Thursday, 27 September 2018

Rowing in the Same Direction

It’s very rare that I find myself stuck for words. Here is a story about one such occasion. Earlier this year I was the guest at an event of another Rotary district where (amongst other things) attending club delegates were called to vote on a proposal for the 2019 Council on Legislation. 

Every three years, Rotary International has a process whereby the rules that govern our operation can be changed. Any Rotarian can suggest rule changes. Those suggestions need to be approved at club level, then at district level, and can then be tabled at our triennial “Council on Legislation”, where a delegate from every district across the world votes “yes” or “no”. There’s a little more to it than that, but I will keep it simple for the sake of the story. 

What was the proposal in question? That Rotary International revert back to its old logos. Did I just hear what I thought I heard? I was at the time sitting with a Rotary friend about half my age, and we looked at each other with bewilderment. But then something happened that left me completely gobsmacked. The vote got up. Yep, a majority of club delegates (most of whom were presidents) voted to support a motion which in essence would do away with Rotary’s current global branding strategy. All I could think was “what just happened?” 

I am of course consoled by the fact that there is zero chance of this proposal going any further, but I’ve got to say I found this one of the more disturbing outcomes in my journey as a membership advocate; and I have seen some very disturbing outcomes! I’ve also been around Rotary long enough to know that a sizeable proportion of Rotarians are not especially interested in our legislative process, and it’s quite likely on the night that many of those hands that went up were more a response of “yeah, whatever” after seeing the first few hands raised, than any form of conscious deliberation on our branding. 
Left: the old logo (or as I prefer to call it, the superseded logo); Right: the current logo, or "Masterbrand Signature".
Despite that, Rotarians are still arguing about logos, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Most of my commentary on Rotary over the last ten or more years including my blogs and my book Creatures of Habit has incorporated an ever present thread about resistance to change and I suspect this issue is no different. This change began in 2011 with an unprecedented initiative to strengthen Rotary’s image. These words are reproduced directly from our Voice and Visual Identity Guidelines

“For many years, our Rotary wheel stood alone as our logo on signage and communications materials. Although the words Rotary International were embedded in the wheel, they were hard to read from a distance. As a result, the general public did not always recognise Rotary’s involvement in a project or activity. That’s why we decided to expand our official logo to include the word “Rotary” next to the wheel. This is our official logo and our masterbrand signature, which should be used whenever possible.” 

The above document (download here) is essential reading for any Rotarian who wishes to create any form of promotional material for Rotary. From business cards to billboards, websites, Facebook posts and even television advertising. But when it comes to essential reading, I would suggest everyone also download and read “Revitalising Rotary”, a report prepared by global branding company Siegel & Gale (commissioned by Rotary International) into our organisation’s public image in 2011. This document is confronting reading, reporting (at the time) that we struggled internally to define ourselves, and suffered from an identity crisis. A telling quote from someone only identified as “Rotary Leadership” is this one: “Rotarians don’t understand who or what we are. We have to educate ourselves and our members first, before we can successfully do so with the general public.” 

So, why does all of this public image stuff even matter? If it aint broke, why fix it? We mustn’t change for change’s sake. That’s not the way we do things around here! Do these quotes sound familiar? Newsflash… Rotary has been haemorrhaging members in the west for over 20 years, mainly because recruitment has not kept up with attrition. What are the main reasons people aren’t joining? Well, it’s true that some people are too busy, and some people feel they can’t afford it, and some people aren’t community minded. It is also true that there are people out there that would be perfect for Rotary, but feel that Rotary is not right for them. But I would suggest the overwhelming reason people aren’t joining is because they don’t understand who we are and what we do. And that is where our public image is so very important. It’s about proudly telling Rotary stories and conveying concise messages, which historically we haven’t done well. 

Rotary’s programs are so broad and diverse, it can be challenging to convey that they all form part of the Rotary portfolio. Our organisation is eradicating polio, providing emergency shelter after natural disasters, drilling bore wells to provide potable drinking water, educating children, training negotiators in peace and conflict resolution. It’s a list as long as the proverbial piece of string. To further complicate things, we have previously had a policy of creating different imagery and logos for all of these different programs. Some have not even included the word “Rotary” or a Rotary logo. To me it’s as plain as the nose on your face. We need simple, consistent Rotary branding on everything we do. 

My vocational expertise is not in the area of public relations or marketing, so I am happy to leave this to the experts who know what they’re doing. And that’s what our board of directors did. They didn’t just speak to the bloke in the neighbouring club who was pretty good with graphics. They engaged public image professionals. Rotary leadership has also made it very easy to update club imagery and create the right logos by visiting the Rotary Brand Centre

There are a number of reasons individual Rotarians are continuing to use the old (pre 2013) logo, and none of them are particularly good. One reason is a lack of awareness. I suppose that can be broken down to a combination of ignorance, poor training or poor communication, some of which district leaders need to take responsibility for. Any other reasons would fall somewhere between indifference and wilful defiance. “But I don’t like the new logo”, or “I don’t like the colours”. Without doubt there exists a segment of Rotarians who feel they’ve already given up too much of the old Rotary they once knew. Progressives like me have removed many of their cherished rituals from meetings, we’ve opened the membership up to “commoners”, and some clubs aren’t even meeting weekly, which some see as heresy. Maybe they’re clinging onto that old logo as a final relic of traditional Rotary that has all but disappeared. 

But here’s what I really think is happening. It occurs to me that for an alarmingly large segment of Rotarians; probably the majority, the cocoon that is their own club environment represents their entire Rotary experience. There seem to be a hell of a lot of Rotarians that never attend a district conference, never attend district training events, never visit meetings or events run by other clubs, and if not for the occasional visiting Rotarian at their own meeting, would never even meet a Rotarian from another club. They really don’t see themselves as a member of Rotary International, only a member of their own club. They may well be very conscientious contributors to their club programs, but they are insular in nature and Rotary for them starts and stops within their club confines. They’re not big picture thinkers, and are oblivious to public image ramifications on the wider organisation. When they choose a Rotary logo, it is solely for the purpose of promoting their club program or event, and any public image considerations beyond their patch are inconsequential. 

Rotary leaders have often drawn comparisons to McDonalds. Everywhere you go in the world, the golden arches are the same. On every advertisement, store window, McHappy meal box and fries bag across the globe, the logo is uniform. McDonalds have changed their logo over the years, and every time the change has been consistent across every store. Can you imagine every store manager using a different version of the golden arches? Can you imagine a McDonalds employee whining because they didn't think the yellow arches looked good against a white background? It simply wouldn’t happen. Rotarians, it’s time to start rowing in the same direction.