Thursday, December 20, 2012

Four Lessons Associations Can Learn from Radio Flyer’s Little Red Wagons

Growing up in the 1950s I really, really wanted to have a red Radio Flyer wagon. 

I dreamed about it and pestered my parents about getting one for Christmas (probably when I was five or six).

But, with five kids, they couldn’t really afford one. So, Christmas passed.

On my birthday in April, however, my oldest brother took me out to the barn. And, there, gleaming in its red glory, was a Radio Flyer red wagon! What an awesome birthday gift from my family!

This memory flashed back when I read a USA Today story (11/30/12) about CEO Robert Pasin and the “reinvention” of Radio Flyer. 

For associations, this fascinating story shows how an iconic company has worked to reinvent its products so it can thrive in a rapidly changing environment. And innovating to meet changing needs represents a major challenge for today’s associations and nonprofit organizations.

Here are some key points from the article:
  • Radio Flyer has already proved that it can reach outside its own box. Ten years ago, it didn't even make a tricycle. Since then, Radio Flyer has supplanted several top brands and is now the nation's largest seller of tricycles. The near-century-old toymaker is acting more like an upstart, with ambitious plans to do the same with scooters — and, for that matter, just about anything else that has wheels.
  • "Anything a kid under 10 can ride on is fair game for us," says Pasin, whose grandfather Antonio, then a poor, Italian immigrant, founded the company on a shoestring back in 1917. "People expect to find a sleepy, little wagon company. But we're like the Harley-Davidson of scooters. We see a sea of sameness in the scooter category. The trick is not to do what everyone else is doing."
  • One of the two-wheeled scooters boasts rad rear shock absorbers for higher jumping. The other comes complete with an iPod holder and speaker. Watch out Razor. Radio Flyer is no longer flying under the radar.
  • Nostalgia comes first, says Pasin. "Who doesn't remember, as a kid, sitting in a little red wagon with the wind in your hair, the sun in your face and someone you love pulling you forward?" asks Pasin. "We're all about love, warm memories and smiles."
Industries and professions are constantly changing and redefining potential members of the associations serving them.

Legacy associations – and companies like Radio Flyer – need to innovate and constantly reinvent themselves. A decade ago, little red wagons represented 100% of Radio Flyer’s sales. Today they are less than a third of sales.
As you look at your association and its programs/services, ask yourself:
  • Has your “market” (the industry or profession you represent) changed? If so, how? And how might this impact your association?
  • Have the products and services you offer changed to meet your changing membership? Or, are you still offering what you have always offered? 
  • Has your associations and its programs gotten “stale?”
Here are four tips on how you and your association can keep ahead of the curve:
  1. Constantly monitor trends in your industry or profession. Use Google news alerts to uncover news about your industry or profession. Monitor changes in member companies. Use Twitter search as an early warning radar of changes impacting your members or prospects.
  2. Hold annual “reinvention discussions” with staff and volunteer leaders.
  3. Proactively review other sources and professions to see what is happening that might overlap into your profession or industry. FastCompany, Forbes and Harvard Business Review and great sources to follow.
  4. Create an annual process to cull (discontinue) current programs/services that are not working or that consume more resources than they value. (See “sidebar” below.)

SIDEBAR – Tips on how to determine what programs need to go

[Gleaned from an ongoing discussion on ASAE’s Collaborate online communities]
Question/Problem posed by Penny Gold, Chief Executive Officer, Kentucky Society of Certified Public Accountants:
Our staff spends so much time keeping up with the work load that there is little time for team building, creative thinking, membership development and new initiatives. Year after year we add new programs, but rarely discontinue any. I am looking for strategies or tools to help us gather the data to objectively evaluate, prioritize and convince leadership that we need to CUT some of our organization's traditional (i.e., tired) and time consuming programs to make room for a new, streamlined operation. 
  • Start with your members - it's THEIR association. In an electronic survey (or whatever works best for your group) list ALL of your programs and ask them to rate them in terms of value to them. Give them "hints" - do they use the program? does their staff? would they miss it if it went away? Also ask them what's missing from the list...what COULD you offer that you're not currently offering. Take the data to the leadership with a plan to eliminate the "losers", and add the "winners" from the what's missing list. Be prepared, though, to find out that what you (and your staff) THINK are valuable really aren't to your members. Jack Chiasson CAE, Chief Executive Officer. National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies
  • I like Logic Models for program evaluation. Mary Steele Williams, Executive Director, Association for Molecular Pathology
  • Mary Beyers did a great session on just this topic at ASAE Annual and shared a scoring tool and methodology for just this kind of analysis. It's a big part of the work she's shared in Race for Relevance. We've used this tool internally with staff to identify things that should go. The tool is less a in or out mechanism and more a way to facilitate discussion about what should stay or go. You can download the tool from their website ( Michael Hoehn, Executive Vice President, Consulting Management Innovators
  • I would first put together a document showing how much staff time (and any other resources) are spent on each program and/or event. We had staff track their time on a spreadsheet weekly, then compiled them at the end of the year. Multiply it by your pay rates (and add for fringe benefits a percentage of salary) and you will have cost for each program. Too often boards (and staff as well) just assume more and more can be added to the work load. However, data to draw a picture makes for a clearer focus. My mantra: STAFF TIME IS NOT FREE! LET'S SPEND IT WISELY! Jerry Fleagle IOM, CAE
  • Christine Umbrell’s article All the Right Cuts for Association Executives in the November issue of Associations Now may be helpful: With limited resources, launching new products and services means cutting old ones, which has never been associations' forte. Here's how to prioritize programs and jettison the dead weight. It also includes a sidebar with links to a series of short articles we published last year called "How They Stopped Doing That," profiling a few associations that went through the process of ending a major program or service.  Joe Rominiecki, Senior Editor, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership

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