Monday, June 22, 2015

Building and Protecting Your Association’s Brand Is Vital

Brands – whether companies, products or associations – are difficult to create, hard to nurture and easy to destroy.

Recently, the St. Louis Cardinals brand – one of the icons of professional baseball – took a hit when the FBI announced it was investigating whether the Cardinals hacked into the computer system of the Houston Astros baseball club.

For background, read Brand Tarnished, Cardinals Likely to Avoid Economic Damage.

Early in my career, I joined the management team of a sleepy, 40-year-old trade association as part of an effort to dramatically enhance the association’s brand and effectiveness.

The experience offers a case study for other associations.

Industry leaders decided the association needed to grow and develop to better serve the industry. Several leaders earned seats on the national board. Then, they hired an outsider to become the organization’s CEO. During his first 12 months, the new CEO hired an executive management team with diverse experience in all phases of association management. I was lucky enough to be hired as the public relations director responsible for communications PR and the association magazine.

Here are some key points (as I remember them) in our rebranding and rebuilding process:

  • Creating a professional culture including dress code
  • Enhancing communications and public relations
  • Growing key program components
    • Converting the magazine from a 17,000 member-only “house organ” to a 200,000 “controlled-circulation” commercial magazine focused on issues important to those within the industry
    • Enhancing the annual meeting (mostly association business) to educational focused conference & expo with attendance growing from 640 to more than 2,000.
    • Establishing a government relations office in Washington
    • Enhancing public relations & member communications by adding a newsletter, a weekly leader letter and a broadcast news division.
    • Revising and enhancing membership programs
    • Following with laser focus our mission and our industry
Within six years, the association emerged and became known as the premier organization within the industry.

We had another six great years as the association grew and matured.

The commercial magazine reached 300,000 circulation and generated about $3 million in advertising revenue.

Membership grew from 17,000 to more than 32,000.

Then, things began to change. The industry split on policy issues creating dissension within the membership and in the government relations contacts. Membership began a slow decline. State associations began to “go it on their own” even if it conflicted with national policies. To generate cash, the association sold the magazine (and lost access to 200,000+ within the industry.)

All this “tarnished” the association’s brand and reduced its effectiveness. Today, the association has fewer members, less revenue and less clout in Washington.
Fortunately, the association did not have a “Cardinals event” but the brand reduction hurts nevertheless.
  • Who at your association “manages” its brand?
  • Who monitors activities to ensure your brand is not tarnished?
  • Who watches events and activities within your environment so your association’s brand benefits?
By the way, having a great brand does not guarantee continued success.  Just think of Kodak and Blackberry.
Tomorrow, I'll look at how one company is working to enhance its brand with the younger generations.

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