Old Brand. New Tricks.

My Rotary club, the Birmingham Sunrise Rotary Club, meets every Tuesday for an early breakfast and speakers designed to wake you from your leftover Monday slumber. I’m wholly convinced it’s the best business breakfast in Birmingham. The speakers are always intriguing and, while they aren’t the only reason I go, they’re certainly a plus. (Them and the breakfast because, well…bacon.)

But one speaker recently piqued my interest when the topic came around to how organizations or businesses can evolve with the times without losing their core values.

On this particular morning, we listened to J.T. Dabbs, scout executive of the Greater Alabama Council, who spoke about how the Boy Scouts of America were creating a path for girls to participate in Boy Scouts. At one point in the Q&A that followed, he was asked what this change might mean for the Boy Scout brand. Would the brand have to change from Boy Scouts? Would the Girl Scouts continue to exist? The brand! My spidey senses tingled at the “B” word. I sat at the edge of my seat, coffee cup poised.

Dabbs gave a look somewhere between amusement and speculation and said that while he couldn’t answer for the future of the Girl Scouts, he didn’t think the Boy Scout brand would change substantially. After all, it is, as he rightly pointed out, one of the strongest brands in the world. He used the YMCA as an analogy. The Y, he observed, began as the Young Men’s Christian Association and is still a strong and virtually unchanged brand despite its own organizational evolution.

Unchanged. Hmmm.

From an operational standpoint, about the only part of the YMCA that hasn’t changed is the association part. Yes, the organization still espouses Judeo-Christian principles, but the young part and the men’s part have definitely changed. So the operational changes share similarities with the Boy Scouts—sea changes. But as far as the Y brand…was Dabbs correct in that it had not changed substantially?

I’d argue strongly that the YMCA brand has indeed changed. Big time. For starters, the last time the YMCA was not known by its acronym we were probably still lighting streets with gaslights. In fact, we’ve shortened it still  further since then. It feels like the Village People were the last to even use all four letters. Most of us know the brand as simply “The Y.”

Conversely, Boy Scouts of America has, to my knowledge, rarely been referred to as B.S.A. And I really don’t think we’ll be calling it the B anytime soon. Yet it will change. Of that we can be certain. My friend and fellow Rotarian Nathan Marcus suggested that in time it would simply be known as “The Scouts.” That’s probably right. But I think the only thing we can be absolutely certain of, despite its being an old brand with equity born of years of gravitas, is the Boy Scouts organization is in a period of change.

What do these grand old brands do when faced with radical 21st-century changes their founders never could have foreseen? How did the YMCA make its transition to an organization that welcomes all ages, genders, and creeds? We’ve seen the Boy Scouts contend with transgender issues. How will the brand contend with the addition of girls? To me, it all comes down to relevance. The YMCA recognized early on that, for its brand to remain relevant, it had to welcome the masses. Embracing a broadly tolerant culture fits its values hand in glove—values that, while they were most definitely born in Christian teachings, are universal.

The same’s true of the Boy Scouts. Consider their oath: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” What part of that excludes any of us?

You see, these brands are great because they were built on great foundational values. Yet even so, they must always work to keep themselves relevant as the times change around them.

Now here’s the interesting part. As I sat there at the best breakfast in Birmingham noodling over brands, something occurred to me. I Googled the question, “how long has Rotary been co-ed?” You know what the answer is? Since 1989. And as I looked around at the mix of folks we have in our club, young and old, male and female, different ages, creeds, races, and political views, I realized that Rotary was one of those grand brands as well—struggling to be operationally nimble, working to keep its brand relevant, and always, always exemplifying its values.