Brand Fundamentals for Professional Associations
Associations & Membership organisations are dealing with pressures not experienced before. Gone are the days when people joined their industry’s Association simply out of obligation or a sense of duty.
Even in instances where membership is a legal requirement to trade, the perception of ‘bang for buck’ must exist if the organisation is going to not only survive, but thrive.
The question that is top of mind for members, but rarely voiced for fear of appearing selfish is, ‘what’s in it for me?’.
Membership Organisations Need New Strategies to Thrive
The cost of doing business continues to increase, not just from direct costs such as compliance, but also as a result of increased and more aggressive competition that results in decreased profit margins for each new customer acquisition. Because of these shifts, members scrutinise the value of their membership in the same way they review their telecommunications plans - is there a return on the investment?
The value provided by most Associations is delivered behind the scenes via education programmes, access to key resources and upholding codes of conduct. Many Associations also work tirelessly in lobbying Government to amend legislation to benefit their members.
These are all valuable services, but when the general economic and competitive environment toughens up, so does the mindset of your members. Value for money is judged on whether or not the relationship is contributing to the bottom line. The expectation is that membership is an investment that will pay dividends.
Associations can no longer just provide behind the scenes support - they must promote their membership base to the general market. In effect they need to help their members attract customers.
The Realities Of The New Competitive Landscape
Technology & Mobility:
People are able to create their own support networks and professional communities. The platforms to develop communities can be anything from private LinkedIn groups, to blogs and forums. The social aspect of Association membership is still important, however, the prevalence of social media, including email and forums has allowed people to connect and discuss problems without the need to wait for the next chapter meeting.
The reality is that networking can occur more or less instantaneously, and for very little cost.
What Are You Selling?
I understand Associations don’t ‘sell’ anything in a competitive sense. Especially as most membership organisations operate under a not-for-profit structure where value is delivered in the form of member services and education programs.
Under a traditional model, membership organisations are seen but not heard. The organisation exists for two primary reasons, to uphold professional standards either through educational programs and/or to enforce codes of conduct, and to serve as a forum for members to discuss industry issues, typically at an annual conference.
Until now they’ve had a very narrow target market and not had to worry about the added pressure of ‘sales’ per se (see Figure .1). Nevertheless, when you’re going out into the public domain to champion your brand for member benefit, you will be selling a message and a value proposition. For the benefit of your members a more, dare I say ‘aggressive’ mindset and approach is needed (see Figure .2).
Before you go to market, the questions you must answer are:
What is our value proposition?
What unique competitive difference can our members offer?
How do we shape our message so that it encourages the market to take action?
Brand Strategy Fundamentals
Brand strategy for profit making entities are typically two-dimensional. The organisational brand and the public brand share the same objective whereby both the management culture and brand marketing activities are aligned to attract buyers and make sales.
The problem in going straight into the general marketplace with a member-focused model, is that the brand has not been equipped to support and promote a value proposition that resonates with buyers.
Your audience to this point, (your buyers) have been members.
Profit focused entities have spent years building their brands in marketplaces that are becoming increasingly overcrowded by marketing messages designed to persuade buyers to part with their hard earned money.
Going into these markets is not a dress rehearsal - nor is it an opportunity to dip your toe in the water. You have to prepare yourself and jump!
As an example, brand marketing elements such as your logo have typically been designed to communicate solely with members. A simple logo such as an acronym coupled with an explanation of that acronym works perfectly well for member communications, but it will not do you any favours if you are expecting it to compete with brands that use distinctive names coupled with value propositions that have been designed to work in competitive marketplaces.
Association brands are more and more being expected to promote the values and difference of its membership, but are those brands in there current form up to the job? Reaching out to your member’s customers puts a very different set of demands on the Association’s brand.
Visual and verbal branding can with careful consideration, be a powerful tool that will significantly enhance your value proposition.
Which of the following logos would you take into the public marketplace?
What You Need To Do
Determine Your Brand Strategy
With the right strategy, your Association can help members attract more customers. You first need to determine your brand strategy. The strategy doesn’t have to be complex, it’s simply to decide how to deliver your value proposition to the market, taking into consideration factors such as the target audience, how specific the campaign is and whether the value proposition itself is suitable for either long or short term objectives. Other factors include the size of the market you’re going after and how competitive it is.
Consider the advertisements below for the following mockup Association:
This strategy is designed for markets where competitors are sophisticated, have sizable marketing budgets or have already attained substantial market share. Even though you may not be able to compete with these types of competitors financially, you can certainly build the perception that your level of quality and service are better
(see Figure 3).
Visual branding is a tool that you can use to ensure the playing field is level. This strategy also provides the ideal vehicle for unique value propositions that can’t be copied.
A branded strategy takes the focus and pressure away from the primary (established) brand. It allows you to build sub-brands that are separate to your primary brand. This strategy works well when the Association’s brand, even if it were redesigned may not resonate with customers.
Sub-brands would be designed to be customer facing, which means that the Associations brand can remain unchanged for member communications. Keep in mind that each sub- brand can target a niche market. This allows you to develop a unique value proposition that is communicated via each sub-brand (see Figure 4).
