Brand-centric thinking is vital for Country Club GMs
Country clubs in the Tristate area (NY, NJ and CT), do not function in a vacuum. There are hundreds in the mix. Taking only Greenwich CT (a small section of Connecticut) as a micro-example, there are fourteen private golf courses in its sixty-seven square miles. They compete with another sixty-seven private links within a twenty-mile radius. That's aside from the numerous public golfing amenities that dot the landscape in between. Suffice to say, competition is alive and thriving in the three states, catering to the needs of a vibrant upwardly mobile society.
Country club general managers cannot afford to rest on their laurels, primarily when the demographics are signifying significant changes. For example:
• No longer is golf a male-dominated sport. Since the Tiger Woods image explosion hit the sporting world and gained momentum, challenging the bunkers and water from tee to green has become far more family participative. As soon as group membership gained popularity, it threw affordability in the club fee structuring under the spotlight.
• There's no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic, a decade after the financial crisis, has heaped extra pressures on new membership sign-ups. Social nervousness and a vivid picture of the public health threat have temporarily pushed enthusiasm for the luxuries in life to the back-burner.
• Gone are the days where the current and prospective membership contingent sees things the same way. “Old-school” club followers hold on to the traditional country club features and standards, but GMs who ignore the changed vision of the newbies looking to sign up do so at their peril. People are joining clubs not only for golf but a variety of social and recreational activities.
Some GMs and club boards are under the illusion that demand exceeds the supply of exclusive leisure activities. Years back, it was like that, but no more. It's not to say the pendulum has swung to the other side entirely, but balancing out the two economic forces is in the cards. If you want new members and intend to stop the member churn, you have to fight for it. The secret is to think in a brand-centric way.
What does brand-centric thinking mean when it comes to country clubs?
Visualize the concept in terms of Member Journeys and Member Experience. People don't join a country club or, alternatively, throw a long-standing membership aside on a whim. No, decisive actions like this usually follow a sequence of touchpoints that sway attitudes. When added together, they culminate in either a positive or negative member experience and a smooth or bumpy member journey, respectively. A GM's attention to the country club's branding inevitably impacts almost every touchpoint. Injecting image consistency is crucial to long-term success.
David Ceradini of Ceradini Brand Design has this to say.
He had first-hand experience with Burning Tree Country Club (hereon referred to as “BTCC”). The latter, founded in 1962, was not immune to the environmental volatility described above. From first appearances, it seemed that the club had effectively swung the emphasis to family participation while retaining the club's premium amenities platform. Still, they knew something was wrong because:
• Membership growth was falling behind expectations.
• The membership looked less than enthusiastic in many quarters.
• He saw the alarming trend of member resignations taking hold in other clubs.
There's nothing more devastating (revenue-wise) to a club than losing long-standing members. High recruiting cost means it takes a significant intake to compensate for one lost loyal family. The overriding objectives for every club GM is resilient member retention and minimal member churn.
When it comes to an image overview, Ceradini’s starting point was to conduct a Brand Audit and Immersion Analysis. In doing so, he drilled down to uncover the BTCC touchpoint deficiencies on the one hand and meaningful differences on the other.
1.) The evaluation required the club and its committee to come to terms with:
• The club’s attention to detail and service quality
• How well the club fares value-wise versus competitors.
• Staying relevant to the changing demographic dynamics.
In going through above, BTCC looked materially competitive. In fact, there were many compelling reasons for sustainable loyalty and energizing new recruitment.
Notwithstanding, somehow, they weren't resonating with the target audience.
2.) Ceradini discovered that:
a.) There was confusion amongst typical membership prospects. The club’s meaningful differences weren't getting through to them.
b.) Simultaneously, the existing members were disgruntled with the “keeping up with the Joneses” minimum benefit that routinely accompanies private membership. It’s a significant member motivation.
c.) Messaging in the admissions material was failing. It contained
• Uninspiring content, with a logo that looked like 1962 (i.e., old and tired), “yesteryear” images, and crucially omitting updated values.
