The Big Miss:  Trade Association Branding & Reputation Management

“Branding” is a word embedded in corporate culture.  Companies seek to grow their brand identity to support sales and marketing, whether in a business-to-business environment or whether they are consumer-facing brands.  There are many elements to brand value, but essentially it boils down to awareness, respect and likeability.

Private sector companies value their brand identity, keep it modern and project it among and within their key sales audience.  But what role does brand identity play for non-profit organizations like trade associations?

As the operating environment for trade associations has become more sophisticated and complex in recent years, far too many lack a fundamental understanding of branding and the critical role it plays not only in member satisfaction, but how it drives accomplishment and membership return on dues investment.

Trade associations are by definition service organizations embroiled in a battle over scarce resources. Members compete to have their priorities put at the top of the list, fight to keep their dues investment low and have high expectations for performance in today’s pressure-packed public policy and marketplace environment.

That is where an intelligent focus on branding your organization comes in.  Most trade associations and the executives who populate them are good process managers – they have to be.  They know how to harness their organization’s labyrinth of councils, committees and work groups to arrive at consensus-driven priorities.  They know how to stay busy and execute the myriad details expected of them by their members.

In decades past, that was good enough.  Do your work, tell your committee what you did and move on.  In today’s era of information overload, that just won’t get the job done.  Most folks are too swamped with information to thoughtfully read and keep track of what you are sending them.  And what about your external stakeholders?

Organizational branding and reputation management goes far beyond member communication.  Successful trade associations take a holistic view of branding and place it front and center in their strategic plans.  Banding is not something that happens AFTER you accomplish your work. It supports your cause.  It enables you to achieve your goals.

Trade associations that want to develop a reputation for excellence among members and external stakeholders alike have the best chance to succeed by addressing these six gaps:

  1. Knowledge is Power:  Beyond your membership, know the important individuals and organizations that reside in your eco system.  When you map them visually, you may be astonished at what you learn or what you’ve been missing.

  2. Invest in Information: Invest the time and energy it takes to develop a detailed, accurate and comprehensive list of stakeholders in your eco system. This forms the backbone of a successful branding campaign and drives content, including distribution of invitations to round table discussions, policy papers, insights, thought leadership and other content you send to your “echo chamber.”

  3. Leverage Ideas and Intellectual Property:  Place a premium on content. Go beyond newsletters and daily clips.  Most trade associations are loaded with content, but don’t know how to leverage it.  Develop a plan to routinely feed your key external audiences with the ideas and insights they can’t get anywhere else. Arm them with the tools they need to be smart and get their jobs done.

  4. Project: Use your press operation and social media aggressively to constantly project your messages to your key audiences. Frequency increases the chance they will “hear you” at least once for every seven contacts.

  5. Cut Through the Clutter: Use video to leverage your content and intellectual property to combat information overload. No need for professional quality.  Use a smart phone or pad and get your experts on video.  Then send it to your contacts and post it on your social media pages.

  6. Commit to the Long Term:  If branding is going to succeed in enhancing your reputation, commit to it for the long term.  The worst thing you can do is project a robust image within your eco system for a short time and then disappear.  You may be worse off than when you started.

By doing these things in an integrated and methodical way, trade associations and not-for-profits are penetrating their eco system with the language of ideas, building a reputation as an effective thought leader, transcending the day-to day “small ball” that can lead to diminished member satisfaction and creating value members can depend on.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is a former Executive Vice President, Communications and Membership Services of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and former Director of Communications of the American Beverage Association