As you can see in this example, this could be a magazine or to highlight your members qualifications. If you employ both the Competitive Positioning and Branded strategies, you can achieve a very powerful and credible position in the market.
A Campaign strategy is suited to situations that are either short term or where the value proposition (message) is limited by time. As you can see in this example, the Association’s branding is limited to an endorsement.
The message is based on legislative changes in that market and the call-to-action is for prospective customers to get in contact with an Association member (see Figure 5).
A Campaign strategy can be used effectively alongside either the Competitive Positioning or Branded strategies.
Becoming Two-Faced To Avoid Deception:
Depending on the size or complexity of your Association, it’s usually effective to create a sub-committee with a dedicated team to manage the initial project. This dedicated team would determine the strategy and oversee the rollout and long-term management of the communications program.
It is highly beneficial to source external assistance with the communications project for the simple fact that third-party objectivity and previous expertise in brand building and value proposition design is priceless at the outset to start the momentum. In most cases, once the various marketing ‘pillars’ are put in place, an internal management team can take over the management of the various initiatives.
Determining Your Value Proposition
A value proposition is determined by prioritising the various tangible and intangible aspects of a trading entity with regard to what will resonate with a target audience. Tangible elements can be anything from products, services or geographic location. Intangible elements are varied and can include customer service, price, the speed of delivery, patents, and knowledge.
Brand marketing and advertising are the instruments used to emphasise the top priorities, to position the trading entity within a market to maximise profit.
The secret to keeping a value proposition relevant within a market is to ensure your priorities are in the correct order. What you communicate and what you frame as your brand via your priorities will need to be adjusted as customer’s expectations change.
Change can be rapid, for example, a new competitor or new legislation, or it can be gradual such as fashions, trends, and tastes.
Understanding the market dynamic and the various customer demands within it are an important step in determining your value proposition.
All your branding, marketing and advertising activities must be sprung from your value proposition. Visual brand guidelines only scratch the surface when it comes to managing brand consistency. You need brand management tools that make it easy for everyone in your organisation to make decisions that uphold your brand values.
Going Global - Value Propositions in International Markets:
Here are some extra points for identifying a unique selling proposition in offshore markets
You first have to understand how your market ticks. For instance, what are the values, what do they consider to be luxury, what do they consider to be budget? What does their society value? The rule is never assume anything.
You have to get on the ground and see for yourself, understand the culture, the people and what they’re receptive to. The process used to successfully brand in your country of origin needs to be applied to those markets you wish to export into.
Divide by region and country, not by continent. When developing your strategy, you can’t ask ‘how will we market in Asia?‘ There are 12 countries in South East Asia alone, each with different cultures, values, laws and economies. Focus on the particular countries and regions you’ll be operating in.
Test your USP in your target markets. Just as you would run focus groups in your local market, you need to test your approach as best you can in your export markets and make adjustments where you can prior to launch. You can’t expect perfection, however you can make sure it’s a success if you prepare.
Attracting & Distributing Leads
When you embark on the journey to position your Association as a trusted symbol and sought-after alternative in the marketplace for consumers, you need to make certain you have the systems and policies in place to cope with these changes.
Making your Association ‘competitive’ for member benefit is not a strategy that can be taken lightly. You will start to attract attention once you commence your marketing and communications programs, so management teams have to be ready from day one to handle situations such as incoming enquiries from your member’s prospective customers.
If you want fireworks and politics, there only needs to be a soupçon of doubt that administration staff have favoured one member over another when passing on a lead. You have enough on your hands as it is without the need to extinguish these sorts of bushfires, so my advice is to fine tune your operational procedures within the same timeframes as your marketing initiatives.
You must have determined a fair and equitable system to distribute leads amongst your membership. A firm policy must be in place that members are aware of, whereby if a prospective customer contacts the Association and asks for a recommendation on who they should speak to for services, that these leads are distributed based on a set of agreed parameters - not the toss of a coin.
A website is an ideal platform to demonstrate a lead distribution policy. Here’s a few points to consider;
Create a separate website that is dedicated to helping customers find a suitable member to contact. This website would be promoted in advertising material and be marketed as a resource for finding members (companies and/or individuals) who uphold the value proposition (the compelling reason why a customer should contact a member). Using the previous examples, the web address could be to provide some separation from the member dedicated website.
Give members the functionality to create and update a ‘member profile’ on the website, but only within set parameters. For example a profile word-count could be restricted to 1000 words to prevent organisational members with in-house marketing departments gaining an unfair advantage over individual members.
The website search facility is the most important consideration. It must never display any ‘default’ content to the customer, such as personal or company names that start with the letter ‘A’ for example. Member details should only display once the customer starts to apply filters to the database. These filters could be member location (State, region, city, suburb), member industry speciality, member qualifications, areas of expertise and so forth.
Ensure ‘next steps’ to make contact with the member are very easy for the customer. Don’t force people to fill in forms. The most effective approach is to clearly list the member’s full contact details. I recommend providing an option to download a standardised PDF profile for each member.
