Chamber Executive Article Archive

Rebranding: Billings

By John Brewer

Spring/Summer 2013

Read the News or Create It

Seven years ago in Billings, Mont., our chamber membership was stagnant. We had maintained about 840 members for three years, our programs had not been evaluated for some time and member apathy was high. We needed to show members and prospects a clear purpose and a compelling message—but not with a marketing exercise. We needed a long-term commitment to add value to their businesses and to the community. We had to uncover our true nature, understand and identify business trends, and communicate with all the speed and sophistication that today's technology allows.

With a new CEO, an energized board and a community on the rise, the time was right. Our future would be either reading the news or creating it. Rebranding would be the outcome of a complete re-engineering of our organization which would involve research, internal structural changes, strategic planning and more.

To determine appropriate and aggressive benchmarks and to understand what other successful chambers were doing in operations and community initiatives, we surveyed, discussed, called, emailed and dug for every nugget of relevant data we could get our hands on. Core data came from:

  • Surveys of successful chambers. We used ACCE research, reviewing past Chamber of the Year recipients and others. What did they identify as successful strategies in their communities? Did they have an in-house CVB or EDC? How many members did they have? What was the dues base and dues structure, retention rate, market penetration, revenue sources, and number of employees?
  • Regional communities. How did we compare with communities we admired? This data was used to set some of our strategic initiatives. We looked at Metropolitan Statistical Areas with similar populations, industries, growth trends, transportation and number of hotel rooms.
  • Our current chamber members, non-members and non-renewers. In addition to sending email surveys, we hosted a series of "Java with John" roundtables with the chamber CEO about how to improve. Each session was limited to 15 participants. When inviting businesses who had dropped their membership, we promised we would not ask them to rejoin at this session or within the year, but many of them later called and joined because they saw glimmers of progress. Discussions were frank—and painful at times—yet by far the most beneficial step in determining how to move forward. This was a crucial step in determining how to shape our brand to bridge the gap between how we were perceived and what we could offer.

Internal structure
Staff had tough choices to make in reinventing our organization while being true to the brand direction that was emerging. As Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great, "if we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we'll figure out how to take it someplace great." A few staffers couldn't or wouldn't make the change, but we refined job descriptions, re-aligned projects and forged a team committed to innovation, energy and leadership in making Billings a better place to live and work.

Another significant change involved our dues structure. We switched the old model of dues based on employee count to a tiered system which was welcomed immediately and instantly increased our dues base by $70,000 upon the launch of the new strategic plan and brand.

Rebrand the community
The board and management team formed a committee to develop our first long-range plan and objectives, including:

  • Lead the business community by proactive involvement in governmental affairs.
  • Increase visitors to our region through a focused marketing and sales strategy.
  • Strengthen collaboration with members and build relationships with strategic partners.
  • Enhance value and opportunities for members.
  • Assure the long-term competitive viability of the chamber.

One initiative that grew out of this plan was to rebrand our entire community. Billings suffered from "vanilla" positioning. Our research showed that tourists considering a visit, or businesses and families considering relocation, felt that we had no discernible identity. We clearly needed broader initiatives and leadership for community messaging about growth, infrastructure, and marketing. We developed the core leadership group to take ownership of this process, which ultimately led to a successful community brand.

With the research done and the staff and long-range plan in place, our creative team developed the brand position statement, logo and tag line. The outcome: "We are here to serve Billings. When Billings prospers, each of us benefits. Small and large businesses, our families and friends, even our schools and parks benefit. A healthy local economy means that cost of living, quality of life issues, and our education and healthcare systems succeed."

We unveiled the new logo to 500 people at a community barbeque in the chamber's parking lot. The local newspaper published background material, the mayor issued a proclamation and the old "Billings Area Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture" was put out to pasture and the new "Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitors Bureau" was launched. Total cost to redevelop the image (including external building sign replacement, business cards, letterhead, design fees, envelopes, collateral materials and launch event was under $30,000.

Results have been phenomenal. In the years immediately following the brand development, we grew from 840 members to 1,180 members; dues revenue grew from $370,000 to $580,000. Feedback and member engagement continue to climb. People want to belong to an organization that is relevant, lively and contributes to a greater purpose.

John Brewer is president and CEO of the Billings Chamber of Commerce/CVB.

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