Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Branding Your Association

The topic of branding is one of those that, for awhile, seemed like it would be another flash-in-the-pan idea that, like many marketing concepts, would be destined for the ash bin of distant memories. Branding, though, is a concept that equates with survival. Whether you consider your association's marketing initiatives to be components of your branding efforts or not, the fact is that is exactly what they are.

That having been said, here are some ideas you can use to help ensure that your association's brand is maintained, nurtured, and made to thrive.

Excel in at least one area: Even if your association is small and poor, devote your limited resources to an area of performance at which you can excel. Your objective is to be better in this area than any of your competitors. If your association is a state professional society of healthcare administrators, for example, you might excel at getting the best and the brightest of your members to write "best practices" articles on healthcare administration in your state's regulatory environment. Work to get your members "pumped up" about writing for you. That area of excellence can then be transferred to other areas. In our example, the area in which the association excels is not its "best practices" articles; it's the ability to get members on board as working contributors. That can be used exceptionally well in many, many areas.

Be realistic about your goals: The state professional society I mentioned above has no realistic chance of becoming the nation's premier society of healthcare administrators, so it should not waste its energy trying. Set stretch goals...goals that are difficult, but attainable...but don't set yourself up for failure. The state society's goals might better focus on something more achievable...like becoming a primary resource to state regulators and legislators for expertise in healthcare administration.

Stay the course: Once you decide how you will present your organization to its audiences, stay with it. Stick with your plan. This principle says something important about your marketing plan: don't be too quick to adopt it. Spend plenty of time making your plan, testing your plan, and executing your plan, because it's going to be with you for awhile. Make minor adjustments when necessary, but don't make the mistake of "marketing makeover" on a routine basis. That torpedoes your brand. This is a particularly dangerous zone for associations, with their constantly changing boards and committees. As a staff member, you must make it your mission to keep volunteer leaders on track. As a volunteer leader, you must help and you must avoid the temptation to "make your mark" by leaving a new logo.

Hire people who reflect your brand: The Enabled Youth Association's brand might be impacted in an unexpected way if the receptionist were an elderly man with a lisp, just as a teenager with a nose ring serving as executive director would look odd for Geezers for a United Nation. I'm not suggesting that associations must always hire their demographic, but they should pay attention to how their audiences will react to their representatives and whether their representatives convey the right image. Now, whoever you hire, be sure to train them to present your brand the way you want and expect it to be presented.

Hold title to one really big idea: Wal-Mart rolls back prices; we know that because they tell us every time we see a commercial or an ad. Your association should own an idea that says something impressive about the organization. "The Association of Art Restorers ensures that the history of the world will always be clear in its art."

Put resources behind your big idea: If you've chosen your "big idea" well, you'll be willing to invest time, money, and manpower to it. This is one area in which your brand takes flight; it begins to create an image of the organization in the minds of your audience.

Promote your association and its brand. All. The. Time. Include your logo and, if you have one, your tag line, on everthing. Your literature. Your website. Your business cards. Your collateral material. Your Email. Give your staff shirts with your logo embroidered on them. Encourage your members to put your logo on their websites, letterhead, etc. (Yes, give them guidance on how to use it and how not to use it.)

Obviously, there's much more to branding your association than these few paragraphs can present. One thing is clear, though, and that is that you must pay careful attention to your brand. Don't let your brand emerge out of neglect, because that's a brand over which you have no control.