Lessons for union recruitment: brand choice research

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.

Read more about why branding is important for unions.

The research (which is 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 located 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.

Takeaways for unions

For unions there are three 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 (e.g. from other unions) should be prime targets.

For lead organisers and union communicators, it is worth remembering that non-members “experience” the union even when they are not members — and even this second-hand experience can be important.

How could the union movement use this practically? One possibility is for peak bodies to keep a record of past-members. 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 peak, who can then encourage that former member to join the union that covers their new job.

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.

This is why well designed union merch is not only a contributor to retention (for the member who buys it and wears it) but helps communicate the value of membership to non-members.

3. Media exposure (paid and earned) is important for building awareness. Ensuring your union is well-known is an important attribute and vital requirement for recruitment. If no one knows your union exists, they won’t join. This effect however “tops out” at a certain level. Once a prospective member knows about your union, past experience, price, and word-of-mouth become important. Therefore, the most important element of paid advertising and earned media is overcoming that initial lack of awareness.


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

The ACTU has undertaken significant work creating the brand “Australian Unions”. Over the years, this moniker has gained significant awareness and “brand equity” — and has contributed to a generating a “halo effect” for unions generally.

How much should your union focus on its brand? The answer is: a lot. Read more here about the importance of branding your union.

%d bloggers like this: