The Value of Exploring Your Brand Identity
A successful association board of directors regularly asks difficult questions about its organization. Three questions in particular are arguably the most challenging, important and provocative to explore. Taken together, the three provide a disciplined and strategic approach to defining an association’s brand identity. They include:
  • Who Are We?
  • What Do We Stand For?
  • How Do We Deliver Value?
If thoughtfully considered, the answers to these questions can ultimately help shape an association’s brand identity by providing insights into what is working and what is not within an association. They also serve as windows through which a board can see what is happening in the marketplace. Additionally, the answers provide a board an opportunity to refocus on what matters most.

“Brand identity is an empty glass that you fill with meaning. You have an opportunity to decide how you are going to fill that glass. What you fill it with is your unique value,” said Dan O’Brien, chief executive of Tech Image, a national, award-wining digital PR agency that helps clients tell their stories more efficiently and effectively. “Organizations succeed when they deliver unique value to members. In the absence of a clear value that members can see and experience, they will make up their own.”

According to O’Brien, who has been partnering with boards for 30 years, examining and honing an association’s brand identity is a systematic process that boards should revisit every two or three years in conjunction with a strategic planning review. He outlined three components for an effective brand identity review:
  1. Asset inventory – Complete a comprehensive inventory of association classes, training curriculums, certification programs, media, workshops, conferences and thought-leadership programs that are currently offered to members.
  2. Membership survey – Ask your members what is important to them. This data, in most cases, will serve as a litmus test to see if members are realizing the value the association believes it is delivering.
  3. Marketplace research – What are the latest trends in your industry? What are other associations showcasing at their conferences? How are they shaping their programs? How are they leveraging digital technology and social media?
Based on what the data reveal, O’Brien said boards have multiple paths from which to choose. In some cases, it could be improvements to existing program offerings. In other cases, it could mean new member educational offerings. And — in other cases — the data could prompt an entire revamp of an association’s strategic framework (vision, mission, priorities, etc.).

Creating New Value for Members of ABCGN

In 2012, the board of the American Board of Certification for Gastroenterology Nurses (ABCGN) commissioned a brand identity process to assess perceived member value of its Certified Gastroenterology Registered Nurse (CGRN) credential and certification exam. The data revealed that many ABCGN members were opting not to pursue certification, in part, because they were discouraged by the challenging exam. There was also a lack of understanding of the benefits of certification.

As a result, ABCGN launched a “Faces of CGRN” campaign in 2013 that featured four GI nurses who shared their stories of pursuing certification, studying for the exam and the professional value they realized from achieving certification. Thanks to these efforts, ABCGN closed its fall 2013 exam registration with a 23 percent increase compared to fall registration from the previous year.

ABCGN “filled its glass” by promoting the value of certification for its members, encouraging them with real stories and providing new study tips for the exam. Now, members better understand the value of certification, and they are more likely to pursue it.

For IOUG, Value Equals Independence

Founded in 1993, the Independent Oracle User Group (IOUG) is one of many different Oracle user groups around the world. IOUG represents the voice of Oracle database and technology professionals, and it delivers education, best practices and networking opportunities to more than 25,000 members.

A recent brand identity project assessed IOUG’s membership and analyzed the greater marketplace to gain a better understanding of its current position and how IOUG should be positioned for the future. The study revealed that IOUG had a unique opportunity to market its already established voice, which is independent, acutely focused on the user and well-known within the IOUG community, to newer Oracle technology marketplace members. IOUG’s value originates from its ability to offer context on Oracle content and technologies at a peer-to-peer level.

“When we looked at the data, we discovered that IOUG had a unique opportunity to underscore the value of its independence,” O’Brien observed. “As a result, IOUG shifted its focus to stress an independent voice and adjusted its strategic framework to align with this direction.”

Tips for Boards

Every association strives to be clearly understood by its members. A disciplined brand identity process is one of the most effective ways to test that level of understanding. For boards considering implementing such a process, O’Brien offered the following suggestions:
  • Be proactive – Do not wait for something to happen to your association, industry or profession. It is not uncommon for boards to initiate a brand identity process in response to a significant leadership change, a membership decline or an industry disruption.
  • Be open minded – “Many boards believe that they already know what their members want or need,” O’Brien said. “But, when you do the research and test it against what the market is doing, it often tells a different story.” A willingness to adapt to a dynamic marketplace will help you serve members more effectively.
  • Be patient – A thoughtful brand identity process may take several months to implement and complete. Additionally, as boards review data, review strategy and implement changes, it may take time to assess the true impact.
When an association’s value is clear, compelling and differentiated, it can create laser-like focus and consistency. It can align strategic planning and priorities, shape program development, influence training and educational curriculum and drive programming such as social media and thought leadership. Your members will clearly understand who you are, what you stand for and how you uniquely deliver value they can get only from you.


  Dan O'Brien serves as executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Tech Image, a national, award-winning digital public relations firm. O'Brien is responsible for guiding client branding and strategic message development. In addition, he provides strategic counsel, including PR and marketing practices, to Tech Image's clients to help them accelerate awareness and achieve their strategic business objectives.
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