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18 min read

Telling Your Club Story Through Your Branding (Derek Sussner) [Episode 2]

How do you appeal to the younger generation without alienating your traditional member base? That's a question confronting private clubs across the nation, and few people are better positioned to answer it than branding expert Derek Sussner, owner of Sussner Design Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Sussner Design is an identity-based graphic design firm that helps companies refresh their brand positioning, their brand messaging, and their identity. Derek and his team have worked with athletic-focused brands like Shock Doctor, Cutters Sports, and McDavid USA. On top of that, Derek is an avid golfer and has a deep appreciation for the strength of a club's brand, making him an ideal guest for Crushing Club Marketing.

In this episode:

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1:57 - The Importance of Branding

ED: Branding is one of those things that can feel really esoteric and kind of out there. How do you define branding at Sussner?

DEREK: I'm going to steal a quote from Jim Collins. I just read "Good to Great" recently, and he defines your brand as "your reputation." Ad agencies might discuss branding from an advertising standpoint. Marketing companies talk about it from a marketing angle. We talk about it from an identity standpoint. It's who you are. It's what you sound like and what people often say is that it's your look and feel.

ED: Is there good branding? Is there bad branding? How do you define really good branding?

DEREK: It's a great question. Sometimes I think it's almost easier to find what's bad than what's good. But I think what's bad is something that's not working. There are some indicators that will happen to show that it's not working.

ED: Like what? What do you look for?

DEREK: Complaints. What your customers are complaining about. It could be the retailers that your product is sold in or the space that you're in. It could be getting crushed by your competition because they are talking about what they do better than what you are. And I should clarify that from a brand standpoint and an identity standpoint, the message that you're speaking is every bit and possibly more important than the logo, for example. So if you're not articulating who you are and identifying who your target customer or market is, or the person or individual that you're trying to talk to, they will define who you are for you.

ED: And that may not always be a good thing, obviously.

DEREK: No. I think our brains are really programmed, just through evolution, to understand things as quickly as possible — to spend as few mental calories as possible when identifying what's going on, really, with the least amount of effort. I think people have an inclination to put things in a box as they understand them. It just makes it more comfortable to them. The challenge is, if you don't define who you are in a way that people can clearly understand what box that is, they will define it for you. They want to put you in that box.

4:40 - Branding is More Than Your Logo

ED: For a lot of people, the first thought of a brand is a logo, and that's a really important part of it. I mean, that's your first impression. But that's not everything with defining your brand. Can you talk a little bit more about the different factors that go into developing a really strong brand?

DEREK: Absolutely. And you're right on. Logo really minimalizes it to just one of many tactics that are really important in a package of elements that create your brand. Your brand is really, in that reputation piece, everything and anything that your target market interacts with, whether you're present or not. Starbucks is a great example, because they'll drill down to the music that's playing in the background, which impacts your perception as you walk into that store. How you're greeted. What it smells like. What the sounds are, the coffee percolating and chatter in the corner. And you contrast that with a poor greeting, a terrible smell or no smell, an empty, vacant sound, and no customers, and that's two completely different brand experiences.

I think some of the key elements that a lot of people tend to overlook when they jump right to the logo that gets embroidered on the front of your shirt is the foundational positioning and messaging and understanding of what your company is. For some people, this will go as far as core values, mission, vision — both internally and externally appropriate. Oftentimes, that should translate to the messaging in how you talk to your customers. I have a fun conversation with a copywriter friend of mine from time to time. I pick on him and say nobody reads your copy unless the designer makes it look good. But he'll spin it back to me and say, no matter how good it looks, if I spend the time to read it and I don't understand what it says or it doesn't communicate to me, then you've missed your mark there also.

6:56 - Is Branding Different for Private Clubs?

ED: In retail or a lot of B2C environments where it seems like branding is so critical, you're trying to appeal and send a message to people who may not even know you. Yet in the club industry, these are people that, it's a tribe, and it's almost like in some ways isn't your brand like a statement of who you are and what you believe? So, how is it different for a club, or is it really the same thing?

