Experts don’t all agree on key words for crafting a new association name, but strong leadership and board buy-in are essential
Sept. 27, 2021
By William Ehart
Let’s play word association—with the word “association.”
Many trade groups and professional societies rebranding in recent years have forsaken the word most associated with their sector.
Some favor the word “alliance” instead. In at least one case—that of American Beverage last January—the word “association” was dropped, but not replaced with anything.
Other groups create new words or adopt acronyms with bright new logos. Some keep their existing acronyms but change what the letters stand for. It’s usually part of an effort to reflect changing industries, appeal to new members or add a modern touch.
Branding consultants and nonprofit leaders interviewed by CEO Update have different perspectives on these choices and on the word “association.” Some see the word as outdated while others see enduring value. But ultimately it depends on whom your brand is meant to appeal to—your members or prospective members, society as a whole, policymakers or all of the above.
“Particularly for an association, in considering your audience and considering the public, you can sometimes get too cute for your own good,” said Josh Golden, VP and senior creative director at marketing agency Yes&. “‘Association’ has a built-in value proposition to it. Intrinsic to the word ‘association’ is an understanding of what it exists to do.”
Golden said keeping “association” is not the best option in every circumstance. But among the rebrandings assisted by Yes& in recent years was that of the Household & Commercial Products Association, formerly the Consumer Specialty Products Association. The new name more specifically reflects the types of goods produced by members.
Another traditional rebrand that gets high marks from observers—including Suzy Wagner, president of Washington, D.C. -based firm Brand & Buzz—is that of the Consumer Brands Association, which shed the name Grocery Manufacturers Association in early 2020. (Wagner did not work on that project.)
But Wagner is among those who say that “association” is a word that may not speak to some critical constituencies.
“'Association’ doesn’t resonate outside the Beltway, or with anyone under the age of 50,” she said. “The word ‘association’ is a bit tired.”
Don’t drown in letters
But practitioners agree on some things. One is, if you must explain, you’re already behind the game. They caution groups tempted to become known just by their acronyms against drowning in the alphabet swamp of Washington, D.C.
Wagner said, in her experience, clients do better with shorter, cleaner names.
“Simplifying is a much more effective way of communicating with your customer,” Wagner said. “People don’t have the bandwidth or time to Google what it is you’re talking about. People have to connect with you immediately, because you don’t really get a second at-bat.”
A recent example of a shortened name came in June when the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) dropped the last four words and the acronym, becoming just the Manufacturers Alliance. (Originally the Machinery and Allied Products Institute, the association had changed what the acronym stood for in 1989.)
CEO Stephen Gold said the leadership networking group’s name had a lot of brand loyalty, but noted many members were nearing retirement. And even some board members were mispronouncing the acronym, which was supposed to be pronounced “may-pie.”
He concedes that Manufacturers Alliance on its own doesn’t state explicitly what the group does, but said the professional society is well enough known in its sector that a complete rename would have been going too far.
“We wanted to make sure that the people who have been with us for a while know who we are,” Gold said. “But on the other hand, we’re also trying to appeal to (up-and-coming executives), as well. And the focus groups we had basically said that Manufacturers Alliance did that the best.”
Liz Clark, CEO of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, has seen other groups’ names and acronyms fall flat with stakeholders, including lawmakers. (Before joining IHRSA in August, Clark was a lobbyist for the National Confectioners Association for 10 years.)
“If you have to explain what the name means, it’s wasted airtime,” Clark said. “I’ve been in enough meetings where people have association acronyms that don’t reflect anything, or it’s almost like the tagline is the identifier, where I feel the identifier should be the actual name.”
Clark said IHRSA will undergo a rebrand but the effort is still in the early stages. The acronym is a mouthful and doesn’t reflect all members and potential members.
The association will seek a name and a brand that encompasses everything from racquet clubs to yoga studios to makers of fitness-related technology. It must also carry weight on Capitol Hill as IHRSA is bent on adding strong advocacy to its meetings-heavy portfolio. The industry has not been able to obtain from Congress the industry-specific pandemic relief it sought.
Clark said the association, in turnaround mode, likely won’t hire a consultant to help with the rebrand but will draw on the creativity of board members with experience branding their own businesses.
“The board and the leadership will look to me to help lead them in that direction,” she said. “And we have so many thought leaders in this space that I’m confident we will be able to get to the finish line with their input.”
