Lessons for union recruitment: brand choice research

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Some very interesting research by the GfK Roper Group into what reasons were important when deciding to buy a brand may be of some use for unions thinking about recruitment.

The research (from 1992) looked at the reasons that people bought brands, and according to the report, “knowing what to expect from a product because of past experience was the most common reason for buying a particular brand.”

Roper Report - Consumer Reasons for Brand Choice (1992)
Roper Report – Consumer Reasons for Brand Choice (1992)

The next strongest associations are likely to be formed on the basis of word-of-mouth (friends, family, colleagues, etc) or other non-commercial sources of information (consumer groups, media, etc). The report notes that word of mouth is likely to be particularly important for service organisations. “Company-influenced sources of information such as advertising are often likely to create the weakest associations and thus may be the most easily changed.”

What does this mean for unions?

Brand associations are critical determinants of what information will be recalled by someone, and therefore affects their “brand decisions” — that is, their choices to buy a product or service, or join a union. The strength of an association depends on how the information is initially processed as it enters someone’s memory and where it is actually locarted as a result. There are two ways to build “brand association” — commonly known as encoding and storage.

Encoding is two things: the quantity of information a person receives and the quality of their processing that information. Simply, this means the more times a person is exposed to a brand, the more likely they are to recall it, and likewise, the more they focus their attention on a brand, the more likely they are to recall it (and vice versa, exposure when the person is distracted means they are less likely to recall the brand). Other factors like consistency and congruity come into play as well (for example, the ease at which new information can be integrated with existing perceptions, or the brand’s inherent simplicity or vividness).

Storage is affected by a range of things, like the presence of other brand information, exposure time and “retrieval cues” (when a brand name is on the tip of the tongue).

Simply put, the more a union symbol is present in the workplace, the more it is encoded — similarly, positive word of mouth from colleagues improves the quality of the encoding.

For unions there are two take-aways from this research:

1. Someone’s past experience with a union is likely to be the most important determinant of whether they will join a union. This means that unions should think carefully about non-member outreach, how non-members are treated and referred to, and how the union is generally perceived. For an organiser, it may mean that a non-member with a “bad union experience” may not be worth trying to join up, whereas former members (even from other unions) should be prime targets. For lead organisers and union communicators, it is worth remembering that non-member “experience” the union even when they are not members — and even this second-hand experience can be important.

More generally, it suggests that peak bodies like the ACTU or trades halls should try to keep a record of past-members that can be accessed by union growth-teams. Knowing that someone has previously been a union member from another sector may dramatically increase their likelihood of joining a new union. When someone resigns from a union, their name could be passed on to the ACTU register. Unions undertaking a recruitment drive could enter in names of prospects or non-member lists into the database and see who was previous a union member.

2. Building a union’s presence in the workplace is important in shaping experience and fostering word of mouth. I’ve written before about the power of social proof and endorsements. With a growing number of people in Australia (and the world) never having a direct experience of joining a union, unions must increasingly shape second-hand experience to build positive engagement with future members. Of course, the most powerful brand advocates for unions are existing members and delegates, who should be encouraged to display union signs and symbols to create social norms.

The final, less important, take-away is that media exposure and the attitudes of political leaders is much less important than union leaders and organisers often think it is. Although Howard and the News Ltd media demonised unions, what is more important is personal experience, word of mouth and things in the union’s own control (price, quality).


What is obviously not covered in this research is the question of union brands themselves. Do unions have their own individual (“corporate”) brands? Is there just a single “Brand Union”? Do people see the difference between one union and another at a brand level?

The ACTU did a lot of work creating the campaign brand “Your Rights at Work” — but four years on from the defeat of the Howard Government, how many people outside of the union movement and politics remember the brand or the campaign? The ACTU unsuccessfully tried to create a “Australian Unions” meta-brand to sit across individual union brands. But without the money to spend on seriously creating brand equity, the project was never going to succeed.

For individual unions, the answer will influence how much a union may decide to try to create their own brand. Some unions may have very high brand recall — like the teachers union (AEU) or construction union (CFMEU). For those unions, high investment in branding exercises is probably appropriate. For smaller unions though… are the efforts of the broader movement likely to overwhelm their individual efforts? A topic for future research.

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