Made in the USA: Union brands

April 15, 2011

Since their inception, American unions have stood for workers rights and fair treatment. They have built their collective brand around American craftsmanship and quality brilliantly executed by The Made in the USA. Even if you were never in a union, your great-grandfather probably was and you understood the struggles symbolized in the logo.

However, more than just union membership has taken a hit as manufacturing jobs have fled the country. Today the union brand itself is being forced to change along with the economy. Teachers, government employees and other professional members are now the face of the union brand and their struggles are very different that great-grandpa’s.

This leaves unions with a classic brand challenge — go big or go focused. As Branding 101 teaches, the more focused and targeted a brand is, the more powerful and relevant it can be. For unions, the brand has long owned a pretty clear niche — albeit a big one. Today, that niche is eroding faster than ever. Many traditional union jobs are no longer union and many white-collar professions are moving toward unions.

If unions remain a niche brand, they seem unlikely to survive. The recent situation in Wisconsin is a great case and point. Instead of the image of the grizzled ironworker, we saw government employees, teachers and other municipal unions on the front line. It was no longer your Ford they were fighting for but your child’s education, your community’s safety and… your tax collector’s health insurance.

This is not to say that government workers and teachers are new to unions — they are not. Rather it is about the union’s need to have a brand appeal and base of support much broader than their actual membership. Buying American was an easy way to demonstrate union pride and solidarity. It is far less clear why the broader population should be engaged in current union struggles and how they can demonstrate their solidarity.

All of these changes present profound challenges and questions for the union brand.

The union brand needs to find a way to have its cake and eat it too. They must appeal to the niche of workers that are members (now or in the future) while still building support among the broad masses. But who are "they"? The unions themselves are not united. An innovative union with focus on change may lead the way — or they will be left searching for the collective brand… but I digress.

It seems that unions (or union?) first need to shore up the base — demonstrate their continuing relevance to current membership. This is what we saw in Wisconsin (notwithstanding the fact they lost — the victory was in the struggle). Next they need to use incidents like Wisconsin as the foundation for a revived brand that demonstrates a clear mission and promise that is relevant to a broad array of blue and white-collar professions and the public at large.

This reinvention of the brand can’t just focus on members and potential members, but must be broad based. Buying American gave everyone something they could think about and do. Finding the white collar equivalent is key to the long-term success of the union brand and their organizational survival.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Brandlogic and CoreBrand have become Tenet Partners — Where brand meets innovation®. More