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April 19, 2007 | Tate Linden
I'm not sure how other namers out there are approach the naming of associations, membership organizations and societies. Really. I'm not.

Here's why:

We're getting swamped by calls from associations wanting help recovering from naming projects - mostly internally led. They want help recovering from membership revolt or to head off what they see as an impending confrontation.

From what we can determine the causes for the alienation are from one of two things. Either the leadership team went off on its own to develop a new identity and presents a single option for the membership to vote on out of the blue - usually at the annual meeting... Or the leadership team goes to the membership and asks what the name should be - resulting in thousands of submissions, factionalization of the membership base, and no majority approval.

Membership organizations have a rather interesting aspect to the development of a new name. Rather than trying to attract dollars, the name is often better tasked in helping to raise the profile or morale of the membership. Organizations have come to us seeking help in making the members sound more credible, in finding new ways to refer to terms that are outdated, or to invent a word for a concept that is so new it hasn't even had terminology coined yet.

We're really enjoying the work - both on the creative side and on the membership-involvement side. The reason why so many association rebrands fail has more to do with not understanding how to involve the membership without ceding control than it does with finding the perfect name. Stokefire doesn't build perfect names and brands. There's no such thing. The best brands in the world are flawed. They do, however, have exceptionally strong aspects to them that outweigh the weaknesses in the current market.

So... word to the wise on association naming. Don't try to get your membership to name your association for you. It won't work - and the majority of your members won't like the name. Also don't attempt to force a singular identity upon your members - they'll mutiny. Find a way to involve membership in the process without allowing the masses to pull you in ten thousand different directions.

It's possible... honest. We're doin' it today.

Tate Linden Principal - Stokefire 703-778-9925
2 Comments
Nancy Friedman April 19, 2007 10:08 AM

Tate--Your point about the delicate politics of involving members without ceding control is tremendously important, and not only among associations and nonprofit organizations. I've worked on many naming jobs with for-profit companies that were so obsessed with consensus that they couldn't reach a decision. A couple of tactics have helped: 1. Limit the number of people involved to "anyone with the power to say no." That usually eliminates quite a few people. 2. Use a numerical grading system for the names under discussion--1 through 5, say. Have each member of the "deciding" committee independently rank the names, then average the results...down to the hundredths place, if need be. Putting the outcome in objective, scientific terms often helps reframe the discussion.
I also offer to present the chosen name to the larger group so that everyone can hear the story behind the name. Selling the name is often just as challenging and important as creating the name.
I also tell my clients, both nonprofit and for-profit: "Choosing a name is not a love match. It's an arranged marriage." With nonprofits in particular, where "labor of love" is often a raison d'etre, this metaphor really hits home.

Tate Linden April 24, 2007 9:00 AM

Nice insight, Nancy.
We've actually built a completely unique process for the membership side since the decision-making process is so different. If corporate shareholders and customers got to pick names I think our jobs would be much changed from what they are today - and that's pretty much what we've had to address on the membership side.
I like your metaphor quite a lot. Arranged marriage will likely become a term I use frequently. Rest assured I'll reference where it came from.
By the way, how's the Apple naming project coming? I'm an avid reader of the SF Chron and saw you mentioned.