We were fortunate to have a chamber CEO with 40 years of historical perspective when we began the process of evaluating the effectiveness of our chamber in Missoula, Mont. Symptoms of dysfunction appeared when recommendations to add a new committee or enhance a member benefit were presented, discussed, tabled and then left to languish on the agenda. A lack of vision, structure and planning kept the chamber from moving forward and remaining relevant in a troubled economy.
The community had recently lost a major wood products manufacturer that employed 400 of our highest wage earners. Citizens wanted a focus on economic development, but the chamber did not play a major role in this area. Stakeholder and sister organization critics of the chamber said we were difficult to collaborate with, irrelevant and stagnant. Chamber memberships were dropping at an alarming rate.
We knew it was time for a change and we requested a formal strategic plan for the chamber. The board agreed to spend $10,000 for a professional facilitator to help us assess community and stakeholder needs and perceptions, and then work with the board to create a formal strategic plan. There could be no rebranding, new messaging or marketing of the chamber until we identified our role in the community and had the means to make good on promises to members and the community about fulfilling that role.
We believe our brand is the promise we make to our community to provide resources that sustain businesses and help them grow, and by being a leader in creating a prosperous community. We want the community to recognize not only our name and logo, but also what we stand for, and the key role we play in the health of local commerce.
First, member retention
Our rebranding was the by-product of our internal restructuring based on our strategic plan. One of the first branding by-products was the implementation of a retention program.
Our strategic planning included a SWOT analysis, which gave us an opportunity to evaluate existing programs and either align them within the new structure or jettison them. For example, we discovered that customer service was lagging; members felt they received an invoice once a year with few tangible benefits. Clearly, we needed more direct contact with members and better explanations of the valuable benefits we offer.
We identified the companies that made up the bulk of our membership and found out what the perceived value of chamber membership was for them. We also created a new, full-time member relations position focused solely on this effort. We began asking, "What can we help you with?" We investigated what resources were available locally and what our members needed. Then we began facilitating these connections, finding that we expended very little time or money on our efforts. The new approach supports our brand vision as a business facilitator, and it's helped us reestablish a loyal membership and attract new members.
Revised marketing strategy
The second by-product of the strategic plan was refining our marketing strategy. In writing a marketing plan, we learned what industries dominated our area, which were failing, how far the damage from the housing bubble rippled out, and the full extent of the contributions small businesses make to our local economy. We also learned that as soon as we completed our marketing plan, it was outdated.
We decided to scrap the comprehensive plan for a series of much more malleable, short-term marketing action plans that are customized for each event or service. All staff contributed marketing ideas, and all have taken on new responsibilities under the restructuring. At no extra cost, we have been able to create a consistent message that promotes and supports the vision of our brand.
We also explored partnerships with our media members and have begun to increase name recognition through regular articles in the business sections of the newspaper. Surprisingly, we're finding that we don't have to spend a lot of money on rebranding efforts. Our methodical, silent rollout of our new brand has been effective.
Restructure to fulfill promises
Acknowledging our weaknesses and examining potential opportunities allowed us to create an infrastructure that was crucial to backing up our promises to the community.
We restructured the chamber by creating divisions chaired by executive board members and aligning new and existing committees under those divisions. This gave us a clear list of action items:
The Missoula Chamber of Commerce is strategically and organizationally solid, and we continue to build daily on our new vision, goals and core values. Our promise is now the perception of many in our community, and we are enjoying positive attention as the largest business organization in our community.
Kim Latrielle is president/CEO; Nicole Hiler is director of member relations, and Kimberly Hannon is director of operations at the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce.
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