RSA rebranding: is Twitter the one to beat?

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has survived my cull of memberships because, although the conventional benefits are thin, it is currently such an interesting place. I’m paid up for another year, and even pondered taking life membership to avoid such vacilitation in future.
However, the organisation has failed to persuade my friend Amy Sample Ward that she should come up with £145 for the honour of being a Fellow. It’s not the possibly sexist label that’s put her off – as she explains here – but rather that the RSA can’t explain what it is for.
This has recently been exercising chief executive Matthew Taylor and staff, as he very honestly explains on his blog (which, by the way, I think is probably the best of its kind by the chief exec of a charity).
Matthew and staff have been discussing rebranding among themselves, while at the same time Matthew emphasises the huge importance of the 27,000 members (Fellows). This led me and some others to explore the contradiction of designing the t-shirts without consultation while suggesting the wearers should be empowered and encouraged to be ambassadors for the organisation. Airlines often get into trouble with staff for doing that … it’s even worse when they are paying you rather than the other way around.
The deeper contradiction is that many people are flattered to be invited to be Fellows because getting FRSA after your name sounds grand …. but in fact it is no qualification at all. Anyone can join with a a couple of upright-looking recommendations. The point of Fellowship is that you shouldn’t look to the benefits for you (magazine, bar, library, label etc) but rather what you can do for society. That’s why RSA was started 250 years ago in the coffee houses of Covent Garden.
Problem is, as one friend of mine put it, “why should I become a Fellow of the RSA when all the excellent lectures are free, and I can do more with my Twitter friends than I can through Fellowship?”
Amy makes that point more strongly:

The RSA, like many other organizations, suffers because of a lack of the most powerful aspect of its branding.  I do not plan to accept the Fellowship invitation because I have not, whether online or in person, from the invitation materials or conversations I’ve had with others, gained a clear understanding of what being a Fellow even means.  Furthermore, and most importantly to me, I have not been shown how a Fellowship will help me in my work at changing my community and the world.

Yes, slogans and colors, font and everything else are all important parts of the branding.  It’s true. But the RSA is missing the most important part, at least in bringing me on board: proving to me that being a Fellow will help ME and not just that my membership will help THEM.

As folks mention in the comments on Matthew’s piece, I don’t need to build my resume (for better or worse, I’m fine with it as it is).  But I am completely open to any and all, whether organization or individual, ready to help me make our local communities and the global community as great as possible.

I must say that I have found the RSA useful in moving forward and amplify some ideas … particularly the membership project started by Simon Berry and I,  now being further developed by RSA and NCVO. I think there’s great potential in the regional networks now developing, and I’m putting some volunteer effort into the online network for London. Do join – it is open to anyone. There’s (real) free drinks on July 2. At the moment we are rather inwardly focussed on elections to the Fellowship council, but the relationships and ideas developed through the conversations will lead to more practical results, I’m sure.

In addition the RSA is starting some really interesting work promoting the development of local community web sites, as I’ve written before. I’ll be helping Nick Booth and Will Perrin on July 10, with some ideas of my own. We are particularly keen to recruit other RSA Fellows interested in setting up local sites or otherwise using social technology in their community …. you can sign up here.

I think that the rebranding solution is quite simple … well … the first steps are. Stop having internal meeting with consultants, and instead ask the Fellows to tell stories about the way that the RSA has helped them achieve more in the world than they otherwise might, whether as individuals or with other Fellows and friends of the RSA. Or how it might. I know, from the connections that I have made, that there are already great stories to be told. Use the emerging city and regional networks as a place to do that, through events, or online. Make it fun … offer prizes … whatever. Maybe even create a central blog for Fellows instead of limiting contributions to comments on Matthew’s … which may not get through. That’s why Amy had to post to her blog. Stop talking at people … help them speak for themselves. In the age of Twitter people expect no less.


  • June 27, 2009 - 3:03 pm | Permalink

    David – Thank you for moving the conversation forward here!

    I think you have found a path out of the dark spot I mentioned; I don’t like to critque something without having a good suggestion or proposal to go with it but didn’t feel like I had any good ideas to put up. I love the proposals you put up here!

    If the stories of Fellows and their work was a prominent part of the RSA website (a fellow’s blog for example) I would have a huge window into the “why”s and “how”s of what being a Fellow could mean. Additionally, telling those stories and highlighting them to the world can mean even more support for projects, more people getting involved in making things happen (whether they are Fellows or not), and so forth.

    I really hope this is something that can start to take shape – both for the benefit of the Fellows putting in the work and for the rest of the world to know, support, and get involved with.


  • July 3, 2009 - 12:10 am | Permalink

    The RSA was and potentialy is a fantastic organisation. Since 1780, when the RSA offered prizes, ie gold medals for innovation, they asked for a model example to be deposited with the society,sadly none of these or at least very few are known to be extant. So much for knowledge transfer.

    I’m sitting at my desk looking at my collection of 20 original bound volumes dating back to 1783, of the Transactions (Reports) of The Society of Arts. So for example, in 1784 they offered a gold medal for the greatest quantity of “Occidental Plane Trees” planted in a designated area.

    Over 200 years the RSA captured stories and awarded prizes for innovation in the areas of art, science, agriculture and manufacturing. When they first set up they were a stand alone, philanthropic and cutting edge organiation, with a monopoly on innovation, doing something no other organisation was able to offer at the time.
    Times have changed, there are now many other organisations addressing innovation. What the RSA needs to do is think about uniqueness, what can it offer that no other organisation is offering in terms of cutting edge innovation?
    They dont need to fork out to a branding set-up to do this. Repositioning the RSA may be difficult, but the answer lies in looking at the original ethos, then moving on and embracing it in a new 21st century form

  • July 3, 2009 - 11:30 am | Permalink

    Great piece David. I think this idea of sharing stories is really powerful. It’s often the obvious things like this that get missed. It resonated withe me as it’s something we need to do more of at Common Purpose. Look forward to following progress. Oliver

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