DEREK: I think it's exactly the same. And I think that clubs can learn a tremendous amount by looking at what other businesses are doing. They have the exact same challenges. There are people that are associated with driving a certain brand of car that would never consider driving another brand of car because they don't associate themselves with that tribe. But we all, going back to the evolution comment, I think we all inherently want to be part of a tribe of some sort. It's just figuring out or identifying which parts of which tribe make sense for us, and excite us, and we want to be a part of. So, much like a business does, it's what language will energize you and what sort of call to action will start the process of us communicating with each other and talking with each other?

8:52 - Connecting with Younger Prospects

ED: One of the things that a lot of clubs struggle with is that a lot of clubs want to get younger. They talk about having an older demographic, an older membership, and they want to appeal to a younger audience, and yet they also say "but we have great tradition here." So it would seem that some clubs really struggle with changing their branding, or maybe more specifically, changing their logo. So, what do you recommend for a club that's saying we want to honor tradition, but we've got to get younger? And they've got the crest for their logo and some of that other stuff, and maybe it's not, but it just looks old. How do you do that?

DEREK: I think a couple key steps that club could do would really be to survey both the members and nonmembers, if they can gather a handful of those, that are in that prospective audience. There are hundreds of thousands of companies in the United States alone that have brands that have this exact same challenge. Brands that have been around for a very long time that are really looking to maintain the foundation of their tradition and leverage the equity that they have in goodwill and recognition, but also update it in a thoughtful way that attracts a new audience. When it comes to clubs, that might just simply be removing the crest behind the logo. When you look at the quote-unquote stereotypical club logos, they look like monograms, and in many respects, they all look the same.

ED: So when you say they look like monograms, what is that?

DEREK: It's their initial. Their initial and crest.

11:26 - Making a Change

ED: One of the things you just mentioned there that I wanted to explore a little bit more, it's almost like the idea of a focus group, where you go to members who represent that demographic that you're going after. So that's something that would be really easy for a club to do? Does that start with "what do you think of our current logo," or is it "we have five different logos, react to them," or is it both?

DEREK: Both. You could start it way up front and have discussions with other club logos, or other brand logos that even have a similar vibe. You could take the Cadillac logo from seven or eight years ago that had the iconic laurel branches surrounding the shield and compare that to what they've recently done with it, which was simply to remove those laurel branches and have a discussion about them side by side. What are the perceptions and words and attributes that come to mind in describing those two? So without asking necessarily for the specific answer of what should we do, it's using somebody else's relevant examples to see how people are reacting to them.

12:52 - Is It Risky to Change Logos?

ED: Sometimes it can feel really risky for clubs, too, though. They go, let's not make a bad decision. Let's not have something that we end up with that's going to misfire for us. Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota changed their logo a couple years ago. They went from a traditional, old-school crest, and they went to this figure, the golfer with a bag over his shoulder, the walking man. And it seems like it's working for them. I don't know if they hired anyone to do that, but what are the risks in such a drastic change?

DEREK: I don't think there are any. The biggest risk would be disenfranchising your current membership. If you have the opportunity, involve them in the process, survey them, gather their insights, make sure that you understand what the goals are. One of the exercises that we often do is called "a desired brand attributes exercise," and it's a series of maybe 50 slides that contrast two words. We'll take that through with the key leadership team and in a very intuitive and relatively quick way, say "how does Hazeltine National want to be perceived not in the market but to your target market?" Those are two different things. How do you want to be perceived by the general public when we're on TV in the Ryder Cup, that's one thing, but how do you want to be perceived by the person who's considering joining your club? It's also not "how are we perceived today?" That's a separate exercise. And once you go through these series of words to, in the end, draw out a list of eight or ten words that says when you combine all these together this is what we want to look like and sound like and feel like. And that's a great guide in moving forward into the creative process.

ED: Just a point of clarification. I'm kind of hearing something that I think can be confusing, which is about the message that you send to prospective members or to your membership with your brand. Is it OK if it's different than what you send to the general public or do you really want that to be consistent?

DEREK: Ideally it's consistent. Ideally, it's one unified message that defines who you are. Differentiates you from your competition or anybody else that might be similar. And cuts through the clutter and appeals to the specific audience that you've identified as your target, which includes your current membership.

