An association’s brand is more than just a logo, tagline or brochure—it’s an emotional connection that members, donors, staff and the community form with an association and the stories that they tell about the work that it does.

Whether you are rebranding your association, extending your product and service offerings, or improving your content and communications, you may be looking to engage outside help. But what should you look for when you hire a branding firm?

The following suggestions are based on our success working with associations in multiple industries.

Look for relevant experience and personal fit

Too often, size is mistaken for experience. But bigger is not always better when it comes to knowledge and personal fit. The sales team responsible for pitching a company’s brand services may not be the one doing the actual work. Once the contract is signed, they may turn a project over to junior account people who have little to no experience.

Instead, look for a firm that has significant, hands-on business and brand experience and whose experts understand that your association serves multiple audiences and requires a brand that speaks directly and effectively to each one of them.

Place a high value on interpersonal skills

Branding is a collaborative process that requires input from all stakeholders, not just the people in your marketing department. In our work with associations, we spend considerable time interviewing members, prospective members, executives, sponsors, staff and volunteers to gather perspective on the association’s past and to understand its vision for the future.

A brand guru may look great on paper, but he/she is only as effective as his/her ability to listen carefully and converse comfortably with a diverse set of stakeholders. Choose a brand expert who is professional, articulate and empathetic—someone with whom your members are comfortable sharing their stories. These are the stories that will serve as the foundation of your association’s brand and which will help bring its mission and purpose to life.

Align expectations and objectives

Granted, “brand” can be a somewhat fuzzy concept. That’s because a brand is an emotional bond that is built over time. (Logos, taglines, websites and marketing brochures are ways to communicate a brand, but they are not the brand themselves. This is an important distinction as more and more design firms position themselves as brand strategy firms.)

An experienced brand strategy firm will develop strategies and plans that tie directly to the short-term and long-term business objectives that you have outlined for your association. Of course, these objectives should be clearly defined and communicated at the beginning of any brand engagement.

Seek a fresh perspective

In a previous blog post, we discussed the dangers of building an association brand solely around the needs of its leaders (i.e., ‘the leadership trap’). By expanding your perspective, you build a stronger base of support.

The same can be said for choosing a branding firm. Some branding firms work exclusively within designated industries. This can be good (deep industry expertise) as well as bad (cookie cutter recommendations). And while seasoned brand experts have the business savvy to get up-to-speed on any industry in very little time, creativity is much harder to come by.

Look for a fresh perspective. Expect curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking. Hire a company that understands fundamental brand principals—but which can also help you take advantage of new technologies and resources.

A well-defined brand guides all aspects of association management, from what types of programs, services and experiences to offer to how to recruit and retain members. The right branding agency will help you develop a core brand strategy that connects with your members and helps delivers on your goals. It will jump right in—with enthusiasm—to help make your association’s brand the best that it can be.

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