Richard Pattinson

Everyone understands the power of branding. Branding equals recognition. And recognition engenders trust. But how do you develop a brand message that wins out in the marketplace?

It’s not easy. Great branding is not something that simply happens to a company. How a business talks about itself requires a huge amount of internal control and focus, particularly when you are dealing with not one brand but two.

Take the Armed Forces Benefit Association. AFBA was created as a nonprofit organization in 1947, with support from then General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  At that time, servicemembers could not purchase life insurance that would pay a death benefit if the member was killed in a war zone. AFBA was created to fill that void.

Over the past 70 years, AFBA’s customer base has expanded to include national guard members and first responders as well as federal employees and Department of Defense contractors. Senior Vice President of Marketing Cynthia Light was hired to head up marketing at 5Star Life Insurance, an affiliate company of AFBA that writes non-member eligible business in the worksite market.

With the strong support of AFBA Chairman and President General Ralph Edward “Ed” Eberhart and 5Star CEO and President Mark Singleton, Cynthia oversaw the merging of the AFBA and 5Star marketing teams.

Overcoming the gap

With this shift in marketing organization, ensuring that the brand messaging for each entity remained consistent was key for Cynthia and her team. In the beginning, both teams were siloed and not eager to use the name of the other.

However, as time went on, Cynthia worked on making co-branding a focal point. She liaised with other departments within the business and across its third party network of agents to spread the message and promote brand compliance. Guided by her senior leadership, she sought to cultivate a “one-mission, one-team philosophy” across both brands.

Consumer return to companies with strong branding.

To help all departments better understand what co-branding meant in practice, Cynthia created a brand book that mapped out the use of such elements as logo, colors and messaging. She worked closely with the sales department to ensure that marketing and new business activity were aligned. And she sought to get everyone in the business more involved with understanding the relationship between AFBA and 5Star through the prism of the common values they shared.

That understanding was central to the ability to articulate the brand confidently. “Everyone is a brand ambassador,” says Cynthia.

It was a challenge, but working with the cooperation and support of the entire senior team she made steady progress in facilitating change from a brand and marketing perspective.

Adjusting brand messaging to a changing demographic

Key to this change was a proper understanding of AFBA’s member base. The organization’s demographic was changing. As the size of the military contracted, armed forces personnel fell as a proportion of new sales. At the same time, new business among first responders grew.

There were other factors to consider as well. Recognizing that the spouses of military personnel and first responders often take as active a role in insurance decisions as their partners was an essential insight in ensuring that the company’s overall messaging resonated at an emotional level with all buyer personas.  

Cynthia and her team had a lot to wrangle in developing a consistent co-brand experience that positioned AFBA and 5Star as part of the same umbrella organization espousing the same values.

Branding by design

So what are the key questions you need to address when undertaking brand work for your organization? Branding done well demands hard work and disciplined thinking. None of this happens without guidance and direction.

According to Brafton Design Director Ken Boostrom, there are two components to pay particular attention to when approaching brand work: “visual” and “voice.”  

“Branding is 75 percent visual and 25 percent voice or action,” says Ken. Be sure to understand your audience, and make sure your imagery and taglines creatively connect with your current and prospective customers. Constantly review the voice and visual impact of every brand interaction, from your social channels to the language and colors in your call-to-action buttons.

The better the art, the photography, the concept, the illustration style, the stronger the branding impact.

The statistics bear it out. Consumers habitually go back to the companies that invest most in their branding. Even organizations that are well-known for taking an idiosyncratic approach to their brand image – think of GEICO’s shifting cast of oddball characters – carefully choreograph their apparently random moves.

The reality remains that branding is difficult to do well. Making something look simple is hard. The disarming straightforwardness of Apple’s approach design is the function of sustained internal rigor. It takes strong will and focus.

5 steps of reviewing your brand

For companies approaching a brand review, Ken advises five core steps for getting the branding process off the ground.

  1. First up, don’t confuse a brand review with a full-on rebranding. A full-scale rebrand should only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. Is there a legal or commercial reason requiring nothing short of a rebrand? If so, proceed carefully. Begin by properly understanding the financial costs and operational implications of changing your brand. What physical signage will you need to replace? What does this mean from a digital perspective? Fully audit the impact on your operation in its entirety.    
  2. Assuming a full-scale rebrand is not required. Initiate a brand review instead. Assemble a core team across your business. Include trusted outsiders and solicit consumer input if possible.
  3. Begin by undertaking a communications audit. Survey your website. Does it communicate who you are and you do? Review your organization’s core values. Does your company collateral clearly reflect who you say you are?
  4. Make provisional recommendations for tightening up the tone and style of your collateral. Are you being consistent in the way you look (“the visual”) and the way you sound (“the voice”)? Are you using typography in a sensible and uniform way across your digital and physical real estate? Review your social media channels. How do they look and feel?
  5. Survey your competitors. What do you like how they present themselves in the marketplace? What can you learn from them?

Remember a lot of your business’s equity is rolled up in your brand. Letting your brand go stale over the years will ultimately hurt your bottom line. These five simple steps will help get your brand review up and running.

Promoting your core values

This brings us back to AFBA. Marketing at any level is a constant work in progress. With the support of her senior leadership and her colleagues, Cynthia Light is always looking at ways of reinvigorating the company’s brand message through her internal team and her agency partners. At the same time she is assessing the results. For Cynthia, demonstration of ROI against any brand marketing initiative is the ultimate test.

“A beautiful product can be great, but is it helping improve overall enterprise goals? Is it helping to generate revenue?”

AFBA itself remains true to its original brand promise as it celebrates its 70th anniversary. Its insurance coverage continues to have no combat or terrorism exclusions, with more than 420,000 members insured with $40 billion of insurance in force. From its humble roots in the basement of the Pentagon growing into one of the oldest and largest associations of its kind, its core mission remains steadfast – “serving those who serve this great nation.”