I think you have internal language and you have external language. So just like in your business, there are messages that you might have on the wall that you might share with your employees that drive your internal culture that maybe aren't articulated or wordsmithed in the same way you would say in the public. But I think the essence is the same. All of those are the foundation of your personality as you've chosen to define it.

Also, keep in mind the logo is just one of many efforts that go into supporting this effort and defining who you are. The logo is very, very important for sure, but it doesn't work on its own. It's going to be combined with messaging. When people visit your website, you have an opportunity to use imagery and additional information and messages to bring your brand personality to life.

17:32 - Connecting Branding Throughout the Club

ED: What I'm hoping we can talk a little bit more about is the importance of carrying whatever that brand identity is through everything that you do at your club. I would imagine there are probably a lot of clubs you say were doing the logo and then they're done with their branding. How important is it, though, that it's all connected, even down to how people are served at the club and how members are treated?

DEREK: It's critical. It's everything. Like I said earlier, every single opportunity that you have to connect with people on a human level, all wrapped up, creates your brand and your reputation. If you have the coolest logo in the world but your customer service is substandard, then that's the impression that you are going to leave. If you have a great logo and it looks great on a shirt, and your golf course is state of the art and world-renowned, or your club has a phenomenal reputation for food or service or membership, but the valet out front loses your car keys, that's going to be lasting part of your perception of that club.

ED: So the heart of this, and you see this sometimes, is a lack of identity. Like the club doesn't even know who they are. I mean there are some clubs that I've met with that that will say we're not sure if we're a family club or not a family club, and it starts with really knowing who you are, doesn't it?

DEREK: Jack of all trades, master of none. If you don't choose to define who you are, then other people will define it for you. For a club that's poorly defined, whose brand isn't clear, like the ones you just mentioned, I would venture to guess that if you surveyed 10 different people, who all are prospects of that club, some of those 10 will have visited, some of those 10 may have friends that are members, some of those 10 have never experienced that club but have heard of it. I would venture to say you're probably going to get 7 or 8 completely different descriptions of who that club is and what they stand for.

20:04 - Branding and Your Website

ED: Let's bring this to online. How have websites changed, as you think about the acceleration of mobile technology and people searching for things online? How has online changed branding? Has it changed branding? Is it just another place to emphasize the brand? What are your thoughts on that?

DEREK: I think websites have changed from "I want to have one," to "I need to have one." A sales consultant that I work with said that your website should be your very best most successful salesperson. It works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round, and it does it without you or anyone else being present. Given the technology and the ability to update it frequently as you learn how people are reacting to what's working and what isn't working, it's critical.

ED: How difficult is it to really dial in a brand online?

DEREK: I don't think it's difficult at all, if you follow the steps of the process that we talked about. Once you have an identity, a logo, brand messaging, colors great imagery of your club, and a well-articulated description of what's going on inside and who you are, it's then just a matter of bringing it all together in one place. In the old days, this would have been a brochure. But what that brochure didn't do was capture my e-mail or my phone number or create a strong enough call to action. A brochure may have had a call to action, but a call to action on the website makes it so much easier for you as a club to interface and interact and capture my attention.

ED: There are a lot of clubs out there that need new websites. What would be some of the biggest things for people to be aware of as they go through that process from a branding perspective? They say, "we know what our logo is, we know the font we use, we have our style, our colors that we use," but what are some other things experientially that clubs should be aware of as it relates to their brand and their websites?

DEREK: I think there's a couple of main goals and objectives for the website for a club. My perception is one of those goals is to support the membership, to give the member access to information. What's going on? When is it happening? Give me the information. And then the second part or opportunity with that site is to generate leads for new prospects.

There are approximately 32 private courses in the Twin Cities alone. And I think I looked at about half of their Web sites. And so if I looked at 16 websites of private country clubs in the Twin Cities, three of them kicked ass, three of them were embarrassing, and the rest of them were nondescript and I couldn't tell the difference between one to the next.

ED: Interesting. So there's opportunity out there.

