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More than a Membership: Why Associations Need Strong Branding

Posted by on May 19th, 2022
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding   

Dues, services, a network, and other programs don’t create a community of belonging within your association. Members connect, or don’t, based on how you make them feel. And how they feel matters come renewal time. They’ll ask themselves, was this worth it? 

When the answer is yes, they may justify the dues by listing the programs and services you offer, but their true evaluation is based on how good those programs and services made them feel. When you help members see themselves as they wish to be seen, they feel good about themselves and about your organization, leading to enthusiastic renewal and deeper engagement throughout the year.

Creating the good feelings that lead to belonging starts with a strong brand.

What is brand and why is a strong one important for my association?

Branding is not just a marketing tactic corporations and influencers use to entice interest.

Your association’s brand is your reputation (not your logo), and you already have a reputation, whether or not you manage it intentionally. It’s the culmination of the experiences members and prospective members have had with you. It’s the promise of a future experience. In short: brand is how you sound, how you look, how you act, and what you do.

Every organization has a brand, but cultivating a strong brand pays your association dividends: 

1. A strong brand creates a relationship with your members–the first step toward belonging.

Your goal is to create a relationship with your organization that transcends any transaction. When members attend your events, do they feel a sense of connection, belonging and deeper meaning? Or do they feel it is just “a way to get information to do my job better?”

Belonging happens when your brand stands for something more meaningful than programs (features). When your brand strategy makes relationship and connection a priority, members feel that sense of belonging regardless of how many programs and services they actually use. 

2. The right brand strategy helps members easily understand how they fit in, which connects them to you emotionally and rationally, so they are proud to affiliate with your association. 

3. A strong brand minimizes competitive threats.

When people understand you, feel connected to you, and feel good about that connection, they’re much less likely to be drawn to your competitors. 

You may be confidently thinking, “We don’t have competition. No other association serves this group.” That’s a mistake because your members don’t see themselves as being only a part of your group. They define themselves, professionally and personally, in a multitude of ways. So you have competition from other professional organizations. And if you’re still not convinced that you’re competing, I introduce you to your #1 competitor: Apathy. 

When your brand doesn’t stand for a single, big idea that excites and unites your members, their tepid feelings about membership put you in direct competition, come budget time with how they could otherwise spend those membership dues.

4. A strong brand defends against 
negative news.

Negative news about your association doesn’t have to be a national exposé on CNN. It could come in the form of a newsletter mishap or an incorrect service charge.

When your organization sends consistently clear and positive signals through your messaging, appearance, and actions, the occasional slip-up is more likely to be overlooked by your members. 

Think how you feel about your good friends: one quality or mistake that bothers you isn’t enough to end the relationship. You give them the benefit of the doubt. But when someone you don’t know very well, who sends mixed signals, does something irritating or upsetting, you’re more likely to judge them more harshly and drop the relationship altogether. 

When your brand is clear and powerful, members forgive easily what doesn’t align with their perception of your intentions and value.

5. A strong brand makes people proud to align with your association.

We identify ourselves with brands by choice, whether we realize it or not. Your members want to identify with a brand that reflects their values, how they see themselves, or how they want to be seen by others. 

Create your brand strategy with your members’ values and identity at the core. When you do, members engage more deeply and for longer, and they are enthusiastic champions of membership – becoming one of your best member recruitment resources.

6. A strong brand makes it easier for people to say YES!

A strong, clear brand allows your audience to know membership is worth it. Whether joining for the first time or renewing, you want members to be so compelled by your brand value that membership is not even a question. 

Emotionally they will feel that they want to be part of it, even if they have to use the list of programs and services to justify the membership to their budget review team.

7. A strong brand is built on benefits 
instead of features.

Your brand is a set of feelings and ideas that come into your members’ minds when they see or think about you. Yet so many membership organizations focus communications on the programs and services they offer, instead of focusing on how members benefit from those programs. It’s easy to describe what you do, but focusing instead on why you do it, is how strong brands are built. When you shift communications from the day-to-day programs to the reason those programs are needed – and what happens for members when they engage – you invite belonging based on a shared vision, not your next conference or workshop.

I’m convinced. How do I develop the right brand strategy?

A strong brand is a result of a well developed brand strategy that can take time to create. The six steps below can be led by a professional brand strategy consultant, or by an internal team, depending on the resources available. 

  1. Assess the brand you have now.
  2. Identify your audience.
  3. Examine the competition.
  4. Find the open opportunity—
how are you meaningfully different?
  5. Distill that difference into its purest essence, 
your brand positioning.
  6. Intentionally begin to send signals that reinforce 
the brand you want to have.

However you approach strengthening your association’s brand, it’s critical that this be work led and sanctioned by your president, CEO, or executive director. This is not a marketing or membership department initiative because strong brands come from the top and impact everything you do as an organization, including operations, programmatic decisions, and yes, marketing and membership communications. 

Considering a branding project for your association? Reach out to learn what’s involved in the process and what it will take for your branding initiative to succeed.

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Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one impact coach.

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