Many Chapters, One Brand Strategy

By: John Sotirakis

When the American Planning Association began to look at its branding five years ago, it had an array of chapters and sections with wildly different public faces. Unity was critical, but it was about more than just getting everybody to agree on a typeface. (Titled "A Look That Lasts" in print version.)

Five years ago, communications from the American Planning Association lacked the consistency and power of a single voice. With dozens of organizational components expressing themselves differently, the association risked sowing confusion among its members. "I get something from someone at APA every day," went one typical member complaint. "Several times a day! My inbox is brimming with stuff. And most of the time, I can't tell who's sending me what and what requires my immediate attention. It's overwhelming."

APA members easily recognized the logo, so our mission was to strengthen the brand by evolving other aspects of the graphic identity: color, typography, layout, and messaging.

The need for a consistent brand identity was clear. But change in a complex organization can be alienating, fraught with pitfalls involving history, politics, and personalities. Even the simplest issues like institutional colors can prove to be laden with emotional investment. But by creating opportunities for stakeholders to participate and share in a structured process, it's possible to collectively build a new brand. That's what APA was able to accomplish, truly conveying its leadership position in its field.

Branding isn't just a matter of looks. In fact, an organization's graphic identity—the logo, the name, the color palettes, and other design treatments—represents only 10 percent of what constitutes a brand. The other 90 percent, seemingly invisible, is the journey that leads to that identity. That journey encompasses strategic thinking, assessment of member needs, navigating political sensitivities, consensus building, and more. Think of it as an iceberg: What's visible is only the top of a very sizable foundation. This is the story of that other 90 percent.

Chaos Into Order

Click to enlargeFor APA, a membership association serving community planners, planning commissioners, and students, the need to clarify and align the different voices of the organization became clear in 2004. "We realized that if we want to communicate with the outside world and influence elected officials and community leaders to positions of positive support for the planning process, we need to speak with a clear and consistent voice," says Mike Welch, APA's director of leadership component services.

APA was receiving numerous complaints about the multiple emails and newsletters that were being sent from chapters and its Chicago headquarters. Members couldn't tell who was sending what or what required immediate attention. Small wonder there was so much confusion: APA is a complex organization serving 44,000 members, with a parent office, 21 divisions, and 47 state chapters. The association was embarking on a new communications initiative, and it knew the time was right to address the chaos head on.

As my team entered this environment, we needed to be mindful that the planning community doesn't share a single monolithic attitude about its mission. For instance, at an early meeting with one chapter president, a video we created celebrating planning across the country was criticized as overly idealistic—it failed to address how planners also serve communities hit by natural disasters, or those in economically depressed areas. So any rebranding effort would have to include an amalgamation of viewpoints, without losing focus on promoting a single organizational voice.

We dove in, asking APA to assemble two teams: a core team of five people who would steer the rebranding from start to finish and a larger team of about 20 people who would participate in a two-day kickoff session to respond to our preliminary research and offer insights. Welch, along with a core group of APA staffers, served as "brand champions," people who would ensure that the rebranding was implemented, communicating with chapter and division leadership.

Under a Microscope

To summarize the complex network of APA audiences, we created a visual overview that color coded each type of connection a person could have with APA: national member, chapter members, student member, and so forth. We determined that there are seven types of APA members based on magnitude of engagement ("Moderately Active Certified Member," for example, or "Local Chapter, Non-APA Member"). Understanding the needs of these seven audiences helped us create messaging and communications that spoke to each type individually.

Change can be alienating, and making it clear that you're steering toward a constructive change is arguably the most vital aspect of a successful branding process.

In addition to analyzing APA's audiences, we needed to understand the organization's approach to communication. We gathered materials in 11 categories—business papers, advertising, periodicals, and more—and organized them on a wall. At this point the adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words" couldn't be more true. We could see good applications of the brand as well as bad ones. We evaluated each piece objectively against a set of performance criteria and shared the results and our recommendations with APA.

To test internal biases and perceptions of APA's brand, we also sent an online survey to a group of 500 members and nonmembers. The bulk of our questions addressed brand recognition: "Which of these is our current logo?" "Which color is our current color?" Other questions asked the respondents to rate APA against a collection of personality attributes. Is APA a leader? Is APA an information source? Does APA support chapters and divisions? In addition to the survey (which enjoyed a response rate of greater than 20 percent), we studied member forums and news stories to gauge brand perception in the media, public, and planning community.