Your brand must be powerful enough to be able to lend credibility to your member’s brands. The visual design of your logo will be important, especially if you expect that your members promote the Association’s brand within their own marketing, which is especially important if you are using either a Competitive or Branded strategy.
Technically, your logo will have to be legible when used in very small spaces, such as a member’s business card.
Your brand is an ‘endorsement’ rather than a masthead in this regard, which is a vital distinction you can’t ignore. As well as being able to stand on it’s own in isolation when used in marketing campaigns, it must also be designed to complement your member’s brands, so there’s quite a tight balance to achieve.
Make sure that your members can readily and easily associate themselves with the brand (or brands) you are building. When your marketing and communication programs gain traction, your brand becomes nothing less than a vital ‘qualification’ that your membership can use to get the benefit of the market positioning and recognition you’ve created for them. Your brand becomes the vital link between your value proposition and your members prospective customer.
Associations that offer education and enforce codes of conduct as part of their charter have usually already developed sub-brands that members can use on their marketing materials that indicate they adhere to those standards. However if the Association’s activities have been reserved to support services, visual branding has probably not been a priority. If this is the case then you need to adjust your visual brand prior to launching any marketing or communications strategies into the general marketplace.
Planning to make changes down the track or when budgets permit will only diminish your efforts and waste money. Keep in mind that whenever you change the Association’s branding, you are also expecting your members to support that change by reproducing their marketing materials. Support your members by getting it right first.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ruffle Some Feathers:
The best way to get traction with your brand building and value proposition is to be noticed by provoking constructive argument and pushing back at what may be perceived in the marketplace as a ‘truth’ created by market leaders.
The art of competitive positioning requires you to not just communicate your own strengths and values, but to actively re- position your competition, albeit politely, by calling them out on so called ‘truths’ they may benefit from. Every industry has perceived truths and they can be anything from a cost saving benefit, geographic footrpint to turnover or head count.
For instance, many luxury brands rely on the ‘truth’ that the more you pay, the better the quality, or the perception in retail sales that the larger the warehouse, the less you’ll pay. As an Association you have access to real data via your members. There’s a plethora of ways you can use this data to tackle perceived market truths head on. You could publish powerful reports that aim to break down perception barriers.
You could also use data to lobby Government or to simply use in your advertising campaigns - the options are endless and effective. You may find that the issues that are affecting your members can in fact be used to help them. Becoming a ‘beacon of truth’ can be a tenable strategy.
Push The Boundaries, But Don’t Break The Law: - Before you start promoting your new value proposition, you have to be clear on the legislation that your Association must adhere to. Some industries have strict laws on what you can and can’t say in advertising , so if you’re unsure it’s wise to obtain legal advice.
Further to ruffling feathers, developing a range of sub brands will make it easier to push your messages and value proposition into your target markets. Sub brands can help to make an organisation appear more sophisticated, and on the practical side by having more than one platform to communicate your position and value allows you to take more risks with your marketing. It is a requirement to take a contrarian position every now and again if you want the market to notice you - a philosophy that the owners of successful profit making brands understand.
A sub brand is essentially a communications tool that is developed for a specific marketing initiative or target audience. They can either be closely aligned to your primary brand, or be designed to have no obvious link to the parent company.
They can be anything from a website to a publication such as a magazine or an online forum. Many associations design a specific logo for their members to indicate they are officially ‘certified’ and meet specific criteria.
A sub-brand that is not closely linked to the parent brand can allow you to effectively test messages and selling points. They afford you to be more aggressive in your approach, without the need to worry about the affect on the primary brand.
Build Your Association, By Association:
The quickest way to build the desired positioning of your brand is to piggyback on a brand that is well known in your target market - and is aligned with your value proposition.
“...in conjunction with BIG4BANK...” is a potent qualification that can give you instant credibility that would usually take years to build on your own.
Fees & Revenue:
As you would appreciate it is a difficult proposition to simply raise fees to cover the costs of your new initiatives. A strategy that can work when raising fees is to offer added value in return for a higher fee.
For instance, if you decide to build a dedicated website that allows the public to locate your members, this resource could be offered to members ‘for free’. Another successful tactic that I’ve seen in raising fees is to use a monthly billing cycle. $85 per month seems a lot more affordable than $1,020 per year - and it’s better for managing cash flow.
Offering affiliate membership can be a way to increase your revenue, however, you have to ensure that value is reciprocated otherwise the relationship will be short-lived.
If you’re going to develop a number of marketing platforms to promote your value proposition, you might decide to sell space within these platforms to suitable advertisers.
There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge that resides within any membership organisation, so it’s fair to offer this expertise in return for a fee.
This can seem like an easy option to secure the necessary funds to help pay for your initiatives, however, it all goes back to the initial problem - who are you and what are you offering? If your brand is only known and understood by members, it’s not an attractive proposition for sponsors as there will be limited reciprocal value.
The reality in seeking financial sponsorship is that in most cases the Association is in effect asking to be paid to leverage the sponsors brand!
There are however some tactics to use that will be attractive to sponsors such as building up your own database of people who receive your marketing materials, so it pays to get organised first.
© Hamish Chadwick. All Rights Reserved.