Brand Your Association Like Dr. Pavlov

By Michael DiFrisco posted 09-10-2016 20:02


We all remember learning about the famous psychological experiments in conditioned reflex performed by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov around the turn of the previous century. In simple Pavlov's Dogterms, Pavlov would ring a bell prior to feeding his dogs (his test subjects). The dogs came to associate the ringing of the bell with the presentation of the food, and Pavlov saw that they were quickly conditioned to respond to the bell ringing and anticipating their food. Soon, all the scientist had to do was ring the bell and observe the dog’s increased saliva flow.

Believe it or not, that same principle is at work in your association. When we hear a name, see a logo, whiff a particular scent, or encounter a sensation, we are conditioned—based on our previous experiences to those things—to respond in a specific way.

When I see the distinctively shapely Coca-Cola bottle, for example, all my experiences with Coke—refreshment, summers of my youth, Captain Morgan rum, and more—flood into my brain and my conditioned reflex informs my decision-making. 

Two Important Branding Lessons From Pavlov

  1. He rang the bell consistently. He didn’t change from a bell to a whistle and then switch to a horn. He consistently used a bell to condition his test subjects to react a certain way when they heard that ringing. So it is with delivering your association’s brand. Consistency is about creating a self re-enforcing loop in which you define your brand incrementally through every contact with your members and prospects.
  1. When Pavlov rang the bell, he didn’t withhold the food (the reward). In order to anchor that conditioned response, he followed the ringing with the food. Every time. It’s been said that a brand is a promise wrapped in an experience; a consistent promise wrapped in a consistent experience. Your association brand is your assurance about who you are (your benefits and offerings) and how you will improve the personal or professional lives of your target audience. This brand promise gets reinforced every time your members and prospects come in contact with your association, but only if you follow through.

Here is Seth Godin’s formula for building a brand:

[Prediction of what to expect] x [emotional power of that expectation] = a brand.

Kinda looks like Pavlov’s theory:

[Ringing of the bell creates an expectation] x [the emotional anticipation of that expectation] = salivating canine

Branding, then, is nothing more, and nothing less, than developing and delivering an expectation. The most successful brands promise that they will deliver their offerings in a specific manner welcomed by a target market and—here’s the Pavlovian part—they keep their promise over and over again. So if you want to build a strong association brand, establish a positive expectation and then consistently fulfill it.

Ringing the Bell is an Inside Job
The key to developing and delivering a consistent brand experience is to make sure your staff, leadership, and volunteers are all on board. Here’s how:

  1. Be clear about what you want to communicate. Your brand idea should be really simple, so capture the spirit of what your brand stands for in as few words as possible. Think Disney (Fun Family Entertainment) or Nike (Authentic Athletic Performance). This “brand driver” or mantra serves as a sort of rallying cry. Your organization needs to know your “brand recipe” by heart so they can act on it instinctively. So make your recipe an easy one with not too many ingredients.
  2. People also need to understand where they fit into the whole and why it matters. You need to give them a context for their actions. One association I worked for was known for the cleanliness of its grounds and its facilities. Once this attribute of the brand was highlighted as an element worth differentiating on, the maintenance crew and groundskeepers finally understood why the “menial” jobs they performed were so important to delivering on the brand promise of the organization in a consistent way. These workers finally understood their role in the bigger picture.
  3. Think of brand engagement as not simply teaching your staff and leaders new buzzwords, rather, give them an innate sense of your association brand. They won’t need a cookbook for your brand recipe because they already know the ingredients—a new culture, a new set of behaviors.
  4. Your objective is to reach an internal “We get it!” Your staff should know what your brand stands for and how they can deliver your brand experience consistently across all member touch points. Your team should be able to proclaim: “We know how to be the brand.”

Branding is about conditioning your staff to deliver your brand promise consistently, and then creating a conditioned response in your members and prospects. That’s because branding comes down to associating a name with a unique, meaningful benefit... just like associating the bell with the meaningful benefit of food.

Why a unique attribute? Because a lot of your competitors—the other associations and private sector alternatives—are ringing their bells, too.