Who do you think you are?
By Michael J. Berens

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Marketing specialists will tell you that, as an association, one of your most important assets is your brand. Broadly speaking, your brand is your reputation — i.e., how others perceive how well your organization follows through on the promises it makes in its advertising and communications.

INDUSTRY PULSE

Does your association have an identity problem?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

As one marketing expert put it, your brand is what people say about you when you are out of the room. Of course all companies, be they manufacturers or service providers, must carefully manage their brands.

This is especially true in the current social-networking environment, where a complaint or negative comment from an unhappy customer can quickly escalate and undermine one's reputation. I would like to suggest, however, that because you are in the business of mediating relationships, an even greater concern for associations than your brand is your identity.

At various points in their business and life cycles, associations engage in reinventing themselves. Industries change. Leadership changes. A new generation of potential members comes along. Expansion plans call for targeting a new market segment.

There are many legitimate reasons for associations to review and reevaluate who they are, what they stand for, and what they want to say about themselves. In doing so, they must bear in mind that they are not just a purveyor of memberships, products and services, or advocacy. At their core, they are first and foremost social organizations, and as such they are driven primarily by culture and identity.

Members join associations for many reasons, but a key one — reflected time and again in membership surveys — is because they identify with the organization's values, mission, goals and exemplary members. To alter that identity is, for many members, a serious breach of the organization's promise, i.e., its brand.

Consider, for instance, the recent controversy within the Boys Scouts of America over the issue of whether to remove the membership restriction against certain applicants because of their sexual orientation. The Member Standards Resolution passed by a majority of the BSA's leadership explicitly and exhaustively grounds the decision in the culture, values and history of the organization.

Nonetheless, many rank-and-file members felt the organization had betrayed a fundamental value and the overall culture of the BSA. In short, they no longer identified with the "new" BSA, and a number of stakeholder organizations have subsequently withdrawn their support.

Change can be good, even necessary, but it is important to align changes with expectations, to articulate transitions clearly and purposefully, and to reaffirm mission and core values. Most importantly, it is essential to have an accurate and realistic understanding of how the organization is perceived — its true identity.

I have no doubt that in the case of the BSA, the leadership had long investigated, debated and weighed the consequences of their decision. But such is not always the case. In their efforts to improve the organization in one respect, associations sometimes lose sight of their most valuable asset — their identity. They may underestimate members' allegiance to certain principles or conduct, or they may fail to perceive how particular changes may create a disconnect between their avowed brand and their actual "on-the-street" brand.

This can become confusing for staff and members alike, especially if new marketing and communication messages appear to conflict with the organization's mission, values or history. When identity shifts, individuals are forced to reassess and redefine their roles and place in the organization. Leaders need to help facilitate that process or risk alienating members, staff and stakeholders.

By the same token, associations need to ensure their brand promise is aligned with their internal sense of identity. In the parlance of management-speak, they need to "walk the talk and talk the walk."

For example, in the midst of a large-scale reorganizational effort, the leaders of a large association, who were deeply committed to its mission and values, were shocked to get the results of a member survey that showed a large portion of its members did not strongly identify with either the mission or core values.

Yet the association's marketing materials stressed a completely different value proposition focused on member benefits, not mission. Thus, while the leadership and staff operated under one sense of identity, a substantial portion of the membership operated under another.

You can imagine the response when the leadership decided to increase dues to better advance its mission without substantially upgrading member benefits.

Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management.