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What Great Brands and Great Associations Do
By David Schulte, Chief Marketing Officer, SmithBucklin

When we think of great brands, those of companies like Apple, Target and McDonald’s come to mind. Their brands provide power and momentum to their businesses in an almost magical way. As consumers, many of us follow these brands. Those we embrace become, in some ways, part of our very identity.

Just think what associations could achieve if they could create more powerful brands. It isn’t an issue of resources. Building a great brand doesn’t require a multimillion-dollar marketing budget, a Super Bowl ad or an NBA star as a celebrity spokesperson. What is required is to focus on branding deliberatively and make something happen with whatever resources are at hand.

The Modern-Day Brand

The concept of brand can be elusive. Seth Godin, the author of the marketing books “Purple Cow” and “Permission Marketing,” recently offered a definition that is understandable and relevant:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.

A brand's value is merely the sum total of how much extra people will pay for, or how often they choose, the expectations, memories, stories and relationships of one brand over the alternatives.

A brand used to be something else. It used to be a logo or a design or a wrapper. Today, that’s a shadow of the brand, something that might mark the brand’s existence. But just as it takes more than a hat to be a cowboy, it takes more than a designer prattling on about texture to make a brand. If you’ve never heard of it, if you wouldn’t choose it, if you don’t recommend it, then there is no brand, at least not for you.

As Godin points out, brand can make the difference when a consumer is presented with alternatives. In the case of associations, the “consumer’s decision to choose” involves things like becoming a member, attending an event and serving as a volunteer. The alternative is non-engagement. And when that happens, those decisions are extremely hard to reverse. In the context of an association, then, branding is about creating a package that drives engagement, prompts action and ultimately creates a presence that is compelling and meaningful for associations. Brands make great things happen. Brands make one excited to be a part of something and demand the value that is offered.

Consumers often line up for blocks when Apple introduces a new product. Some camp out overnight. These consumers haven’t even handled the product yet, but the brand generates an incredible level of benefit of the doubt. Many associations, of course, can often only imagine such a situation. But it can also happen to them, albeit in different ways. Here’s how.

Treat the Industry as a Brand

One way is to treat the industry, profession, community of interest or the cause the association serves as a brand unto itself. The National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), which serves the vending machine industry, did exactly that several years ago.

NAMA was facing challenges that were due largely to an across-the-board, multi-year industry revenue decline. Just as companies with great brands do, the association commissioned research to 1) help them understand their marketplace and their place in it and 2) plot a course for the association that would help the industry. While the research showed that the membership itself was somewhat negative about their collective future, it also showed that the U.S. millennial generation (those born from 1982 to 2004) was a big fan of the industry’s offerings. In fact, given the choice, they prefer vending over drug, convenience and grocery stores. For marketers, the millennials are an extremely desirable demographic, in large part because they truly are the future. They are also very difficult to market to because they are hard to reach and almost impossible to win over.

The association wisely packaged that exciting finding in an attention-demanding marketing program and communicated in creative, high-impact ways how bright the association’s future was. National media were also reintroduced to the industry’s story and many wrote positive pieces about it for the first time in years. Members got more excited about both their prospects and that of the industry as a whole. Case histories of successful vending operators were shared with the media and members. As a result of these efforts, NAMA powerfully reconnected with current members and made new, productive inroads with potential members, consumers, news media and even public officials whose views of the industry impact NAMA members in significant ways. But the key to the overall effort was treating the industry as a brand and making it more relevant, more exciting and more memorable.

Ongoing and “Found” Public Relations Opportunities

Lest you think that such a large-scale effort is required to infuse greater power into your association brand, it is also important to think about the power of smaller ongoing and “found” opportunities (those that land in your lap). As the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) has seen, a regular, sustained association public relations program can deliver extraordinary brand-building benefits.

NSGC works to promote the professional interests of genetic counselors and provide a network for their professional communications. To deliver against the former element, the society created a public relations effort that helps showcase genetic counselors as highly valued professionals in the medical community. That effort initially delivered good results, and then Angelina Jolie announced last May that she was having a double mastectomy because of her high genetic risk of breast cancer. After that found opportunity hit, the public relations impact of the NSGC program jumped dramatically.

By getting involved in coverage of Jolie’s decision, the NSGC media relations team helped tell the world the genetic counselor side of that story in a manner that significantly increased their reach and impact. NSGC leaders were featured in media such as CNN, Time magazine, Good Morning America, ABC News, Parade magazine, Yahoo.com, Newsweek magazine, Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. Jolie’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Jay Orringer, was even quoted in the New York Daily News as saying that Jolie’s double mastectomy had already saved lives. “I’m seeing in my practice already women who are saying, ‘I was inspired to get gene testing.’ I think it’s going to have a tremendously lasting impact.”

The takeaway is that if associations are already engaged with brand-building exercises such as PR, they are not only benefiting from the ongoing work. They are also more likely to be able to capitalize on high-gain, found opportunities. If NSGC hadn’t already begun working on public relations, the Jolie announcement might have passed without the society being able to benefit so greatly from it.

Making a Difference

There is another brand-building focus that can be leveraged by almost every association. According to a 2013 Deloitte study, there is a link between organizations that instill a sense of purpose and their long-term success. In the words of Deloitte Chairman Punit Enjen, “For successful organizations, creating meaningful impact beyond financial performance is becoming the new normal…a business imperative.” Unfortunately, he notes that businesses are still not doing enough to create this sense of purpose. And although associations certainly are, many are not effectively leveraging that to build their brands.

They should be. Associations are doing work every day that makes a difference. Healthcare organizations are improving patient outcomes. Business and trade associations are helping businesses and industries be strong and grow, and therefore they are helping to create and secure jobs. Technology groups are helping to drive change that is improving our lives and our businesses in a multitude of ways.

All associations should not only be proud of the work they do, they should proactively, deliberatively and strategically celebrate how they are making a difference. This can be done through testimonials, telling stories and focusing on associations’ impact both on members — individuals and organizations — and on those their industries, professions, communities of interest and causes ultimately serve. It can also be accomplished by focusing on the macro impacts their industries have on the economy and jobs. By doing so, associations will benefit in terms of member engagement, new-member acquisition, exhibit sales and in a wide variety of other ways. The associations will thrive, thus putting them in the position to do even more good works.

Of course, these three areas are just a start. Associations should regularly assess if they are doing what great brands do and think about what might be relevant and impactful for their own situations. Although associations will never have the resources of a Coach, Amazon or Microsoft, they should nevertheless continuously work to make their brands more powerful. They — and more importantly their members — will reap the benefits.


  David Schulte serves as chief marketing officer and senior vice president at SmithBucklin. Prior to joining SmithBucklin, he spent 26 years in marketing and public relations, representing trade and professional associations, non-profits, government agencies and companies ranging from Fortune 500s to startups.



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JANUARY 2014 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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