Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Building a Legacy Brand

Will One of Your Association's Greatest Assets Walk Out the Door if an Employee Leaves?

Brenda worked as the communications director at her association for over five years. She became a champion for the association’s mission and vision, and she ensured that every marketing communication from the organization looked consistent, and professional. In her five-year tenure, the association’s advertising, promotions, and membership materials all fell in to place and developed significant name recognition.

Brenda became a single-source for marketing consistency within the organization.  Therein lied the problem.  As her career goals changed and she took a position with another association, the marketing consistency that she guarded so well began to fall apart.  What was once a tight-knit package of communications became disjointed as a new director filled Brenda’s shoes, and everything was redesigned, almost from scratch.

Sound familiar?

What is this “Brand” thing anyway?

The term “branding” is often uttered along with an air quotes gesture or an eye roll. Why? Usually it's because the people taking about it don’t understand it. It hasn’t been explained to them, and they’ve been given no reason to embrace it. Everyone in an organization is an ambassador of the brand. What they say about the organization, its mission and its goals has the potential for a huge impact on the perception of the organization.

A brand is the tangible and intangible items that capture your organization’s culture, personality and differentiation, and ultimately communicate your mission to all audiences.  This includes a logo, but doesn’t stop there.  A well-defined brand includes a message platform. The message platform sets the standard by which all communications are measured, from the logo and tagline to human interactions.

How do you answer phones, greet guests in the lobby, sign off on emails, and deliver a package?  This is what makes an impression on members, suppliers, and employees. Every contact with your association is an opportunity to strengthen, or tarnish your brand.

Common problem: Brand creep

As a communications agency, one of the comments we hear frequently from associations is “our materials don't look like they came from the same place.” When all of the organization’s publications and communications are laid on the table, there may be many well-designed pieces, but often little or no cohesion to the collection.. There can be many reasons for this departure—we’ve found the following four to be the usual suspects.

Scenario 1: “We need a brochure!  Fast!”

Starting with a project to deliver rather than a problem to solve is a common cause of brand creep.  Usually when a new piece is needed in a hurry, there is little time to draft project objectives, revisit the messaging platform or review the graphic standards.  After all, you need it for a board meeting, right?  When the marketing team has the chance to analyze the request for a brochure, the outcome is not only more in line with the brand, but usually a stronger design piece as well.  The next time “your competitor has a brochure, so you need one,” take a moment to consider why they have one, and whether it’s something that will solve your problem while promoting your brand.

Scenario 2: “Our designer wants a portfolio piece.”

The pool of talent in the design field continues to increase every year.  Both in-house and agency design teams are staffed with designers that can deliver outstanding, professional work. Brand creep happens when aesthetics or personal preferences takes precedence over standards. This is because graphic designers generally are trained to solve design problems, and not always with an eye on the big picture. This is not meant as a poke at the design profession. Many designers understand that their work is about the organization, and not personal taste.

Producing a brochure that wins a design award is not the equivalent of delivering an effective member communication that delivers a clear, consistent brand message to a new audience.

Scenario 3: “Changing of the guard.”

This is the scenario from Brenda’s story.  Change is good—at least that’s what we often hear.  Bringing on new team members can reinvigorate staff, drive creative problem solving and position your association for new heights.  With all of these positives also comes the sometimes misguided need for new staff to make their mark. This is a key reason for brand creep, as leaders with less background in the history of the brand begin to make decisions about its future.  It’s important to make sure that new team members, especially leaders, are welcomed with a clear understanding of the organization’s brand.

Scenario 4: “Our stuff is getting boring.”

As marketing and communications professionals, your in-house team can probably recite most of your core copy by heart.  The pieces all look the same, the colors have been the same for ten years, and that logo…wow, when can we change it? Before making the decision to update, remember that your team sees your messages and collateral every day, sometimes for eight hours a day.  Your members only see it weekly, or perhaps once a month.  What may feel stale internally could be recognizable and reliable to your audience.  Imagine new staff at Starbucks' corporate deciding to do "something different." Change the corporate colors, add a photo behind the logo, change "grande" to "superjava"...just because.  This happens in associations all the time. Decisions as critical as the look and feel of an organization should be born of a legitimate need, not because the current internal team is getting bored.

Building a legacy brand

Now that we know what causes Brand Creep, how do we prevent it?  What are the ingredients necessary to build a Legacy Brand?

Buy-in is critical

A law firm marketing officer related the story about an attorney in the firm who would hand out his business cards dismissively with “it’s some new brand we’re pushing.” On the other hand, a large optical manufacturer talked about their brand as so revered, that employees would step around the logo woven into the lobby carpet. That kind of brand respect requires commitment and consistency from the top down.

Whether the logo has been the same for 30 years, or you launched a new brand two months ago, the entire leadership team has to exude confidence in the brand with no exceptions.  That confidence trickles down through every team member until people can recite the mission statement by heart.


Just dropping a set of graphic standards on a designer’s desks offers little incentive for that designer to follow the rules. Upon hire, indoctrinate new people into the brand and what it really means to be a member of the team.  During a rebranding, let people know what is happening from the very beginning of the process and provide regular, upbeat updates.  This doesn’t mean that everybody has a “say” in new logo designs and tagline messages, but it does mean that people catch a glimpse accompanied by a strong positive message.  One client organization found success through a monthly newsletter from the communications department highlighting milestones and successes throughout a significant rebranding process. 

Brands require maintenance

One person in charge of looking at everything ensures the most consistency.  However, depending upon the size of the organization, a single person approving all communications may not be realistic.  And if that person leaves, you are left with no brand steward.  One person, likely the communications director, should maintain the brand guidelines with the help of others.  Supporting people should include the entire marketing communications team and leadership roster.  That way, the brand won't disintegrate when one person leaves your organization. 

The art of it all

Branding is not an exact science.  It isn’t a science at all. It’s more of an art.  It requires passion, understanding and consistency to build, maintain and communicate your brand.  When done well, the benefits are well worth the effort.

Copyright 2011, Bremmer & Goris Communications, Inc.

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