“[Right] now the tyranny of the present is supreme. A lot of organisations have had no choice but to focus on surviving immediate threats. [It’s easy to forget that] decisions that leaders make now may have ramifications for years - or even decades.”
J. Peter Scoblic: Learning from the Future
More than ever, we operate in a drastically changing environment. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many associations were struggling to remain relevant. Free online access to expert content and new platforms for networking and learning, have forced the sector to ask uncomfortable questions about the need for associations and the services they offer.
In addition to technological transformation, the all-encompassing feeling of uncertainty has been compounded by other factors such as growing global economic interdependence and mounting political instability. We learned that we are now living in a ‘TUNA world’ (i.e. on that is turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous), but not what to do about it. And then, the coronavirus hit, raising the levels of anxiety and unpredictability to new heights. The economic effects of the pandemic will be long-lasting with forecasts suggesting government deficits could reach $30 trillion by 2023. In addition, the pandemic has led to a change in attitudes, behaviours, and habits with our stakeholders.
The coronavirus has essentially become the catalyst and accelerator for a societal transformation. And this new society needs new associations.
While it is true that the COVID-enforced need for rapid adaptation has left some associations struggling, it is inspiring to see that many have faced the challenges with agility, ingenuity, and a can-do attitude. Staff have adapted to a new reality of working remotely, general meetings have been transformed into virtual events, and members have found ways to connect online in ways that were previously unimaginable.
While many associations had to face the negative fall-out of the coronavirus crisis, there are also countless associations that emerged stronger and more relevant than ever. We have seen associations harness the power of new digital formats to increase access to events, members have used their association as a platform to build good practices, key policymakers have been willing to ‘Zoom in’, and sponsors have become visible partners of an essential sector. What differentiates the ‘COVID winners’ from the ‘COVID losers’? One key factor is the willingness to change and adapt.
The importance of successful adaptation should not be understated: associations have long been portrayed as dinosaurs, highly averse to change. The coronavirus pandemic has shown to leadership, staff, and members alike that fast change is possible, and that agility and adaptability are rewarded - often instantly. Today, we are running out of excuses not to embark on a deep review of our core mission, to ask the questions we all fear: Why should our members come to us? What can we do better than anyone else? What must we do - and what must we give up - to regain relevance? Welcome to strategic branding!
The post-COVID ‘new normal’ requires us looking honestly at our core mission and the promises we make to members. Branding may just be the tool for this exercise. While most of us think ‘new logo’ when hearing the term ‘branding’, it encompasses much more than eye-catching design. Strategic branding is a way to ensure strategic relevance and focus in a changing world. It invites us to focus on the essential, while creating a clear vision and internal alignment that allow us to be innovative and creative.
Just slap a logo on it: Common misconceptions about branding
“A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is—it is what consumers tell each other it is.”
Branding is not just about how things look: A new coat of brand paint cannot hide negative member experiences or the fact that an association may be badly run. This so-called ‘brand washing’ may give you a new surface shine but the underlying questions or challenges remain. Real branding on the other hand provides clarity and focus on all strategic aspects of your association. While this includes the way your association communicates visually, it goes far beyond mere logo design.
Branding is not a marketing fad: Branding has evolved from the time when it was handled exclusively by big advertising firms, employed to broadcast a positive message about a product into the world. These days, it is no longer about how we would like to appear it is about who we are to our members. Branding allows your association to communicate more effectively with your community. Not because you have better visuals or bigger advertising budgets, but because you have a clear message and distinct value proposition.
Branding is not something only big companies do, just because global corporations own the most talked about brands: Today, strategic branding depends less on budgets and more on a willingness to evolve. Developing your brand is a strategic exercise that invites key stakeholders to come together and agree how their association makes a real difference. This does not require big budgets, just an honest commitment to a common cause.
Setting the Foundations for Relevance: What is branding?
“A Brand is not logo, not what it looks like when I look at your product. A Brand is a shortcut, it is a shortcut for all the expectations I have for what you are about to do for me. It’s a shortcut for trust, for promises, for conversations.”
Branding helps you focus: Associations are faced with as many different expectations and demands as there are members. By trying to please everyone a little, we end up pleasing no one and diluting our impact and purpose. Branding gives direction and provides the basis for strategic decision making. Branding informs your choices when it comes to new opportunities and builds a stronger company culture with shared values and aligned actions throughout.
Branding makes you visible: Once you know who you are, and what you are not, you can communicate your uniqueness and proudly differentiate from others. Honesty and clarity help members, sponsors, and partners to make a choice, and ensure that expectations are met. By developing your association brand, you do not leave members satisfaction to chance, you compromise less and have more visibility in a crowded environment.
