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The Fuss About Branding

By: Brad Sago, DBA , Anderson University
Source: Executive Update
Published: February 2001

Branding?  Learn what to do (and what not to) to effectively brand your association and its products and services. Real-life "corporate" examples as well as an overview of brand philosophy are among the highlights in Brad Sago's article.


The summer and fall of 2000 provided a real-time classroom in branding. During this time, the thoughts and perceptions of many consumers changed about some of America's most well-known institutes: Nike, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), United Airlines, Ford, and Firestone. Everyone knows about Firestone, Ford, and the intense media attention to tire problems on Ford Explorers. Ultimately, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, and Ford ran television and print advertising campaigns in an attempt to minimize negative perceptions. However, the landscape had changed for both companies. Consumers viewed both differently than before.

Likewise, Nike lost stature as a result of public outcry regarding one of its advertisements during the Summer Olympics; the company essentially was forced to pull the ad because of customer anger. The desire for television commercials showing a female Olympic athlete being chased by someone with a chainsaw failed to generate much enthusiasm or goodwill for the company, especially from parents of children who were terrified when the commercial aired.

United Airlines received much negative publicity as well due to its well-publicized flight delays and cancellations, which altered travel schedules and stranded passengers. While few people will remember the cause of United's problems, many will recall pictures and reports of inconvenienced passengers for some time to come.

On the positive side of brand management, the USPS was associated with a great deal of good news throughout last summer. For three weeks, the USPS name, colors, and logo were shown daily during and after the grueling Tour de France bike race. Coverage of American bicycle racer, team leader, and eventual race winner Lance Armstrong always included some visual or audio mention of USPS, which serves as team sponsor.

Brand strategy and implementation play integral roles in determining how customers and other key constituencies think of a company and its products and services. Some businesses do a fine job with their branding; others do not.

The same holds true for associations. For those of you in associations that have their branding "act" together, perhaps this article can be a reminder to keep up the good work. For the rest of us, this article aims to focus on brand "truths" and the benefits of branding.

What Is Branding?
"Branding" refers to the process of making a service, product, or company (or association) stand for a set of ideas in the minds of customers. When seeing an association s name or logo, customers link thoughts and feelings toward the organization. For example, if a leading fast-food restaurant, potato chip, or soft drink is mentioned, you likely have thoughts on the respective items. Some readers think, "Bad food," "greasy," or "too sweet." Others say, "They let you have it your way, "they are so good that nobody can eat just one," or "it s the real thing."

If your responses fell into the latter group, the branding efforts of various companies have succeeded. These companies guided their product s image within the marketplace. They sought to have customers view them in a manner defined by the firm rather than by the customers themselves.

Some might consider branding a form of manipulation or an effort to hoodwink customers. This is not true. Firms must back up their brand claims if they are to be believed and widely held. Not to do so would harm relationships with customers. Whatever the outcome, experience has clearly shown that people associate thoughts and feelings with organizations, products, and services.

Branding and Associations
People hold an image of your association as well. Perhaps you offer wonderful networking opportunities, conduct excellent conferences and seminars, attract nationally known speakers, have a responsive staff, or represent well the interests of members. However, such perceptions might not be shared by all current and former members.

The implementation of a successful branding strategy increases the likelihood that members will not only view the association favorably, but also link the variables you want your association to be known for. A poor (or no) branding plan allows customers to decide what they think about the association without any input by the organization.

The question is "What, then, if anything, are you intentionally doing to maximize the chance that customers interpretations of your association are what you hope for?"

Benefits of Branding
The implementation of a well-conceived branding plan offers an association a competitive advantage over direct (i.e., associations) and indirect (i.e., non-association) competitors. Possible competitive advantages to successful branding include the following:

  • Positioning the association.
    Imagine the positive effect if selected audiences held certain perceptions of your association not just any set of attitudes, but those selected (and backed up by deeds) by the association.

  • Build intra-organizational congruency.
    The association must deliberately decide which variables around which to build its brand. These variables map the course for those working for and with the association. This act of determining the position the association is striving to achieve in the minds of its constituencies can, if properly shared throughout the organization, act as a statement so all within the association have the opportunity to "pull in the same direction."

  • Build a coherent and unified image of the association.
    Like many corporations, some organizations are ignorant about exactly what they want to be known for and to excel in. In such a vacuum, various "pictures" of the organization arise. Some are formulated by various departments and employees, while others will be developed by customers. However, being known for multiple non-integrated variables actually presents a muddy brand.

  • Increase acceptance of products and services.
    When the desired thoughts and perceptions about your association are widely held, people more readily accept new products and services such as conferences, newsletters, seminars, and other ancillary products. This happens because of consumers belief that such new offerings fall into the branding position already held for the association as a whole. This increases the comfort level for customers considering whether to try a new product or service.
  • Increase customer loyalty.
    Research shows that customers are more loyal when they feel they have a clear idea what the company, service, or product stands for.

Association Brand Building
Many articles about branding revolve around these variables:

  • Building brand name awareness
  • Logo recognition
  • Ownership of colors (Coke "owns" red; John Deere "owns" green)
  • Slogans
  • Spokespeople

Branding includes these variables and much more. All that you do should reflect your brand position and be viewed as an opportunity to build and strengthen your association's brand.