DEREK: I think it's a very easy low hanging fruit, and an easy, relatively inexpensive investment to engage both your members and your prospects.

24:27 - How to Create an Effective, Welcoming Website

ED: Let's talk about just welcoming people into the website a little bit, as well. Historically, there's still a lot of clubs out there who do this, whether they are golf clubs or other clubs, where you hit their URL, and you can't go anywhere. I mean you've got to have a login or something, and there might be a drop down or a little navigation so you can look at a couple things, but it's basically saying we're private and if you want to look at what we have, you've got to have access. In today's world, they're screwing themselves over in some ways, aren't they?

DEREK: You know, as an example, and I won't name names, but this last summer I had the opportunity to play golf at a very well respected, highly regarded club here in the Twin Cities. So ahead of time, just to make sure that I was aware of what some club policies were, I went online and went to the website. My goal was to actually see a scorecard, so I could get a sense of what the golf course would play like, because their golf course is not on the GPS app that I have in my iPhone. And the website looked as if it was — and it probably was — it was probably designed 15 years ago, and hasn't been touched since. The photography has been updated and there were maybe two photographs. There were three buttons. There was a home button, which is where I already was when I showed up on the site, there was a member login button, and there was a gas button. And when I clicked on the gas button, there were directions and rules and regulations, most of which talked more about the things that were absolutely prohibited on the course than what was encouraged or inviting. So, it was an exclusive experience. It was not inviting or inspiring at all.

ED: So, let's face it, some clubs hang their hat on the fact that we're exclusive and we're not going to share anything, and that's part of the mystique or whatever of the club. Given the way the club industry has gone, I have got to believe there are fewer of those, but they absolutely exist, which is nuts. What I'm wondering, though, are there some examples of some websites you've seen that people who are listening to the podcast could go and check out to see an example of what you consider to be a website that aligns with the brand that is really engaging and draws people in.

26:58 - A Private Club Website That's Crushing It

DEREK: Sure. A private club website I came across yesterday was Edina Country Club. Of the handful of Twin Cities Golf Club websites that I looked at, they crushed it. You know, we talked offline about examples of other resorts or hotels or restaurants that want to be perceived or want to reinforce the exclusivity of their brand, but at the same time, invite me to engage with them if I'm a prospective member. I had a conversation with a golf club in Florida recently who is considering rebranding, and there are usually a handful of reasons why that comes up in the first place. Membership's lagging, so they're looking for members. They're getting beat up by their competition, people are joining other clubs, they're going to other restaurants, sales have slowed or plateaued in some way, or the industry has changed — they've realized they need to target a millennial target market instead of the baby boomers and they're trying to figure out what that shift is. So, I tried to drill down to find out which one of those reasons provoked the phone call I had with this golf club community and the response with the woman I spoke with was that none of those were her issues. They had a substantial waiting list for membership. All the properties in their club were sold. And what they were trying to do was simply to maintain the position of leadership and separation from their nearest competitor and protect themselves as the leader in that market. And it was one of the more refreshing, proactive, forward-thinking clubs that I've ever spoken to.

ED: It's interesting, though, because one of the things that you also hear from clubs is engagement. "We're good with new members, we've got a waiting list, but what we're really trying to do is get more of our existing members to participate in more events and be more engaged with the club." How important is branding for those kinds of situations?

DEREK: Oh, it's massive. I've seen companies that were 30 years old that in readdressing their 30-year-old brand, that hadn't been touched or addressed in 30 years, and having that new logo an updated color palette come to life on clothing, on the walls inside their spaces, in that environment, completely rejuvenated the attitude and the energy of everybody inside that space. It's just like renovating your kitchen and getting a new dishwasher and brighter cleaner paint job makes a massive amount of difference.

30:10 - Finding a Balance Between Old-School and Millennials

ED: I want to go back to something you mentioned a couple of minutes ago about the club in Florida and what their objectives are. And you talked about engaging millennials. And what I think is sort of an interesting thing that you hear from time to time is that clubs want to engage millennials, but they don't want to ostracize the baby boomers because they make up such a decent chunk of their membership. How do you handle that? Is that just change management that clubs have to learn how to manage? Or is there a way you can walk that line to say this is for the young and for the more experienced?

