The following is adapted from a tutorial given at RCMA 2009 by Bill Oechsler, president of XLER Marketing & Brand Consultancy, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Is my organization relevant to its members? Is my organization different from other religious groups? Are we communicating in a language that will resonate with our audience? These are just some of the questions to ask when branding an organization or event.

What is a brand? A brand is a widely recognized name or symbol. In the consumer realm, Nike, McDonald's, and Apple have the highest brand recognition.

People believe that it takes a lot of money to develop a brand, but that's not necessarily true. An intern designed Nike's logo, and the company paid $50 for it. Nike's tagline, “Just Do It,” was not considered great by the company leadership — it was the “least bad” of three that the company's ad agency proposed. But everyone at Nike got behind what they had and delivered on the promise of serving the athlete.

Principles of Branding

  1. Differentiate or Die. An effective brand is a unique entity that has separated itself from its competitors. If you position yourself without differentiation, you're just selling a category.

    For example, the Marines call themselves “The Few, The Proud.” They're not “the many” — they're not for everyone. They have differentiated themselves from other career paths and from other branches of the military.

    Another example is Coca-Cola, which has not let itself be lumped together with other cola-flavored beverages. Coca-Cola says, “It's the real thing,” and in so doing says that all other colas are not the real thing. Other company slogans, including “Coke is it” and “Always Coca-Cola,” separate Coke from other colas and raise the brand above the level of a commodity. The company's language reinforces its leadership position.

  2. Have the product or service to back up your claims. If you don't have the goods, then the claims will put the product out of business twice as fast. One example was Oldsmobile's “It's Not Your Father's Oldsmobile” campaign. People went to the showrooms and said, “You're right, it's not. It's my grandfather's Oldsmobile.”

  3. Protect an enduring personality. Be careful about walking away from a successful message. United Airlines tossed aside its iconic “Fly the Friendly Skies” slogan and adopted “Rising,” which flopped. Once you lose your identity, it's hard to get it back.

  4. Cultivate desirability. A successful brand is created for and desired by the consumer in our niche-oriented society. It is not something that is created for and sold en masse. The ultimate branding example is Apple's Macintosh, beginning with the 1984 Super Bowl ad that equated IBM with conformity and totalitarianism and Apple with individuality and democracy.

    Apple's focus on simplicity, the individual, and personalization continues with the iPhone, which can be any kind of tool that the user wants it to be. Another constant with the Apple brand is intuitiveness — recognizing that most people are not computer programmers.

    On the flip side, an example of mass-market mentality was Henry Ford saying, “You can have any color you want, as long as it's black.”

    When looking at your organization or events, remember that people expect to be able to make choices. How can you give your members more choice and more control?

  5. Lasting impressions. Every time that your brand comes into contact with people, you have an opportunity to make an impression. Ask yourself: Is the impression positive, negative, or unrealized?

    A positive impression is what you want to achieve. A negative impression can be fixed. An unrealized impression occurs when you had an opportunity but the inherent drama of your brand did not come through. This can happen in a conversation, on a Web site, or in a brochure. It's not the medium, it's how the message is conveyed.

  6. Dialogue. To create a powerful brand, an organization needs to enter into dialogue with its members. A community needs to exist or be created so that your members can tell you want they want — instead of you trying to guess.

  7. Star treatment. How well do you treat your best members? Several years ago, Starbucks introduced gift cards. To announce them, the company sent $25 gift cards to its best customers. Imagine the brand loyalty the company achieved and how many gift cards were purchased by the best customers — and for only $25.

Branding Steps

  1. When branding, ask these questions: What is at the very essence of who we are? How can we differentiate ourselves? How can we communicate our brand through sight, sound, and emotion?

  2. Be alert. You must gather insight into your organization, your audience, your competition, and trends. Start doing something that you're not doing, stop doing something that's hurting you, and keep doing something that's working.

  3. Be brand-focused internally. Before you tell the world about your new brand, you need buy-in within your organization. Find champions of the brand in your organization. Ferret out people who are naysayers and change their minds, because converted naysayers will be your best supporters.

  4. Be consumercentric. What do consumers need? What do they want? What are they doing?

  5. Know that everything matters. Howard Schulz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, says, “Understanding branding is easy: Everything matters.” At your events, do an Everything Matters checklist and ask: What are the most important touch points for this event? How are we doing on our top priorities? How can we make them better?

The Zondervan Case

If your organization or event is traditional, conservative, rational, and trans-actional, how do you become bold, contemporary, iconic, and relational?

Consider the case of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Zondervan. The company was a publishing house that published books. Its tagline was “The leading Christian publishing company.”

But leaders saw the evolving digital landscape, and Zondervan rebranded and repositioned itself, becoming a communications company that is device-neutral and thus involved in all media. The new tagline is “Live life inspired.” It's a line that's inclusive and that everyone — customers, employees, vendors — can own. It casts a vision for the company and gives direction to all its divisions.

In the midst of the rebranding, Zondervan took a hard look at an event it owned that had what it was touting as a “digital café.” The reality? A tall table sat in a room with high ceilings and bright lights, with four computers pulled from the registration area. Oechsler's reaction when he first saw it was, “It's kind of a bait-and-switch. It's not a digital café. I think we can do more, and I think we can get someone to sponsor it.”

Oechsler set the lights low and provided free Internet access, cushy chairs, free back massages, a beverage cart, snacks, and live entertainment. The attendees loved it, and traffic was triple what he had predicted. Zondervan was on its way to becoming bold, contemporary, iconic, and relational.