VFW Rebranding

February 15, 2007       Tom Pope      

What’s wrong with this image? Stop a person on the street at random and ask about impressions of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and you’ll probably hear it’s a hall offering cheap beer where old soldiers talk about World War II.

Nothing in that image portrays a younger veteran from Afghanistan or Iraq.

To make matters worse, current active duty troops might not be aware about the VFW emergency grants from the Unmet Needs Program or the Computer Uplink Program. This misconnect has prompted the nonprofit to start a rebranding process that examines how the public picks up on the image of the mission. The process involves using focus groups, a list manager, and communication strategies.

“We weren’t doing a good enough job in telling our story,” said Jerry Newberry, director of communications and public relations for the VFW national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

Branding is important to any organization, but one problem developed with the 107-year-old nonprofit as the public sometimes viewed the VFW as the veterans of foreign wars, and other times as the VFW. “Some people know us by one or the other or both,” he said. “To make people identify us as one rather than two separate organizations is important,” said Newberry.

The identity problem was seen through surveys, conversations, emails, or letters. That led the VFW to conduct a study that resulted in changes.

A strategic five-year plan was set in motion in 2000 to look at communication, and public relations messaging. For example, the majority of public relations messages previously focused on the organization’s national commander, but the new emphasis showcases the organization as a whole.

In one display of a new direction, a radio show started mid-2005 as an online broadcast at Townhall.com. Taped segments from Iraq and Afghanistan provided information about the VFW.

It wasn’t enough. “We knew we had to be aggressive,” Newberry said. The problem was beyond just a public relations solution. It was also a marketing issue and how the organization was portrayed via other business partners. “Some of the same firms that bid a few years ago just dusted off the responses and offered nothing new for the present,” he said. “We decided to go to RMI Direct Marketing Inc. to look at our situation in a different way.”

The new emphasis will center on list management along with gaining specific details from focus groups and surveys that goes beyond a public relations firm’s capability. The changes called for by the focus groups will be determined later this year. But the list management shift is already under way.

“We’re laying the foundation for future business for the VFW,” said Hillary Taylor, account executive at RMI, a list broker/manager based in Danbury, Conn. “Now the strategy is all about making people aware of different opportunities with the VFW list.”

The list rental aims to broaden the scope to different mailers by creating data cards for different segments for the VFW’s 36-month file of 2.7 million donors.

The various programs offered by the VFW could attract segments of other audiences. The educational program for children teaches about the flag and a mentoring program or phone card allows soldiers to call home that benefits young veterans.

“We’re trying to partner those concepts with the list rental community,” she said. “We have younger audiences and different ethnic groups.”

The shift is a strategy the VFW did not use before. Other selects included the age group 18 to 49 because RMI sought a younger population who have friends in the service. “Each month the segments are enhanced because of the enormous size of the VFW file,” she said. “We’re able to look at a segment that has dogs and cats as pets, so we can send our information out to that affinity.”

Other segments include farmers, NASCAR fans, and history buffs. “We expect the commercial area to be important over the long haul,” she said. “Most catalog firms wouldn’t think of using the VFW donor, but those people buy at Sharper Image and others will recognize the value, too.”

The VFW file has a reputation for bringing in donors who contribute $5 or less. Yet on the file is the average $11, and the list records even higher segments. “A cataloger can obtain a $35 segment we can match from the file,” she said. “Our goal is to direct people to the organization.”

To date, some new selects have been approached and feedback includes orders to a number of catalogs such as an Irish firm. “We can say we found 100,000 Irish donors,” she said. “We opened up opportunities for various groups of direct marketers.”

The process of rebranding by using the donor list is an indirect method of reaching the public. The result brings audiences into an exposure with the nonprofit maybe for the first time. “The indirect way is a wonderful enhancement to what the VFW is doing with the focus groups,” she said.

Rebranding in this case means looking to RMI for a better way to market the list. Yet this first major step will be supported when the VFW analyzes the report from the focus groups and surveys next spring.

“We’re at the very beginning stage of a branding study,” Newberry said. “Right now we don’t have a course of action or direction yet.”

While he admitted that the VFW doesn’t yet know which services to put in play later, he explained that the mission has expanded much over the past years with family services and activities involving children.

How does an organization set aside dollars for costs if the direction of the focus groups leads to future programs? “We have to invest in ourselves and tough decisions will be made,” he said. “We know something has to go into advertising and that’s one thing the VFW has failed to do in the past.”  NPT

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.