DEREK: I think there's absolutely a way to do that. Going back to the Edina Country Club website example. The first thing you're greeted with isn't a member login button, like the other website that I mentioned. But instead, this site is current, it's contemporary, and it's responsive — meaning that it works on my mobile device, which is how the millennial is going to be looking at your website, it works on my desktop computer at work and it works on my tablet. So it's moving and reformatting functionally and seamlessly. The second thing that it did is it presented me with a giant, beautiful photograph on the home page. It was very ethereal, which was what they were looking for, and the first word that came up in a provocative scrolling line of copy was "family." Then it followed with "premier, fun, and membership." So, I would argue that "family, premier, fun, and membership" is relevant to the millennial who is looking to join, and to the baby boomer who is looking to join, and to the baby boomer who is looking to keep his club or her club relevant so that it stays healthy.

32:19 - Quick Tips to Get Started

ED: Let's leave some folks with some things they can think about and maybe some tips and advice for them for clubs that are looking at their brand and feel like, "I know we can do better." Where should they start? How could they start? What do you think are some easy things for people to act on or at least to explore?

DEREK: The first thing I would ask is how old is their website? One more golf analogy, I would ask you, often do upgrade the driver your golf bag? If your driver in your golf bag is more than four or five years old, then it's not using the current technology.

ED: There are a lot of people that are going say whoa, whoa, whoa. Every five years we should be looking at our branding? Are you kidding? We've had this logo for the last 50 years and now you're saying every five years. Why do you think it's more important today that we evaluate things on a shorter interval?

DEREK: Well, I think the general mindset and approach has changed largely in part due to the changing technology, which makes it easier to react and update more often. And secondly, it's the change in the people and the demographic, and what they want and how they live. A logo that was designed or a brand that was created like 3M, so long ago, didn't need to change very often because of where their target market interacted with that logo, how they interacted with it, on printed materials that needed to last a very, very long time.

One of the challenges that I think clubs have when you say "we just did this two years ago," is, first of all, let's look at it as an investment, not an expense. If the cost of updating your website brings you one new member or two new members, you've paid for that entire cost. So, it's completely an investment. I would also say that while you should be looking at your website at a minimum of every five years, the benefit of making that investment is it does last five years. So, amortize the investment of a new website over five years and an updated logo over 10 years, and it really isn't that much of a cost at all.

ED: So I interrupted you before, you were going down the tips, and the first thing you said was let's take a look at the website.

DEREK: The second thing, following up on looking at this as an investment not as an expense, is to look at your messaging. I think when it comes to a logo refinement, if you choose to go that route, that can be done very, very minor. Much like Cadillac removing the laurel leaves surround the side of the crest, or taking the logo out of the crest, it can be very minor. It doesn't have to be a brand new overhaul. That's a great way to give recognition and a nod to the older membership regarding the tradition that this club has experienced, but yet modernizing it just a little bit, making it a little bit more contemporary, and possibly even a little bit more easy to embroider on your shirt, with a little less elements. And then, like I said, I think the messaging is key. It's as simple as determining who your target market is, who is the hero in your story, for example, what that person is looking for, what the club offers to help them, and a little bit of a taste of what life might look like if I decide to become a member of your club. And that might be enough.

ED: You brought up the Cadillac example a few times, and I've been thinking about their whole positioning, and that brand feels so much more masculine, and yet I didn't ever notice the changes to the logo. Just tweaking something that's really traditional, making a really minor change, and it feels like, in their case, it just feels more robust. And it definitely feels more masculine than what they used to have.

DEREK: And that's what a design expert is going to help you with. Another example that brings in an entirely different way is Johnnie Walker. We think of the very masculine, high-end scotch brand with the man walking, the iconic man. Well, they recently introduced a brand new brand called Jane Walker, a new female counterpart to their current masculine logo and mascot.

ED: Is that risky?

DEREK: I think any sense of marketing is a little bit risky. But if they've done the research, and they've identified that as a target market and an opportunity, and it's probably the same Scotch, in a different label and a different bottle, that's not too risky.

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