Friday, December 18, 2009

"Everybody Loves the Smell of His Own Brand"

As I read the sports pages AND the business pages regarding the Amazing Tiger Woods Implosion, it makes me think about how as associations we manage our own brand (BTW sorry for the bad Austin Powers reference in the title!)

I think Tiger will be okay—they do project a loss of 2/3 of his endorsement income so he'll only make $30 million a year, by one estimate—which financially makes him the size of a larger association if one includes his tour earnings once he returns. This is of course a spurious comparison, but I do think about the parallels between image management and branding for the big guy, the small guy, and the association, and how we might consider the parallels when we assess our brand awareness and/or go about "rebranding." A few of the things that strike me, because I love numbered lists:
1) There is ALWAYS a personification that shapes our association brand images. Whether it's a college or sports team with an anthropomorphic mascot, a Kardashian, or each of us dutifully following career counseling advice to manage our lives as if we were "Kevin Inc." we are recognizing that as people we embody a brand. In associations, as in life, our audiences form strong connections with the acronym, organization name, the mission/vision, and the person/people who lead us. I know none of us really misses the symbolism and importance of having the right companies, agencies, or expert represented on our Board, but sometimes we miss the negative impact and opportunity costs generated by our volunteer recognition practices. In some associations I've worked for, you'd have a hard time telling who the Executive Director is. Instead the association appears to be led every year by a different guy who serves as spokesperson and top individual in the hierarchy. The result is a bit of jarring discontinuity and a general fuzzy sense within the marketplace of "Who are those guys?"

2) People are naturally looking for more authenticity from companies, just as members and donors do from their associations, but I believe authenticity can actually conflict with the power of our brand. I enjoyed hearing James Gilmore at ASAE Annual speak on the topic, but I fear that the structure that tends to bake in authenticity—a representative democracy-type structure, servant leaders, and a pluralistic nature—all inhibit us from consciously changing our brand to be something more evocative and compelling. Unlike political campaigns and parties or corporate leaders who put a premium on "staying on message," we will always have staff and leaders who "prefer the way things were" and will act and speak in ways that don't stick to the new script. Especially when they serve as de facto faces of the association with specific audience segments or rotate into serving as the spokesman that also spells trouble for continuity in the brand image — even conflict in what the human voices expressing the brand say it is for some period of time.

3) Associations should do a better job of assessing brand value and positioning. Interbrand and AC Nielsen measure and publicize the annual brand equity of top firms. It's a commonly-accepted business axiom that the brand is a valued asset, perhaps the single most valuable one. Since it can convert a plastic tube or glass container filled with colored liquid into a $1.75 lower-shelf shampoo OR a $280 per ounce fragrance behind a locked perfumerie counter, the brand is a powerful thing for manufacturers and products that drive profitability and also define the business model, public perception and positioning of the firm. But I do wonder why as associations we don't attempt to measure ours—at least what we stand for and what our members and customers believe about is, if not necessarily the value of the brand itself. In a less-competitive environment, that may be a lower-priority information need … to paraphrase Baz Luhrmann "The race is long, and in the end, it's only with yourself." But it's still something we should try to understand, shape and improve.

To bring it back to Tiger, we have far longer "careers," our defined market is a lot smaller, and we tend to embody far greater stability. A mega-celebrity in our culture is like the candle the burns one-fourth as long and fifty times brighter across society. But it doesn’t mean we can't learn from what their publicity and marketing arms do best and adapt what we can, particularly when it comes to maximizing the benefit of the personal aspect that is baked into all of our organizations.

 -Kevin Inc.

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