• Transform magazine
  • August 22, 2017

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Opinion: How can we redress the balance in membership organisation branding?

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"By handing over their heart and their passion, trade bodies and membership associations are also handing over their voice and their soul," says Max du Bois. How can they avoid these pitfalls?

It is not that long ago that the pharmaceutical sector was seen as one of the most respected industries. Twenty years ago, it relied far less on branding but it certainly had more substance behind its mission. Now it appears to have swapped its ethical approach and raison d’être for a focus on stock performance. Yet, while the industry has become more of a sales pipeline rather than a sector that offers life-saving solutions, its branding is now dynamic and impactful.

While the pharmaceutical sector is left privately wondering where it left its ethics, its learned society membership counterparts, which were founded to support and promote research and to improve lives, appear to shy away from any visionary marketing and branding emphasis.

This sharp contrast not only seems somewhat hypocritical, it also risks undermining the membership associations. By handing over their heart and their passion, trade bodies and membership associations are also handing over their voice and their soul.

It is time they come out of the shadows. They have a more compelling story to share than most of their commercial counterparts, and by dimming their own light and acting humble, they are in effect allowing the commercial sector to steal their limelight. In so doing, they risk losing a raft of opportunities that could help them evolve and grow.

Furthermore, as digital disruption threatens the very bonds of a membership society, it is imperative they shout about their mission and their vision not only to attract fresh new talent and add value to their commercial counterparts, but to act as a trusted voice in policy and public debates; one that puts purpose before profits.

Here are four key ways of redressing the balance. The first is to have a values statement. The market may be crowded, but your audience will listen to you if they care about your cause and share your values. This means not wasting the opportunity to use value statements to say something really engaging and different. Your values are about why you do what you do. Values are the principles that drive you and they should not read like an internal strategy document. When emotional engagement is the goal, lead with the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ or ‘how.’

Second, cut out generic values. Generic values are those that are shared across the sector. They are expected and assumed by all but are often considered “things that we should probably say.” The main problem with using them is that it states the obvious. Don’t choose universal, and therefore bland, values and don’t waste everyone’s time by simply telling them what type of organisation they can expect to find in the medical research sector.

Third, know the difference between values and behaviours. The key difference is that behaviours are the standards you operate to and values are the principles behind your actions. Values are external communications tools. Behaviours are internal management tools, but often have a similar-sounding, positive vocabulary, like ‘effective.’ When they get confused a crucial opportunity to engage with the public is lost.

The simple rule is this: Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh! In other words, demonstrate you are professional, inclusive, transparent and so on, and use the values statement for something really engaging. 

Finally, be bold and be different. Learned societies and membership organisations are not grey, dull and fusty, they are often hotbeds for innovation and as such they need to be bold, ambitious and different. Drawing your individual values out and sharing them will go a long way to achieving this.

Tell people who you are and why it matters that you exist. If you don’t take a stand for something, you may as well not stand for anything. By trying to please everyone and playing it safe, you risk not getting through to anyone.

Stand for something, cause a reaction, get past the obvious, remember who you represent and find something genuine – then people will rally to your cause, give you the funds you need and make your charity the change-maker it was set up to be.

Max du Bois is the executive director of Spencer du Bois