Luggage Tags and Breath Mints: How MSAE Refreshed Itself as Associations North

By Association Adviser staff • July 26, 2016

Angela Kisskeys, Associations North
Angela Kisskeys, Associations North

Most associations wouldn’t risk offending or confusing their members by giving them air freshener and breath mints, but earlier this year the Midwest Society of Association Executives handed out plenty of both to members in celebration of their “fresh,” new name, Associations North. The air freshener and mints, along with luggage tags, were lighthearted but meaningful symbols of a months-long journey an association task force had just completed to update the association’s look and value proposition as it approached its 60th anniversary. This  task force had started with a desire to simply update the Midwest SAE’s logo and branding, but ended up completely renovating the association’s look, tagline and name – and they wanted members to know that the new Associations North is eagerly moving forward.

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We conversed with Angela Kisskeys, marketing & communications manager of the newly christened Associations North, about the motivation behind such a dramatic change for the association, the careful process they followed for rebranding themselves, and the fun association staff had revealing the new name to members and other interested professionals. Her insight into their rebranding research process left us with the strong impression that their new tagline of “moving professionals forward” is much more than a platitude; but a promise to members.

Association Adviser: What was the motivation to rebrand Midwest SAE?

Angela Kisskeys: As we celebrated 60 years of serving associations, we took this opportunity to hit the stop button, take an in-­‐depth look at all internal and external operations and ask ourselves, ‘Are we armed for the future? Is our name and messaging across all communications consistent and in step with what the organization stands for and delivers to its members?’ There was confusion as to our offerings and benefits. The name itself no longer spoke to who we serve and did not resonate with prospects.

AA: How does rebranding rejuvenate your membership marketing?

AK: Associations North has a great story to tell, but our logo and brand identity didn’t speak to our audience. With the rebrand, we have the opportunity to tell our story and share it with a new look and feel that reflects our true brand. It’s fresh and relevant to our members. It creates more opportunities to reconnect with our members and prospects and to share what all our members are doing and why they should join this community.

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AA: How does it help your association recruit and retain more members?

AK: There’s new energy and enthusiasm among Associations North members. With the recent brand strategy work, we created our value proposition and key messages that will resonate with current members and engage prospective members through consistency in messaging and our new brand identity. We wanted a brand that is relevant, meaningful and easy to understand. The simplicity and brevity in the name was necessary to remain relevant in the marketplace.

AA: Your 2016-­17 Chair Ann Kvaal said the new name is “succinct, clear and approachable,” and that it conveys your “essential value of ‘advancement’ to the wider association community.” Why did you choose to focus on simplicity and advancement?

AK: At the highest level, we advance the professional, and in doing so advance the organization they belong to. In the end, we are advancing the association industry as whole. Our refreshed brand better reflects our dedication and commitment to Moving Professionals Forward.

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AA: Did you work with an outside partner/vendor to design the new branding? If so, how did you choose that partner?

AK: RFPs and proposals were sent to five branding firms we felt could meet our needs. After evaluation, conversations and revision of proposed elements, Mercury Creative Group’s proposal was accepted and approved by our board of directors. A task force was developed with three board members, three staff, three at-large members and two branding professionals who were charged with the task to position our organization for the future.

AA: How did you present the new brand to members? How did you make it fun?

AK: Associations North always adds a spark of fun! It was discussed in our brand launch plan to roll out the new name and identity at the 2016 Annual Meeting & Expo, where we knew we would have a large gathering of our members. A fun teaser tagline was developed, Fresh, New & True, to give all communications with our members glimpse into what is coming. To keep momentum moving, we created a fun air freshener teaser with the message “Fresh, New & True — Hear all about it at the Expo!” Keeping with the fresh news and brand re‐fresh, the custom air “fresh”-­ener in the scent “clean-­n-­fresh” was a fun promotion to create buzz. This was big change for our organization and we wanted to capture our members’ attention early.

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At the Annual Meeting & Expo, a reveal presentation was completed and given during lunch. Mercury Creative Group Founder and Creative Director Justin Bieganek and Associations North President Kathy Johnson, CAE, shared the history and evolution of our organization and walked attendees through the process of arriving at our new identity. We played up the announcement and Kathy Johnson announced our new name followed by rousing round of applause.

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We utilized task force members, staff and our board of directors to serve as ambassadors and had each person hand out a gift to all attendees after the announcement. The gift was two luggage tags that read, “We’re on the Move – Come With Us.” One tag was for the attendee, and one was for a friend of the attendee. It was our way of giving tangibility to our attendees to see and feel the new brand. We also included branded “fresh” mints and a little card with a fun message about the new MSAE.

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Following lunch, we re-­designed our booth and placed it right in the main traffic areas. Completely branded in Associations North, the booth allowed members to see and feel the immediate change. A step and repeat was created to get initial feedback on the new brand. Task force members staffed the booth, answered questions and gave out a press release, new branded items and held a Q&A about the new brand. All afternoon sessions had an Associations North notepad, pen and mints waiting for attendees. We wanted our members to see, feel and get excited with us.

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AA: Was there any testing of this name, or other names/branding, among members?

AK: It wasn’t until a thorough and comprehensive discussion about our name and dissecting the meaning of each word that we realized it might be to our benefit to explore other options. A name change was never the plan, but organically in the re-brand process it was revealed this was something to explore.

An initial proposed name that spoke to our essential value of advancement didn’t quite fit the mark. But it was clear the task force was on board for change with some refinement. Associations North was a result of many discussions, including testing within a sampling of members, task force members using it in practice and our branding experts fine tuning it and taking a minute to let it settle in. Associations North better reflects where we are headed and who we are. Associations North is about advancing the profession, the association and the industry.

North was a big question since we represent Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. We are not defining “north” as a geographical mark; it’s about finding your true North. It’s about leadership, authenticity and principles. It’s about how to identify and develop one’s own direction. It’s not a destination but the journey forward; the progress and advancement.

AA: What kind of early feedback have you received?

AK: The support and feedback from our members was rewarding. We have seen an increase in social media participation, positive feedback from members on items currently rolled out, excitement for our association and what is to come and a renewed spirit internally and with our board. We have a unified look, feel and messaging.

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AA: How are you measuring the impact of the new branding?

AK: It is going to take time to measure the impact. We set goals to have our brand 100 percent adopted by June 2017 and hope to see the impact of our brand through engaged members, new members and advancing our professionals and the industries they serve. In essence, we looking for our members to be sharing and talking about this through their channels and all they do. There has been state and national attention for the bold step we have taken, which shows we have made the right steps in our commitment to moving professionals forward.


Have a story to share about a rebranding effort your association has undertaken? What did you do to tell others about your new look? Leave us a comment below!