• Typos, varying fonts, logos, colors, inconsistent usage, and diverse voices in the communications resulting in brand confusion.
The first glaring clue to something amiss in the image projection.
d.) Further investigation uncovered similar communication glitches working against a members experience in BTCC’s social media promotions, website, and internal club signage.
e.) In a few isolated cases, member services lagged popular demand standards, earmarking them for an upgrade. However, this wasn’t, by any means, an endemic flaw.
f.) In addition much of the support staff was mostly unbriefed and unaware of the club values demanding more emphasis. Brand consistency depended on everyone speaking in unison with a compelling voice and a substantially altered approach.
g.) The exercise was extensive. It carried through to wherever club identity appeared:
Nonetheless, the rebranding project wasn't a seismic shift because the club's operations had materially adjusted with the times. It was more a case of a "wobbly brand" versus a broken one. The core benefits were vibrant, but the sizzle around them wasn't in the mix. BTCC's central problem boiled down to this:
• It's not always what management does to rearrange products and services that differentiate the brand image but how you communicate what you did.
• As simplistic as this sounds, the way you say things has the power to separate your brand from the herd.
Ceradini Brand Design didn't turn things upside down by totally erasing the old logo. Instead, they refreshed without losing an essential connection to the club culture built up over fifty-eight years. It got people talking again about BTCC as an exciting and modernized retreat. A massive benefit emerging from the rebranding project was the positive word-of-mouth, especially with young families.
Establishing brand-centricity for any country club
There are GMs ahead of the curve in Ceradini's view, but you can count them on the one hand. His insights of the country club market demonstrates that numerous entities are far off from aligning their brand with market demands. When services and fees aren't connecting in consumers' minds as a value proposition, it calls for urgent brand restructuring - going beyond a mere facelift. The Ceradini Brand Design process initiated by the kick-off audit is thorough and transparent by defining:
1.) Member services out of kilter with market demands.
2.) Competitive disadvantages and defective member experience touchpoints.
3.) Primary spots for club differentiation that create member loyalty.
4.) The club’s value offer (i.e., a balanced and competitive fee-value ratio).
-Bringing standards up to speed
-Restructuring the pricing options accordingly.
Aside from the club's alignment with market needs, Ceradini assesses its communication efficiency as follows:
• In their view, the member experience, psychographically speaking, should never fall short of expectations.
• Brand-centricity rests on a central club theme and concept. It involves outlining a media and creative implementation strategy and plan based on a Brand Standards Guide. The latter is a useful tool to ensure consistency in taking all those responsible for club communication. It includes internal and external vendors. It succeeds in shaping, directing, and improving:
a.) Actions concerning internal events, vendors, consultants, and agencies.
b.) Establishing a consistent communication thread between all club departments.
c.) Registrations, tee-time notifications, and event alerts—ease of use being the watch-term. In this context, copy standards and tone are critical considerations.
Club GMs should ask themselves if their brand:
• Aligns with the club's vision.
• Supports its price point.
• Has a consistent and clear central message that’s resonating with current and prospective members.
• Effectively energizes the membership experience and the desired member journey.
Contact Ceradini Brand Design to explore a structured methodology that has proven to move things along quickly. They’re easy to work with, formulating brand strategies geared to deliver cutting-edge solutions.
Ceradini Brand Design, a package design and branding agency located in New York and serving product makers around the world. Ceradini’s clients range from small startups to Fortune 500 companies. A full-service branding agency, Ceradini specializes in bringing brands to life through strategic design solutions. The company’s philosophy is: “Captivate, stimulate, motivate — in heart and in mind.”
Author of this article: Gordon Polovin - He’s on the board of the Board of Advisors of Wealthy Living Today, responding to multiple journalist queries across a range of marketing subjects. Gordon is also a signature writer for SoGoSurvey (a premier employee and customer experience company), focusing on a range of branding and brand image topics.