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Branding societies and institutions - balancing academic integrity with commercial need

Learned societies and academic institutions have distinct cultures, filled with thinkers who have the vision and drive to make a difference. They are progressive and open to change – a great starting point for brand development. However, their broad stakeholder base can slow the pace of change, and the historical tension between the purity of academic work and commercial needs can challenge things further.


This week we’ve been talking to two organisations we’ve worked with recently, who fully leaned into the unique strengths of their organisations, and consequently saw great results.



Applied Microbiology International

For many societies, membership subscriptions have been in decline, and they’ve had to rethink revenue streams. In part, this decline is because universities are supporting their communities better and digitisation means there are more competing channels for people to connect, easily and instantly, anywhere in the world.


In addition to these bigger macro changes, some industry specific developments have also brought challenges. For Applied Microbiology International (AMI) it was the shift in thinking on scholarly publishing. As societies move towards more open-access publishing, revenue from journals has fallen dramatically and is expected to drop over the next few years by more than 90%. With their main draw gone, and subscriptions down, how could they provide their fundamental support?


This is a moment to pause and reset. Societies have an opportunity to rethink their revenue models, evaluate who they exist to serve, and what their offering should be in the future. To consider where they have competitive advantage and how to create more sustainable businesses, over the longer term. In short, it is time to think about their brand.


For AMI, their international focus was an important element to develop. They needed a hook that made them, and their activities, stand out. Aligning to the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals was also a smart move. It became the driver of their new strategy and informed the development of their new brand.


Lucy Harper, AMI CEO says, “Whilst brand is not a word that is particularly comfortable in the academic space, the importance of reputation is clearly understood and defining our core purpose was an essential starting point. We knew that refocusing the society around a new strategy, including a new identity and a name change would be a heavy lift. To succeed, we needed the support of the entire organisation. We started engagement early and brought everyone along, through every stage of development. It meant we had people onside, and motivated to take our new strategy forward.”


Because of Lucy’s commitment to engagement, and that of her leadership team, they achieved a staggering 93% in favour of a name change (from ‘Society for Applied Microbiology’ to ‘Applied Microbiology International’) when they took the vote to their members.


“It was a risk but something we wanted to do.” says Paul Sainsbury, Director of Marketing and Business Development. “As a membership organisation we need our members to feel part of our strategy and to believe in it. The name change has clarified our offering, given us a clear positioning and acknowledged the importance of our international membership.”


Nearly a year from launch, the AMI rebrand has had a tangible, positive impact. As Paul confirms “Recruitment is easier – from our global ambassadors to advisory groups and academic members, all numbers are up which is proof that our new strategy resonates. We’re also having more meaningful conversations with corporate partners that are essential allies to achieve our commons goals and solve the world’s greatest challenges.”


THIS Institute

THIS Institute began at a different starting point, with a launch from the ground up. A joint initiative between the Health Foundation and Cambridge University, the new institute needed to leverage their founders’ brands, establish a distinct positioning, and achieve standout in a crowded sector.


Danielle Doyle, Communications and Engagement Lead of THIS Institute also feels language is important. “We don’t talk about ‘brand’. We talk about ‘identity’. Using terminology we all understand helps engagement. Our stakeholders know research, they understand data and the importance of feedback. Tailoring our approach to the project using their language and referencing their environment helped to waylay any fear or anxiety and unlocked their support.”


“Leading from the top with our branding programme was also a big part of our success.” says Danielle. “When everyone can see buy in, at the most senior level, they know it is important and deserving of support. Our branding programme helped everyone in the organisation understand their day-to-day role and engendered total alignment with the team. Across the board, the team take the details seriously and understand how crucial consistency is.”

Societies and institutes have some unique attributes that makes them stand out:


Driven by purpose

Whilst it isn’t always written down, societies and institutions tend to have a clear, purposeful mission and this is gold dust for brand strategy. A higher purpose that everyone is engaged with, that aligns activity, builds momentum, and provides a solid grounding for visual identity, messaging, and marketing initiatives.


High levels of engagement

Academics are naturally curious people and evidence focused. They want to understand why things are being done, who they are for and how they are delivered. They like metrics. From a branding perspective this means we have better insight upfront and the tools to measure impact.


Mindful of legacy

Research is long-term and very often academics work in isolation without the chance to see things through to fruition. A branding programme has a start and a finish. It is collaborative and engaging. We find academics really enjoy being part of delivering a tangible, finished result.


Culture of inclusion

Inclusion is a given for societies. They take time to engage the full breadth of their team, trustees, partners, and members. With everyone part of the process, early-buy in and ongoing support is easier to achieve, leading to more robust brand implementation.

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