Playing it safe is not good enough when it comes to trade association branding (or rebranding, as the case may be).

Chances are you know a professional trade association—or are a member of one—that emerged from a rebranding project with little more than an updated logo or a jazzed-up tagline. Perhaps it rearranged the wording of its name to convey a more modern, “brand appropriate” acronym.

Unfortunately, neither a name change nor a redesigned logo is enough to help an organization facing declining membership and participation.

Why Trade Association Branding Is Important—and How It Can Go Wrong

Trend research indicates that many associations are struggling with declining membership, along with decreased participation in committees and attendance at annual conventions and events. Generational differences may be partly to blame.  For many younger professionals, online social networks fill some of the roles that professional associations used to by providing networking opportunities as well as access to industry-specific information and insight.

For these reasons, association leaders feel pressure to shake things up. Perhaps this explains the decision in 2014 by the National Speakers Association (NSA) to make a dramatic change by moving away from its name of 40+ years to rebrand itself as “PLATFORM.”

The backlash was instantaneous. Members complained that the decision to change the name was unexpected and had been made without the input of association members. Members were also upset at the removal of the word “speakers,” a term they used to define themselves and their professional niche.

Ultimately, the outcry was so loud that the new name was dropped and the National Speakers Association reverted back to its old moniker. (Read “Platform Collapses: Speakers Group Scraps Name Change after Outcry, Associations Now, 7/14/14.”)

Be Bold, But Be Strategic

Understandably, the NSA’s very public misfire has given people a reason to be cautious in their own attempts at trade association branding. On the plus side, it reinforces the fact that “branding” is much more than a logo, tagline, name or acronym.

At the heart of every professional trade association’s brand is a promise—a promise to provide professional support and personal value to its members, both today and in the future.

What the brand promise looks like when it is fulfilled is something that only your own association members can tell you. But well before you even begin considering a name change or a logo redesign, consider the following questions:

  • Do we really know what our members think about our brand?
  • Do we know what people outside our association think of our brand?
  • Do our members connect with the language that we use?
  • Are our members reflected in our brand? Do we tell their stories effectively?
  • Do we need to update our mission and vision and values?
  • What role do we see ourselves playing in the future of our industry or profession?
  • Do we attract the type of members who’ll fuel sustainable growth?
  • Do we provide access and insight that our members can’t get elsewhere?
  • Do we make it easy for members to communicate with us using the tools they want to use?
  • Are we up to date with our technology? Is our website mobile friendly?
  • Do we keep members interested and engaged with our programs and events?

These are not easy questions to ask or answer. But successful trade association branding doesn’t begin with a new name or an updated image. To really thrive, a trade association needs to define its core value proposition—both within its industry and among its members.

What if all your research points to the need for a bold new name? Well then, so be it. You can be confident that the decision was made with the support of your members and is backed by a solid strategic plan, one designed to carry the association well into the future.

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The Galvanizing Group is experienced in trade association branding within diverse industries. For more information, please contact Ellen Galvin at ellen [at] galvanizinggroup [dot] com.

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