What did we learn? APA members easily recognized the logo, and changing it would require re-educating thousands of people at great expense. So our mission was to strengthen the brand by evolving other aspects of the graphic identity—color, typography, layout, and messaging—but not change the logo.

Part of expressing a brand effectively is determining an association's culture and business style. To get a better fix on that, we created a polarity exercise. We developed 19 word pairs that represented opposite ends of a personality spectrum—"cutting edge" versus "traditional," for example. Neither word is inherently negative, just opposed to the other. On a poster, we plotted these word pairs at opposite ends of a line representing the continuum, then placed six equally spaced circles on each line.

Click to enlarge

Then we asked members of the APA team to place a green dot in the circle that best represented APA at that moment and a red dot in the circle that represented where they wanted APA to go. Working together, they reached a consensus on the placement of each dot. Our job was to interpret the positioning of the dots and understand the brand personality that emerged. Eventually, we turned that personality into concrete design attributes like color, typeface, and even language style.

We also mapped APA's position within the context of other organizations to better indentify its niche. We created a quandrant map with continuums from "reactive" to "proactive" and "discreet" to "outspoken." In each quadrant, we selected an organization that embodies its attributes: The American Red Cross, for instance, was reactive and discreet, while Greenpeace was outspoken and proactive. As it stood in 2004, APA needed to be closer to the Greenpeace persona but was residing more along the lines of the Red Cross.

"The organization's been around in various forms for a long time, and I think the perception has been that it's a kind of staid, reliable, authoritative, thorough, old-guard sort of organization," says Welch. "We're always interested in challenging that."

A New Structure

Our new branding program rebuilt the APA organizational family through the use of a few simple but compelling design elements: typography, color, and hierarchy. Not all chapters embraced the plan, feeling that it risked diminishing their autonomy. What would happen to their newsletters and lapel pins? At APA conferences in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, we assuaged fears by holding special sessions titled "The Branding Doctor Is In." These consultations with chapters and divisions allowed us to review the new brand guidelines in person and address specific questions and concerns.

Ultimately, buy-in came from creating a program that was flexible and customizable but residing in a highly structured framework. Chapters and divisions would only have to adopt a few key elements of the new brand: the logo and signature, a predetermined color palette, a newsletter masthead, and a letterhead system. At the highest level, APA and all its constituents would look like one cohesive organization. Chapters and divisions were then free to express their own cultures, stories, and iconography through their communications. We produced a document, "Become the APA Brand," that explained all the new rules and choices and made expectations about adoption clear.

"I was surprised, honestly, by how many chapters were excited about it and saw it as a great opportunity," says Welch. "They would have fun picking out the color, and a lot of them seemed very proud to have the new logo."

APA encouraged chapter leaders who embraced the new brand to speak out about their enthusiasm, and it gave the holdouts a long leash. "We knew that not everybody would come along at the same speed," says Welch. "So we built some flexibility into it." It wasn't until 2009 that the last state chapter finally signed onto the branding guidelines, but everybody is now on board.

How important is that collective power? In 2006, APA designated October as National Community Planning Month, an initiative designed to increase the visibility of planning efforts around the United States. According to Welch, instituting a consistent branding approach for APA has bolstered its efforts to gain attention for the initiative. "The consistent graphic identity for the outreach effort focuses chapters' energy and attention on getting the message out," he says. "That's a clear benefit that we've seen."

Making time to generate, analyze, and share insights was crucial to a brand identity that truly conveys APA's leadership in its community. Change can be alienating, and making it clear that you're steering toward a constructive change is arguably the most vital aspect of a successful branding process. Associations regularly conduct strategic planning; wise ones will also make a habit of strategic branding.

John Sotirakis is an associate at ThoughtForm Inc., a communications consultancy and design firm based in Pittsburgh. Email: [email protected]

Sample Document

Chapter Marketing Materials (PDF)

Organization: American Planning Association
Description: These materials reflect a new brand identity developed by APA along with the design firm ThoughtForm Inc. Prior to the redesign, chapter logos were inconsistent; the new design provided all chapters with a similar logo but allowed them to choose their own color scheme, bringing a unifying element to the Illinois chapter’s marketing materials.
Contact: Michael Welch, [email protected]

For more related sample documents, see "Marketing Tools and Resources: Branding and Logo Policies" in ASAE & The Center's Models & Samples collection.

John Sotirakis