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Membership organisations: relevance, coherence and clarity

By Jenni Bacon

What’s the point of a membership organisation? In an age of online social networks, linking up with like minded individuals across all kinds of boundaries has, in theory, never been easier. Why sign up to be a card-carrying member of anything formal at all? Whether it’s more about identity or tangible member benefits, brand is all important in an always-on, hyper connected world. 

We’ve worked with a diverse range of membership organisations over the past couple of years, from NUS to the Royal Society of Chemistry. Invariably, the key question we’ve helped these (largely historic) organisations to solve, is how to ensure their brand keeps pace with a world that has changed rapidly around them.

  • How to communicate relevance in the 21st century?
  • How to create a sense of coherence across a hugely diverse range of audiences?
  • How to communicate their purpose with clarity across a complex portfolio of activities?

Communicating relevance
A strong brand narrative helps to strengthen value propositions for members. It helps organisations hone in on the key things that make them different from others, particularly in fields where they are a number of organisations competing for membership. Establishing a strong brand identity can help to recreate or even engender a sense of shared identity among otherwise disparate members - people of different ages, at different stages of their careers, from complementary industries, or even totally different backgrounds. Most membership organisations offer student memberships for free or at very low cost. For a couple of years at least, membership might seem a no-brainer. But invariably costs jump post student days and membership organisations see a huge drop off in member numbers. Too often membership organisations sell themselves short to their student members, bribing them with low value trinkets and merchandise which can become the abiding association. Pre rebrand ask any student chemist what they thought of when they thought of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the answer would come back: ‘free goggles’ and not much else. This was a missed opportunity. The goggles were a success, but by no means the whole story. Brand makes sure all audiences see the bigger picture, and its relevance to them.

Communicating coherence
Part of building that bigger picture is creating a sense of coherence in the organisation’s narrative. This doesn’t mean a one-size fits all approach, but instead one that looks for the points of commonality between diverse audiences. As we’ve seen, audiences like ‘members’ and ‘potential members’ are hardly homogenous themselves, but most membership organisations also have other important stakeholders - usually a reflection of their hugely diverse activities. From political lobbying and influencing policy, to education and public outreach, membership organisations of all kinds have to be able to ‘flex’ their message without either diluting it to the point of blandness or presenting multiple and irreconcilably different faces to the world. NUS is a dynamic organisation with staff and members always creating and supporting new initiatives to support the student cause. This is a sign of a flexible and creative organisation, but their brand just wasn’t keeping pace with their activities. The NUS Extra card - their most visible and desirable touchpoint - was disconnected from the rest of the portfolio with barely any branding. Something is going wrong if members are barely aware of the organisation that provides them with something as valuable as nationwide high street discounts. 

Membership organisations often have a large member and volunteer contingent who form their own sub-groups and committees (often with their own logos) and this, too, can create a sense of fragmentation and disconnection from the centre. Commercial activities, from publishing to consultancy, are all too often viewed as an organisation’s ‘dirty secret’ and not fully integrated into the proposition for members, when in reality they have a lot to offer.A brand project finds the common threads that link activities that may at first glance seem too disparate to bring together. This enables the organisation to benefit from the combined strength of all their products and services so as not to starve the core brand of meaning and relevance. 

Communicating with clarity
It’s no surprise that membership organisations often feel they lack clarity in their messaging. Communicating to a diverse range of audiences across a complex portfolio tends to lead to over-compensation and over-complication of messages at every level as organisations try to list everything they’re doing.Brand projects can force organisations to prioritise their audiences and messages. It encourages an almost ruthless focus on the overall strategy for the organisation and its future. Deciding on a core central narrative for the organisation makes communications and marketing easier and it allows teams to focus on the most relevant messages for each audience, safe in the knowledge that it will be viewed in context of the overarching brand identity. Suddenly not every message has to say everything, all the time, to everyone, which can be very liberating for communications professionals. 

The value of brand
Membership organisations rightly need to prove the value of a brand project to their most important constituents - their members. Indeed, the involvement and active participation of members can make or break the project. A thorough review of the current brand on these three measures: relevance, coherence and clarity can really help an organisation decide whether or not to take the plunge and invest in brand. Balancing the needs of current members against the needs of future and potential members can be challenging, but brand always looks to the future. Membership organisations simply need to ensure that members understand the rationale for any change, and that they feel part of a clear, coherent vision for a future that resonates personally with them. 

In the last fourteen brand projects we’ve completed for membership organisations, the process of drawing on members’ collective wisdom in providing greater visibility for the organisation has generated widespread understanding and support. In every case, we’ve been able to answer that question – what is the point of this organisation? We’ve rediscovered and uncovered the value it adds to its membership and the wider world. Brand has a way of clarifying and reinvigorating, drawing on important heritage even as it modernises and refreshes, and defining the basis for trust and value in a noisy competitive world.