Rebranding vs. Reinventing

Does Your Organization Need More than a New Paint Job?

Rusting Fire Hydrant - Red/Blue
The editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group, Justin Fox, wrote an interesting commentary last week about the Republican Party’s attempt to rebrand itself in order to become more attractive to minority voters and other groups. Rebranding, Fox argued, wouldn’t go nearly far enough to address the party’s problems. “The GOP needs a new product, not a new brand,” he wrote.

No matter your politics or opinion of the GOP, Fox’s article is worth reading. His perspective on the party’s troubles has a lot of application to the challenges many associations face as well.

We write and talk and read a lot about associations faced with declining membership numbers and member satisfaction. And a good deal of the focus is on how we can better communicate to members the value of what we do. But perhaps, as Fox suggests of the Republican Party, part of our problem really lies in a failure to keep pace with what our constituents need and want.

Says Fox of the GOP: “The party has been selling pretty much the same product for more than three decades now, while market conditions have changed.” For how many associations might the same be said? If the product we are offering is no longer what our industry needs, then it’s more than our image that we need to re-examine and redefine.

It’s easy to assume that we’re doing the right things – offering the right member benefits,  running the right programs, giving our members what they want and need – because we know our industries and our members and have spent decades building what would be described in the for-profit world as our “product mix.” But if our membership numbers are starting to drop, or member satisfaction surveys are starting to show signs of weakness, it might be time to re-examine what we’re doing.

To be fair, association professionals do use the word “innovation” a lot. Inherent in that, I think, is a growing recognition that our product offerings might need an overhaul to make them more relevant to members’ daily lives.

But we need to be careful how we go about planning for new products and launching new programs. It’s not enough to make decisions based on what we think we know about our members. We’ll do better if we bring members into the process, finding ways to get them to help us define what we can do better. If we haven’t asked members lately what it is that they need, then how can we know that our offerings are still relevant?

Perhaps we also should spend more time talking with prospective members and lapsed members. Fox points to the way in which Procter & Gamble redefined its Olay brand of products to attract a new group of customers. The company looked at what the new target audience needed and created products to draw them in. Perhaps associations could profit from some of the same thinking.

“The idea of starting by rethinking what potential customers need, then building a strategy aimed at winning those customers over, has widespread application,” says Fox. That’s true of businesses, but it’s also true of non-profit groups, political parties, and associations.

Here are some questions we all might consider:

  • Do we ask members what they need and want us to do, or do we make assumptions based on our own knowledge of our industries?
  • Do we spend time talking to or researching prospective members and lapsed members? Or do we focus all of our attention on our existing member base?
  • Are we paying particular attention to the needs of students preparing to enter our profession and those in the first few years of their careers? These are people who have many years ahead of them in our industries.
  • When is the last time we asked what our members and prospective members actually need to improve and simplify their work, and to build their careers?

If you have indeed asked about the challenges facing both members and potential members, here are a few more questions: Have you used that information to identify the gaps between your current programs and what your audience is looking for? How much time have you spent brainstorming possible new products/programs to help fill the voids? And do you make decisions about whether to launch new programs in the context of whether they meet specific gaps that you’ve identified in current offerings?

We all know there are limits to our resources – both time and money – and we can’t possibly act on every idea that we have. Perhaps focusing more on filling the gaps is the most efficient approach we can take to shoring up and expanding our membership base.

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