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How membership organisations can build stronger brands - Transform

By Claire Hall

As featured in Transform, by Max du Bois.

Customer testimonies are an old and popular way of waving a flag for your organisation, and in today’s age of digital marketing and sharing, they have become a powerful, and often double-edged, force. Yet few membership organisations have harnessed an underlying power that dates back to their founding principles.

The story with National Union of Students (NUS) starts in 2013, when the organisation had a portfolio of services that had become a tangled mess. Its brand was ill-defined, incoherent, invisible and ineffective. It needed to mesh its multiple services and wide range of audiences, and to do so it needed an entirely new kind of brand, one that acted as creative and intellectual glue.

It is not unusual to find brands that focus so deeply on each service or product, that they create silos that hide the collective breadth and depth of what they do. As a result, they squander a valuable commercial asset that could help establish the credibility of new services and encourage cross-usage and sales.

Yet the solution is relatively simple. Organisations need to define what they have that really appeals, both on an emotional and a rational level, to their audiences. They need to ask, ‘How can we make what we do relevant and appealing to all our audiences?’ 

Finding the answer to this question is so much easier now as organisations can rekindle the age-old relationship game thanks to a heightened level of connectivity. Yet many still use connectivity as little more than broadcast, squandering its unique ability in faux dialogue.

This new way to conceptualise the dynamic of relating to stakeholders, audiences and customers is precisely how NUS tapped into its target audience – in this case students – asking them what they wanted. By listening and then centring its marketing proposition around their responses, the brand got to the hearts of the 7m students it represents.

The organisation took the students’ voices and crafted a brand that aimed to shape the future of education. To do so, NUS handed over its digital platforms to the people, many of whom set up their own interest and sub-groups, something that further strengthened the bond with the brand.

It took courage. Building a platform from which everyone can participate and then stepping back to allow them to do so, meant relinquishing control over the brand.

Those in the commercial sector are better versed in the power of user-generated content. Yet while many commercial brands have recognised that relationship-building approaches need to replace the ownership type of mentality for brands, those in the membership and university sectors still struggle to let the reins go. In our experience working with numerous universities and membership organisations, we see firsthand how this type of co-creation taps into the most powerful form of drive, one that builds brands by aligning with a transformative idea. The key is identifying the core brand message by understanding and accessing what the target audience truly believes.

The focus should be on sharing rather than selling, joining the conversation rather than taking over the microphone. It is no longer about the individual, it is about the group as a whole and it is as far away from good old fashioned persuasion as a brand manager can get. 

As a result marketers need to distance themselves from the end result, in effect becoming the enabling tool to help people express and achieve their goals.

By shifting the mindset away from ‘target’ audience – which implies a more predatory attitude – to ‘participants,’ we break down the walls between the organisation and the people, turning the focus towards ‘us’ rather than ‘them.’

The result, as NUS found out, can be transformational as those organisations that base their marketing on the aggregation of all the conversations between themselves and their audiences, creates a bottom-up community that gains in momentum as it develops.

Building a solid platform with an overarching principle behind it rather than a jumble of content, enables organisations such as NUS to craft their own, unique vision and footprint.

Throwing open the gates to their digital platforms, encouraging people to become active participants, giving them a voice and handing over the microphone as it were, lay the foundations towards a fresh new perception of what NUS is about.