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Branding Works for Association Magazines, Too
By Christopher Bonner
ASAE AMC Connection from February 2002

Associations have adopted virtually every proven technique of contemporary marketing used by for-profit companies, including integrated marketing communications, market segmentation, focus-group research, market testing, e-commerce, and branding. None is more popular today than branding, the subject of countless articles and seminars aimed at association marketing and communications professionals.

There are various definitions of branding. The one I use for associations? Branding systematically leverages reputation for competitive advantage over the long term. It projects a strong image and casts a halo effect on products and services.

Rules of scale apply to many sophisticated marketing techniques used in an association context. A perfect example is market segmentation--messages tailored to demographic slices of a target audience. An association, for example, may wish to approach a similar subject with long-standing and new members. Scaling down doesn't work as well with branding initiatives because successful branding is dependent on recall over time, recall is dependent on the number of impressions, and the number of impressions is dependent on the size of your budget.

While an association may fill its own Web site, publications, and other channels with a stream of branding messages, having those messages resonate convincingly requires external media, and that usually comes at a price. Branding is a marathon that starts as a sprint. Getting off to a fast start; pulling events together to draw attention and build momentum; and coordinating advertising, news media, and Internet exposure is a juggling act. The hard part is sustaining momentum for the brand across an 18- to 24-month horizon.

Branding without sustaining investment over the long term is not branding--it's a promotion. In the case of an association magazine, branding may be a veneer covering a makeover.

Options for association magazines

Branding Makeover Promotion
Strategic asset Magazine Vehicle
Research-based Design-based Offer-based
New life New look New pitch
Big picture Pretty picture What picture?
Long horizon Quick fix Limited time

  • Research. Perform perception analysis of key stakeholders to identify strengths and opportunities. Engage focus-group research at key stages of brand launch to fine-tune messages and reflect market developments. Commission telephone and Internet surveys monitoring the impact of the campaign, and make adjustments, if necessary.
  • Planning. The best branding scheme sets the association as the hub and products and services as the spokes. The branding plan takes into account options for applying brand attributes universally throughout the association. Association planners must decide if it is better to have uniform brand identity simultaneously, which often means delay, or release branded components as they are ready.
  • Originality. It is important to remember that you can't brand what isn't there. If your association isn't known for outstanding member service, branding won't change that. The only way to correct reputation is by correcting performance. The grandiose dot-com media buy at the 2000 Super Bowl was a branding exercise with a fatal flaw. Branding is about track record. You can't brand aspirations that you don't live up to. Credibility is at least as important as having an original approach.
  • Patience. Branding pays dividends over time. Once established, each of the association's branded products or services will reinforce the others. In the minds of members, transactions are based on the confidence that the association will deliver one service as well as it does another.
  • An association magazine may be branded as a standalone if it has a strong identity independent of the parent. Branding works best for healthy associations with strong publications and is a poor choice for a magazine searching for a quick fix. A makeover or a promotion, or both, may produce results faster than a full-blown branding initiative.

    Whether the branding campaign is centered on the magazine or spans associationwide, planning must be integrated across departmental lines. Cross-selling from other areas of the association--for example, the Web site or meetings--is instrumental to getting magazine branding off to a fast start. Public relations is key to generating buzz about the new magazine and creating the sense that the publication is right for its audience--and right for the times.

    Christopher Bonner is founder and president, Bonner Consultants, Inc., McLean, Virginia.

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