May 27, 2020

How One Association Brought Their Rebrand to Life

by Melissa Caffrey

Should a calamitous event (say, a global pandemic) bring your rebrand plans to a halt? Not necessarily. A rebrand doesn’t happen in a vortex, and any truly successful rebrand is about a renewed brand purpose—one that can guide an organization’s actions in any situation, good or bad. At the American Lung Association, for example, their decision to forge ahead with their brand refresh allowed them to reinforce their new message and fight for lung health with renewed verve.

The ALA hadn’t altered their identity since their founding 115 years ago, so when CMO Julia Fitzgerald joined the team in 2019, she made the refresh her top priority—pulling together a cross-functional team to carry out stakeholder interviews, brand archetype research, identity assessments, and a website audit. After a year of hard work, they were excited to announce themselves as the trusted champion for lung health (an artful marketer’s twist on “The Innocent” archetype).

Then the pandemic arrived, disrupting the association’s relaunch plans and upcoming fundraising events so crucial to its mission. After debating whether to delay, the organization chose to move forward, although in a slightly different fashion. “We started in chapter 4, ditching the confetti in favor of programs that supported the newly articulated brand mission,” Fitzgerald explains.

Moving ahead proved to be a good decision (and the ultimate litmus test). The ALA’s profound role during the pandemic directly reinforces its new mission, and Fitzgerald’s experience offers lessons in both steadfastness and agility for B2C and B2B brands alike. You can read some of the highlights from her recent interview below. 

Why did the ALA decide to rebrand in the first place?

You only change your brand if you know that you need to make a pivot for the future, and it’s very important that we sound, look, and appear as a trusted resource and a trusted champion. Of course, we’re associated with a lot of good work, but when we did our due diligence, we found that people didn’t necessarily understand what that mark was. They either didn’t associate the mark with the organization or didn’t understand the meaning because we hadn’t imbued it with any. With our refresh, our mark now has symbolism to us. The first bar in the cross stands for Education, the second for Advocacy, and it’s held together with Research.

What was the main mission behind the transformation?

When we were looking at a brand refresh, what became clear to us that 75% of your brand is not the color, the logo, or the font. It’s how everyone behaves, and it’s having that same interaction with American Lung Association no matter where you are. So much about our brand journey throughout that year was deciding how we show up as this trusted champion. My motivation as the CMO was to use this as the clarion call for all of us to show up together in the same way and it’s been a huge internal unifier and motivator. It has an external, long-game purpose, but for right now, it has also helped us speak about COVID-19 in the same vocabulary with the same enthusiasm, the same sense of purpose.

Did this inform your decision to continue with the rebrand?

Well, the rebrand is done in service to the mission. We aren’t trying to make a headline with our rebrand, we’re trying to present ourselves as a reliable, trusted champion for the next 100 years. When it started becoming obvious that the COVID crisis and our brand launch were on a collision course, the thought was, well, do we go ahead with our old brand? Do we present ourselves to not just thousands, but millions of new people, constituents, and citizens in our old dress? Or do we put on who we plan to be for the next 100 years and greet them as such? We decided to go ahead and present ourselves in the new best light.

How did you pivot your messaging strategy?

We had a pretty robust communications plan starting with internal stakeholders that we were rolling out from January 1st on. By the time we got to the end of February, that’s when we had to make the big decisions and what we decided to do is take the opportunity to talk about the brand and invert it. What would have been the headline of “American Lung Association refreshes brand after 100 years” became paragraph three. The headline and paragraphs one through two are all about “American Lung Association focuses on COVID-19. Here’s what you need to know.” At the bottom, it became, “As you find these resources on our website, you may notice we have a new look. Here’s why.” Ten months of sweating every detail came down to, “We have a new look, and here’s why.” 

What are some of the ALA’s recent actions to make your brand promise real?

The first thing to do is try to understand, in the moment, what our constituency needs from us. It’s information. They need trusted information that’s easily accessible, so one of the things that we did was take our Chief Medical Officer and set him up to do a webinar every Monday. We also found medical spokespeople in our network and had them do “Ask the Expert” sessions with our online support groups. In the face of all of this uncertainty, we are certain that we need to step up, so we are committing $25 million dollars to the COVID-19 Action Initiative for research, education, and advocacy—to convene leaders in the public and private health industry and commit to preparedness in the face of future respiratory viral infections.

How have you adapted events?

On Advocacy Day, we usually fly our Lung Force Heroes (lunch cancer survivors) to Washington D.C., where they advocate for more health care and for adequate funding for NIH. This year, all of our heroes were connected virtually, we kept all of the appointments via telephone, and it was a great and empowering success. For our signature event, The Climb, where people gather to raise money and climb up skyscrapers, we have about eight virtual climbs we’re getting ready to deploy. We’re also looking at what else we can do for different types of fundraisers because we know for certain what’s going to happen this year. We’re trying to things that we didn’t really have going on before. We’re much more aggressive with Facebook fundraisers, with peer-to-peer fundraising.