The Association Brand Gap

Shakespeare may have once asked, “What’s in a name?” and generally I subscribe to the notion that selecting the right brand name isn’t as important as developing the right associations for it.  But sometimes names really matter — and they definitely do in the case of professional associations if they want to close the association brand gap.association brand gap

The importance of association names was the premise behind my latest Harvard Business Review post, “To Stay Relevant, Professional Associations Must Rebrand.”  The piece was triggered by the recent announcement that the Consumer Electronics Association (the organization behind CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, held last week) was recently rebranded as the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

CTA President Gary Shapiro explained the rebrand, saying that the new name “most accurately reflects our vision, scope of activity, current membership base and brand promise.”  The organization, he said, recognized the need for a new name because its participants had changed.  “Just as the tech sector itself has evolved and now crosses multiple industry sectors, we’ve broadened our membership to include new technologies and intersecting industries – software, app development, crowdsourcing technology, robotics, content creation, and the personalized health care and services sectors.

A name change has been needed for a long time.  Last year, I observed that, “The most exciting, useful, and broadly appealing developments of tomorrow will be technology that is integrated into our existing products, our lifestyles, even our own bodies — and the value of technology will increasingly be derived from content and applications in addition to, or even in place of, products.  The Consumer Electronics Show needs a more inclusive, expansive brand name to reflect the current reality and future potential of technological innovation.

Even Shapiro admitted, “Several years ago, our executive board directed us to focus on promoting innovation – and we’ve succeeded in positioning ourselves as a global champion that encourages and highlights innovation. However, our former name seemed to sometimes contradict this positioning.”   The rebrand was important — but it had been such a long time coming, it ended up seeming anti-climatic.

The change was also quite subtle.  The shift from “electronics” to “technology” is significant. As Shapiro explained, “By replacing the dated term ‘Electronics’ with the broader ‘Technology,’ we can more accurately and readily represent non-hardware innovators such as Airbnb, Lyft, Pandora, Snapchat, Uber and Yelp.”  But the rest of the name remained the same — and it sounds so similar, so the name change seems more like a non-change.  The rebrand was innocuous.

The world seemed to agree with my assessment.  When the new name was announced, it drew little attention from media outside the industry and did not prompt any large-scale conversations in social networks.  The CTA produces the world’s largest trade show which attracts high profile media coverage from around the world — and yet its new name met with little fanfare, or protest, for that matter.

At first I was surprised by the lack of reaction. But as I researched the rebrands of other trade associations and industry organizations, I came to realize that the understated nature of the change was likely intentional.  I found that most professional associations seem more comfortable with generic, conventional names — and this reflects their typical posture of operating conservatively, or at least uncontroversially.  With such a missed opportunity, I had to write the HBR.org piece about the association brand gap.

Please give the post a read and let me know what you think.  I hope you will add your comments there to those that have been left by some folks who didn’t seem to read or understand it.  Thanks!

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