Branding helps you align: A brand is more than a mission statement, it is the ‘promise’ you and your entire team are making to members every day. It is the catalyst for everything you do, from your communications strategy, to your HR policy, and even the choice of location for your events. Branding gives you a clear strategic roadmap for decision making: whether it is in governance bodies, in the secretariat or when dealing with member requests.
Step 1: Find Your Purpose
In their strategic outlook ‘COVID-19: A brand. New. Purpose,’ Accenture predicted in May 2020: “Questions that will be commonplace as we move into this decade will be focused around issues of human and business resilience and their intersection with purpose: Why does your company exist? How does it contribute to societal, economic and environmental progress?”
More than ever, an association’s purpose needs to be aligned with that of its members. While we have always sought to be relevant to our community, we now must ask: How can our association make members feel relevant? Not sure how to find your member purpose? Just ask them.
What we learned
At Interel, we encouraged the associations we serve to use the ‘Annual General Meeting Season’ of March-June to actively reach out to members. We launched pre-meeting written surveys and AGM live polls that focussed on immediate needs and challenges, invited members to virtual roundtables and brought secretariat teams together to get everyone’s perspective. We shared these results with members, illustrating that their voice was heard and uniting them under a common purpose of overcoming the COVID-19 crisis. This often resulted in new insights for the association, positive feedback from members, and a renewed sense of purpose and mission in the board.
Step 2: Re-Position
To remain relevant in these turbulent times, we need to keep up with rapidly evolving member needs and stakeholder challenges. Once these are identified, it is time to understand how they affect the positioning of your association within its broader economic and political ecosystem: Concretely, an EU advocacy campaign that was essential in February could be irrelevant and inappropriate today, when members fight for survival, or struggle to regain footing in their national context.
What we learned
We worked with several of the associations on creating regular digital COVID19 roundtables. This allowed us to listen to the challenges members faced, to identify common trends and to broker connections. It enabled the associations to review their key messages and align their positioning with rapidly evolving internal needs and the external developments.
Step 3: Strengthen Your ID
Once you are clear on your positioning, it is time to ensure you have the visual and verbal identity that allows you to communicate effectively. On the visual side, this includes classic core branding elements such as logo, typography, colours, style books and mood boards. When it comes to your verbal identity, be clear about the story you want to tell — to your members, to your stakeholders, your sponsors and to your team. It will feature on your website, in your reports and in the media. Whether you opt for a simple messaging house or a complex story library, ensure the repetition of a simple and novel message that makes people remember your association and connect to your goals.
What we learned
While reinventing a complete identity may be far too complex in the short run, we started using association mood boards as a fast and more effective way of strengthening their brand. Over the past months, we discovered that association leaders can agree more easily and intuitively on their association’s identity when we kick-start the discussion by reviewing a deck of mood board visuals. Images help convey stories without the barriers of language, making this particularly effective for international groups.
By establishing a visual collage of photos, graphics, texts and colour samples, we can establish an association’s distinct style and approach: Are you there to support your industry, or do you want to highlight your work in connecting a community? Do you want to showcase services, or the impact you have on society? Do you consider yourself more objective or compassionate in your storytelling approach?
Step 4: Practice What You Preach
People feel vulnerable right now, so empathy and authenticity are critical to maintain trust. Ensuring that your brand voice and your actions are aligned is more important than ever in a time when most communication is digital, instant, and impersonal. Members will remember their associations for acts of good in this time of crisis, particularly if done with authentic care and generosity. They are equally likely to lose trust in your association if they notice inconsistencies between your messaging and your actions. It is important to ensure that association leadership, secretariat, and member ambassadors are consistent in their messaging and fully aligned when it comes to action.
What we learned
We advised several of the associations we serve to postpone the deadline for membership fees by six months. It allowed them to authentically claim that ‘we are all in this together’, a signal much appreciated by members. People and companies that had not actively engaged in years are now getting in touch to express their appreciation and ask for advice. In addition, members who already signalled their intention to leave put this action on hold, allowing us to prepare a strong value proposition for the future.
One of the most surprising outcomes of the coronavirus crisis is the realisation that associations can change and adapt quickly – if we need to. A key lesson, not lost on members and secretariat staff, is that we can change things quickly if we put our heads together. It is inspiring to see how many associations have reinvented their ways of working and serving members and found new ways to serve and contribute. Now is the time to take this experience to heart, embrace our newfound capacity to innovate to find your role in post-COVID times. It has been a sprint until now, but it is time to prepare for the marathon of staying afloat in our TUNA world. Strategic branding may be just the method you have been looking for to rediscover your association’s relevance.
Author (caption): Benita Lipps
Supported by the Union of International Associations (UIA), the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) and the Interel Group, the global public affairs and association management consultancy, Headquarters Magazines serve the needs of international associations organising worldwide congresses.