Or, as Clark told The Wall Street Journal early this month, “I find myself calling us ‘the fitness association,’ so why not just make that the name?”
An essential quality of any rebranding effort: strong leadership that is in tune with board members and other stakeholders. Association executives can do all the market research they want, but it comes down to vision and knowing your audience.
“I have done focus groups, I’ve done member surveys, I have done leadership retreats,” said Wagner of Brand & Buzz.
“While those tools and those metrics are all key, they’re not essential if you want to make a change, because at the end of the day, the leader is going to drive this,” Wagner said. “And if he or she doesn’t agree with the research, they’ll throw it out.”
Strong leadership and board buy-in are essential because some organizations start out to rebrand but end up getting “cold feet,” said Andrew Teie, VP of brand strategy and customer experience at Yes&.
“We’ve seen associations go down a long path only to find their board hadn’t bought in, or who was actually making the decision hadn’t been defined,” he said. “We’ve seen associations spend a lot of time and energy and capital to tweak a line in their logo.”
Having said that, sometimes minor changes are the appropriate step.
“Oftentimes, that’s best practice because you can’t lose the equity you’ve built already,” Teie said. “A great way to bring that forward is to do a brand evolution and not a brand revolution.”
Wagner agreed that some associations second-guess themselves or try to make decisions by committee.
“I just see a lot of people who make mistakes,” she said. “And it really comes down to being risk-averse. They’re so nervous about doing the wrong thing, they do nothing.”
Then again, sometimes it isn’t a rebrand that associations need.
“It’s not always about building a better mouse trap,” Wagner said. “Maybe instead of a rebrand, you just need better marketing. Or maybe you need a public relations strategy or a strong membership director. Having the right people in the right seats can be even more important than going through an exhaustive name change.”
What’s in a (new) name? A lot, these rebranded groups hope
From newfangled words to reimagined acronyms, associations see new identities as transcending original professions or industry sectors
A sampling of major association rebrandings from the past two years shows, in many cases, a continued shift away from straightforward, traditional names describing what the groups are—or perhaps more accurately, were.
Optica: The Optical Society—an association for scientists in the field of light—adopted its new name in September, leveraging the existing name of its journal. The association had earlier dropped the word “America” from its name but kept the OSA acronym. New tagline: “The society advancing optics and photonics worldwide.”
ICSC: The International Council of Shopping Centers (still its legal name after 65 years) had been known by its acronym for some time. But in July, the group reimagined what the initials stood for: Innovating Commerce Serving Communities. The move maintained the brand equity of ICSC while nodding to changes in the way people shop as well as expanding membership.
Manufacturers Alliance: Known as the Machinery and Allied Products Institute at its founding during the Great Depression, the association had rebranded as Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) in 1989. In June 2021, the leadership networking group simplified its name by dropping “for Productivity and Innovation,” in part to make its appeal clearer to younger potential members. Tagline: “Powering Leaders.”
AHIP: The former America’s Health Insurance Plans declared itself simply AHIP in June. The association stated, “More than an advocate for health insurance providers, AHIP is an advocate for every American.” The group had been formed in 2003 by the merger of the Health Insurance Association of America and the American Association of Health Plans. New tagline: “Guiding Greater Health.”
American Beverage: The former American Beverage Association dropped the word “association” early this year. The group said in a statement that the new named “captures the strength and unity of our industry.” Tagline: “Driving Solutions Together.”
Finseca: The Association for Advanced Life Underwriting (AALU) and GAMA International coined a new name when their merger was completed in September 2020. (GAMA previously stood for General Agents and Managers Association.) The group says Finseca is a meshing of the words Financial Security for All and also reflects the aspiration to “represent and serve the entire financial security profession regardless of role, marketplace or experience.”
Consumer Brands Association: In one of the rarer instances of sticking with a traditional name, the struggling former Grocery Manufacturers Association rebranded in early 2020 in part to reflect that its members' brand-name products now are sold through a variety of channels, including online.
Alliance for Automotive Innovation: The Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers unveiled the new brand when they announced their merger in January 2020 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. With self-driving cars under continued development, the group also expanded its membership beyond traditional car manufacturers to include suppliers, tech companies and startups. Tagline: “Transforming Personal Mobility.”