Early on, the first brands were used by ranchers to identify their cattle. Later, as packaged consumer goods entered the market in the 19th century, brands evolved into markers that companies like Kleenex and Coca-Cola used to differentiate themselves from competitors. 

It was simple. But branding isn’t so simple anymore.  

Brand is about more than just knowing what soda to reach for on the shelf. Today, brand is about the relationship a consumer has with the company that creates a product or offers services. It’s about more than consumption; it’s about emotional investment and, sometimes, even a personal statement about the values we share.   

Given the evolution of brand, it’s no wonder the definition has gone from concrete to seriously abstract. Some of the more fuzzy definitions have tried to capture this feelings-based relationship between a brand and a customer.  

For example, David Ogilvy calls brand “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” Bryan Eisenberg says it’s “the sum-total of consumers’ perceptions of a product, service, experience or organization,” and Marty Neumeier believes brand is “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.” 

After having worked for several different associations, I’ve seen first-hand how boards and executives grapple with how to improve their organizations’ brand. But as with any problem, we have to agree on its definition before we can begin to solve it. 

If top experts can’t agree on a definition, how is an association to strategize around its own branding? 

What should ‘brand’ do for you?

It’s easy to say a brand is something concrete, like a logo or mark, or point to something more abstract like consumers’ perceptions, but neither clarifies what it means to be a successful brand. Is success how recognizable a logo is? Is it being perceived as the best in class? Is success measured by dominance in media coverage? 

Complex definitions also hint at elements of brand success that require measurement, such as brand recognition, perception, personality, experience, identity and loyalty. The more complex the definition, the more elements are involved, making it more difficult to understand what constitutes holistic success … and, cynically, the more a brand consultant typically charges to help your organization with its brand. 

This complexity also makes it more difficult for employees to connect with and support the brand in their day-to-day jobs. 

So, after reviewing hundreds of brand definitions, I walked away with two insights: conversations around brand typically lack a clear idea of what makes for a successful one, and the simpler definitions make it easy to support and measure brand success. 

This means an association’s brand definition should:

  1. Clarify brand success. 
  2. Offer a pathway for creating a measurable brand strategy.
  3. Help association staff connect with and ultimately use the brand as a framework for decision-making around projects, initiatives and resourcing. 

Choose your definition

My research led me to a seven-word definition that fulfills all three requirements: Brand is a promise of value, delivered.

This definition: 

  • Is simple, implicitly defining success as the ability to define, design, develop and deliver specific value for customers. 
  • Allows associations to strategize around that delivery.
  • Creates clarity for staff, showing them your organization’s customer-centric values and how they can support this through their own choices.  

Apply your definition

In binding brand and value so closely, we can take another step and apply research conducted by Bain & Company, which was published in the Harvard Business Review in September 2016.

Bain & Company strategists help us connect purchasing decisions, customer loyalty, value and brand by identifying 30 types of customer value and arranging them in hierarchical categories:

  1. Functional value
  2. Emotional value
  3. Life-changing value
  4. Social impact value

Here’s an interesting interactive tool you might also find helpful.  

 Researchers found that what customers value in products and services varies by industry. Furthermore, they showed a company does NOT need to offer or excel in all 30 customer values to be a powerhouse, though more is better. 

There is one value that stands out: Quality can never be an element of value that is sacrificed.

With this research and the concise brand definition – a promise of value, delivered – it becomes easy to take steps toward designing a truly great association brand.

Here’s how:

  1. Understand the top four to seven elements of customer value your association offers today, as quantified by your customers;
  2. Define and validate the top four to seven future customer values your association must deliver, based on the direction of your industry and/or profession; and
  3. Use the gap analysis from current and future customer value to design your association’s business model and/or product development pathway to close the gap.  

This simple, three-step process allows your organization to work on the substance of what creates a great brand; it’s about creating clear, desired customer value. What’s more, you can measure progress by measuring value delivered, and your staff can clearly align to the customer value they need to create every day to elevate your brand.

The soft science of branding can be more within our control. Agreement on a clear, simple definition allows associations to purposefully design and actively work toward steering the direction of their brand. 

It just takes a few steps to get there.

Feel free to contact me via LinkedIn or at gjo[email protected] to learn more about how we’re applying the ideas in this article to help our association thrive.

Garth Jordan is the SVP and Chief Strategy Officer for HFMA.  Over the past 15 years, he has served in executive roles, including three different C-level roles: Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Strategy Officer. This purposefully-designed diversity of experience has given Garth the opportunity to lead diverse teams through strategic planning and successful execution; build businesses with excellent customer-value propositions; and develop a well-rounded business and cultural acumen geared toward achieving an organization’s goals through high-performing teams.

In recent years, Garth’s opportunities to design, create and build value have expanded. With HFMA, for example, he helped create a horizontal (versus hierarchical) organizational culture that to tackled several large-scale projects at once. One of those projects included Garth designing and facilitating a complete digital transformation of HFMA’s business model, helping it achieve its goal of becoming “the Netflix of associations.” The new member services have received rave reviews to the point that HFMA’s retention rates have increased significantly. The change management required for this project alone was quite intense, and only with a contemporary, team-based approach was HFMA able to achieve success.

Ultimately, for Garth, every day presents a new opportunity to: discover new connections, people and ways of thinking; design new ideas that push the envelope of continuous improvement; and build and prove value for the customers and staff for whom he works.

Garth Jordan is the SVP and Chief Strategy Officer for HFMA.  Over the past 15 years, he has served in executive roles, including three different C-level roles: Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Strategy Officer. This purposefully-designed diversity of experience has given Garth the opportunity to lead diverse teams through strategic planning and successful execution; build businesses with excellent customer-value propositions; and develop a well-rounded business and cultural acumen geared toward achieving an organization’s goals through high-performing teams. In recent years, Garth’s opportunities to design, create and build value have expanded. With HFMA, for example, he helped create a horizontal (versus hierarchical) organizational culture that to tackled several large-scale projects at once. One of those projects included Garth designing and facilitating a complete digital transformation of HFMA’s business model, helping it achieve its goal of becoming “the Netflix of associations.” The new member services have received rave reviews to the point that HFMA’s retention rates have increased significantly. The change management required for this project alone was quite intense, and only with a contemporary, team-based approach was HFMA able to achieve success. Ultimately, for Garth, every day presents a new opportunity to: discover new connections, people and ways of thinking; design new ideas that push the envelope of continuous improvement; and build and prove value for the customers and staff for whom he works.

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