organization can steamroll the mission. A new brand story reinvigorates and refreshes the association inside and out. One way we have done this is to not only appeal to the association members but to engage the member’s constituents.
The Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals not only had a long name, they were confusing the market with their membership and communications strategy. We worked with them to make radical changes to the association’s business and brand. The brand story appealed to consumers who were making the single biggest purchase in their lives.
Trend Two: More in the Name
The Canadian Society for Training and Development approached us for a holistic revamp and for one specific tangible and visible reason. When abbreviated their name was CSTD. No one wants an STD. All joking aside, for some reason associations love four and five letter names. This started in the 1950’s and sadly continues.
Over time long names are reduced to an acronym and lose most meaning. Staff gives up weeks of their lives spelling out the name. We took the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals to Mortgage Professionals Canada. Consider the length of these others:
- NACVA (National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts)
- ASHRA (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers)
- NPES (The Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies)
This list and acronyms can go on and on…and they do. A very cool development in association naming is to make it actionable. This approach forces the new name to jettison geographic references (American, Canadian, National) and organization type (Society, Association, Foundation, Council, Institute, Federation, Committee, League). Stand Up to Cancer, Take Root, Open Knowledge, Charity: Water, Ambitious About Autism are among the examples of actionable names. These names have more personality but still carry a descriptive element.
Trend Three: Looking Good
If long names originated in the 1950’s then we own association brand design to the 1970’s. So many still look like that decade and suggest shag carpet, The Partridge Family and wide-leg pants. I always bring up the Canadian example of Participaction. This federally funded national association that encourages fitness looks terribly fatigued (and is ripe for a refresh).
Thankfully associations are now not only seeing the value in more confident and more engaging logos (remember…a brand is not a logo) but are building inventive systems of visual communications. Another little aside here. We always advise them to stop using stock photography. It exponentially adds a cheesy factor and associations should profile their own members to humanize and personalize the organization.
So many of association logos look 1970’s and suggest shag carpet, The Partridge Family and wide-leg pants.
This is all good stuff but needs to be backed by changes in business strategy and member services. We did this for Mortgage Professionals Canada. Their system quickly became an emblem of trust and professionalism for an organization whose membership is responsible for over $70 billion in mortgages each year.
We have to give a shout-out to Hulse & Durrell who has done great work in the sports association area. They took the Canadian Swimming Association to Swimming Canada and visually incorporated swim lanes. They have cornered the great white north’s sports market working with Equestrian Canada, Curling Canada, Team Canada, and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Trend Four: A Different Mindset
Associations are more active in brand communications now that they know how to get more benefits from the investment. They are focusing on bold clarity and more of a commercial mindset. The goal is to super-please existing members, appeal to member constituents, and grow the overall membership.
Associations are big business even if they are non-profit so their brands have to communicate importance, criticality and a clear direction. We assisted the Institute of Communications Agencies to re-engage their membership. This involved speaking of higher-order benefits in the marketing and advertising industry proving that even communications professionals need help.
Lastly, Some Association Branding Considerations
Branding or rebranding cannot solve everything and it can be highly disruptive if not well managed. If you are considering such a project then consider these considerations (and do not hate us for this sentence…we just want to make sure you are still reading):
Resources: time, staff and money are considerations for any project in any organization but there is one difference with associations. They tend to take longer. As well, staff are taxed and budget is always an issue.
Competing priorities: associations have many initiatives going on at any one time and these dependencies and interdependencies must be identified. A rebrand should be considered not only to refresh but when the association strategy is significantly changing and/or major initiatives are coming on-stream.
Decision-making: a selfish but mutually important area is decision-making. From experience we now clearly spell out how decisions will be made regarding the branding. No one wants confusion when it comes to the moments-of-truth.
Buy-in: the value of branding is a constant discussion in these engagements. The board and members will quickly let you know if they think funds spent on branding are questionable. These projects require a focus on stakeholder management not only for input but to ensure commitment throughout.
Branding associations is quite simply fascinating and highly rewarding. It is gratifying to introduce strategic principles founded in the for-profit world and apply them to associations. These efforts will demonstrate that associations are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to branding and marketing. In fact, it is already taking place.