Rebranding 101: What Associations Need to Know
After 65 years operating as the National Arborist Association, the New Hampshire-based organization knew it was time for a new name — one that would more accurately reflect its membership and be more accessible to its stakeholders.
“A name affects everything,” then-president Cynthia Mills told Lawn & Landscape magazine. “When potential customers go online in search of an arborist, they are going to look under ‘tree.’ When the media goes looking for information on tree care or post-storm activity, they are going to look under ‘tree.’”
With guidance from an outside marketing firm, as well as input from its membership, the National Arborist Association changed its name to the more straightforward (and SEO-friendly) Tree Care Industry Association.
A rebrand such as this one isn’t a mere cosmetic upgrade; it’s an important exercise in updating and clarifying an organization’s story and purpose. And it’s vital for every association to periodically reassess its branding — be it name, logo, mission, unique selling proposition, or a combination therein — and refresh when necessary.
“All thriving brands are evolving, they shouldn’t be stagnant,” says Emily Brackett, founder of Branding Compass. “A new brand for an association is a clear beacon of the direction that you are heading.”
If your association is heading in a new direction, there’s a lot you should think about before taking the rebrand leap — including whether a rebrand is necessary at all. Here is a guide to the ins and outs of reinvigorating your organization’s identity.
When should you rebrand?
Is your association having an identity crisis? Does some aspect of your brand no longer align with your mission or membership? Does your logo look stale? There are many reasons why an organization might consider a rebrand. Chief among them, according to Brackett, is a change in the core business or offering.
“This could mean that you’re introducing new products or services or have changed your business model,” she says. “Of course, companies create new offerings all the time, but when the new products or services substantially change what you do, or who you are targeting as an ideal customer, it’s time to rebrand.”
A recent consumer-facing example would be Dunkin’ Donuts. By 2018, the Massachusetts-based restaurant chain — known for its commercial tagline, “time to make the donuts” — was doing a brisk business in beverages. (In fact, according to the New York Times, the company’s drink sales slightly outpace its donut sales.) With an eye toward nurturing that growing sector, Dunkin’ Donuts lopped off the “Donuts,” became simply “Dunkin’” and has further expanded its beverage offerings.
Another reason an association may consider a rebrand is that its named purpose has become muddled. That was the case with the former National Arborist Association. Rebranding itself as the Tree Care Industry Association clarified the association’s purpose to an audience that may not even know the definition of the word arborist.
A changing competitive landscape may also necessitate a rebrand in order to differentiate, says Brackett.
“It’s not just about your own company, it’s about the marketplace,” she says. “As new competitors come onto the scene or there are changes in your industry or sector, you may need to rethink what makes your organization special.”
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Society of CPAs, which had been widely known by the abbreviation MSCPA, changed its shortened name to MassCPAs. The move was in part to lure in a younger membership but also to distance itself from other organizations that used similar abbreviations, such as the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA).
Finally, a brand update may be needed simply because your current look is out of date.
“Design trends change, and if you’re embarrassed by your name, logo, or visual style, you may need to rebrand,” Brackett says. “This type of brand refresh demonstrates that you keep yourself up to date.”
What are the refresh risks?
Rebranding can have many rewards, Brackett says: “Data shows that good branding attracts higher-paying clients, improves loyalty and attracts top employees.” But there are plenty of risks that you will need to consider and ultimately monitor, manage, and mitigate.
The biggest one will most likely be cost. In addition to hiring a rebranding consultant or firm to devise a new name, logo, and/or story, you’ll also need to budget for all of the collateral that comes with a brand refresh — everything from signage to letterhead. How much a rebrand costs depends on the size of your association and how involved you want the rebrand to be. As a rule, assume you’ll spend between 10%-20% of your marketing budget.
Another rebranding risk to consider is the period of time it will take to complete. The process can be lengthy. Many rebrands take months or even years (the average is six to eight months for a small organization) during which key employees’ attention may be divided between the rebrand and their usual day-to-day responsibilities.
There’s also the possibility that you could lose much of the awareness and goodwill your association built up under its previous name — including alienating current members. When the National Speakers Association (NSA) announced it was changing its brand to PLATFORM — a rename leaders felt would better signal the organization’s global scope and offerings — the outcry was so intense that the organization relented and reversed course, keeping its original moniker.
In a video apology, the association’s president, Shep Hyken, said: “It’s clear that we should have done a better job rolling out the brand to membership, and for that I do sincerely apologize.”
How to rebrand successfully
Once you’ve weighed the risks and rewards and decided your association is ready, you’ll need to get a plan in place.
First and foremost, experts say, is to get help. In addition to hiring a rebranding consultant or firm, you’ll want to install a rebranding committee that can help steer the association through uncertain political waters.
Just as important: Do your research. Gather insights from within your organization, from clients and even from prospects where possible, Brackett says. Rather than focus groups, which can be time-consuming and skewed by a few vocal participants, she says to lean into surveys.
“We recommend a brief survey to large groups, such as customers, partners or prospects and a longer, in-depth survey for internal team members,” Brackett says. “A survey allows everyone’s voice to be heard equally.”
Many survey tools allow you to calculate scores suitable for quantitative analysis.
“Once you have the survey complete, the results can be the foundation for a more productive internal meeting to review the findings,” Brackett explains. “You’ll see trends and you’ll also be able to compare and contrast internal viewpoints with external perceptions.”
Communication is another key — for both internal and external audiences. “You’ll want to tell the story of why you are rebranding: articulating the shortcomings of your existing brand and your goals for the new brand,” Brackett says.
Member communication should be done early and often to avoid a situation like the one faced by the NSA. Ensure that members feel like they are contributing to the process, rather than having the rebrand thrust upon them. They’ll likely be more receptive to the change if they feel like their voice was heard.
When the new brand is ready to roll out — via press releases, social media, newsletters, print ads and more — the messaging should be simple, explaining how the rebrand helps meet association goals but also targeted to the audience. This means you may want to differentiate between member and non-member communication.
Finally, with the rebrand rolled out, track name and logo use: Have your team keep a running list of every touchpoint where they see the new branding. You’ll want these metrics later for any wrap-up reports.
With proper planning and execution, Brackett says, a rebrand can set your association up for success for years to come.
“A well-executed rebrand is an opportunity to show your prospects, clients and partners that you have more clarity about the direction and growth of your organization,” she says. “It is a signal that you are excited about a new phase of growth.”
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