Staff and management:  Whether you want it to or not, the daily functioning of an association s staff and management reflects its brand position good or bad. For example, if your association wants to be viewed as a leader for the industry it serves, do the staff and management display traits and work habits that are congruent with industry leadership?

Board members: Does your board (its overall makeup, the positions and reputations of individual members, etc.) represent the association's desired brand position?

Conferences and seminars:  Are meeting components such as speakers (who are a type of spokespeople), topics, signage, conference notebooks, and registration table congruent with your branding strategy? Let's say you want to be known for excellence or service, do the above listed items reflect this?

Print materials: Brochures, letterhead, envelopes, newsletters, and magazines all reflect on your association. How do yours represent you?

Promotion:  As with print materials, direct mail and print or radio advertisements not only inform people about an event, but also provide an opportunity for individuals to examine the feelings toward your association. For example, when I see a poorly made advertisement for a plumber, I think the plumber is probably pretty bad as well. True or not, it is the way people (including current and potential association members) behave.

Web site:  What do the content and look of your Web site say about your organization? Are both aspects kept current?

Slogan:  How many times have you heard the slogan "Breakfast of Champions"? These three words leave no doubt about the brand type Wheaties wants. The company has repeated the slogan for countless years on packaging, television, and print. After a while, people started to associate Wheaties cereal and the "breakfast of champions. However, the product had to back up its positioning. Wheaties has done this in three ways: (1) featuring pictures of sports champions on its cereal covers; (2) delivering a product that is not a "sugary kids cereal;" and (3) emphasizing that the cereal is fortified with vitamins and minerals. The point is that Wheaties has consistently used a longtime slogan to drum home a brand position.

Spokesperson:  Is the spokesperson s image congruent with that of your association? Some years ago, Pepsi hired Madonna as a spokesperson in hopes of reaching the younger soft drink market. However, her first commercial was based on a newly released music video that turned out to raise a great deal of controversy. The commercial was taken off the air, and Madonna never acted as Pepsi s spokesperson again.

Logo: Is the logo recognizable and easily identifiable? One of the most recognizable logos is the world is McDonald's golden arches. I have often seen complex logos that look identical to dozens of other logos. It seems only the name of the organization, often inside a circle, has been changed.

Brand Truths

  • Branding decisions should result from the association s mission.
    Brand positions must reflect the position the association desires to hold. Such a strategic position must be derived from the mission and core values of the association.

  • Branding should be part of an overall marketing plan.
    Branding is a marketing tool that should be integrated with and supported by the association s products and services, offices and conference locations, promotional efforts, pricing and fee policies, and customer service.

  • A brand position should be relevant to the association's constituents.
    Current and prospective members, as well as other key constituencies, must perceive that brand positions reflect items or characteristics they hold as important. Imagine the waste of trying to build a brand position using variables that the desired audience did not hold relevant or important in judging an association.

  • It takes time to build a well-defined, widely perceived brand. Brands are not built overnight.
    The target audiences must receive brand position messages numerous times during an extended period and their actual experiences with the association must back the promises of the brand message. Building a brand takes diligence and long-term commitment.

  • Brand positions are not easily changed.
    Oldsmobile tried to remove the widely held view that its make of automobile was for older drivers. The aim of the "This is not your father s Oldsmobile" campaign was to convince younger drivers that Oldsmobiles had changed and were now "okay" for them to drive. However, throughout the years, Oldsmobile had done such a good job with its branding that it really couldn t easily change the perceptions of younger drivers toward its cars.

  • Brand "talk" must be backed up by actions.
    True branding is more than getting someone to think of your association based on what is said. For a brand to be accepted and firmly etched into minds, actions have to back up the promises.

  • Associations should be ready to deal with bad news. A study by Aaker, Jacobson, and Kelly last September found that product problems had a significant effect on how a brand is viewed. Not surprisingly, problems with a product or service have a negative affect on a company s image. However, if handled promptly and correctly, any negatives associated with product or service problems can be minimized.

    An example often studied in business schools is the Tylenol case. In the 1980s, a limited number of Tylenol products were tampered with while on retail shelves in the northeastern United States. This tampering seriously harmed some consumers. Though not at fault, Tylenol moved swiftly and aggressively to have its products removed from stores throughout the nation. This action, along with new well-advertised "tamper-proof" packaging and safety guards, showed consumers that the makers of Tylenol were concerned about their safety.

  • The Internet has not ended branding.
    There has been much said and written about how the Internet would lead to the end of branding. The theory has been that, because of the ability to shop and compare prices via the Internet, people would base purchasing on the lowest prices. Doubtless, this is true in some situations. However, Internet shopping also shows the power of branding. Imagine being willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a product of which you only saw pictures and never touched before purchasing.

    That is exactly what car buyers do when they buy over the Internet, and it can be done because of how buyers feel about the car brands. Only time will reveal the ultimate influence of the Internet on branding, but early signs are that this evolutionary technology will reinforce the need for a proactive approach to association branding and a strategy that assures you can deliver on your brand's promises.
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