The Community Builder: 5 Questions With YMCA Canada’s David Hughes

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YMCA Canada - Building Healthy Communities

After more than 160 years of servicing communities across Canada, the “Y” is nearing the end of a multi-year rebranding designed to provide a unified message about its core values and services from every location across the country. While the recognized leader for so long in so many areas, such as health, fitness and aquatic centres, camps, training programs and employment services, The Y found itself facing a host of competitors on virtually all fronts.

With so much noise out there in the marketplace, the Y brand became diluted—and a growing number of Canadians became confused about what it actually did. There was no question that the Y was underperforming its true potential.

That confusion is dissipating and being replaced with a revamped brand identity thanks in no small part to Scott Haldane, the just-retired president and CEO of YMCA Canada. Late last year he received the the inaugural Interbrand “World Changing CEO Award” for his work in creating a strong national brand that’s focused on building healthy communities, unifying the YMCA and impacting lives across Canada.

“This award recognizes business leaders who have the vision and fortitude to leverage the power of brand to drive meaningful change,” says Carolyn Ray, managing director of Interbrand Canada, which helped the Y develop its new positioning, verbal identity and brand for the Canadian marketplace. “(His) work as the CEO of the YMCA to bring the brand idea of ‘Building healthy communities” to life, has been inspirational, and we believe it sets a strong example for other CEOs to follow.”

At the end of December, Haldane retired from the YMCA to become the first full-time president and CEO of Ottawa-based Rideau Hall Foundation, an independent, non-political charity that brings together ideas, people and resources to promote the advancement of a smart and caring nation through learning, leadership, innovation and giving initiatives.

David Hughes, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and branding (a newly-created role when he was appointed in 2014) at YMCA Canada, sat down with brandchannel to discuss what was needed to keep the Y’s brand as relevant today as it was back in the 1850s.

brandchannel: Why did the YMCA undertake a refreshing of its brand?

David Hughes - YMCA CanadaDavid Hughes (right): Every eight years, the YMCA gathers together at a conference and reflects on the past, present and future. It’s a deep dive on self-reflection. Several of the keynote speakers, including Leslie Crutchfield, author of Forces For Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, kept talking about how powerful the YMCA brand was but it wasn’t being leveraged for all it could do.

In her book, she references the power of advocacy and services as well as best-in-class organizations. They don’t just deliver programs and services and they don’t just advocate for change but there’s something about the combination of the two that’s very powerful.

There was a recognition across the group that there was confusion about how people were speaking about the YMCA brand. This was a source of frustration and concern. At that point, we started to think it would be valuable to bring in some experts.

YMCA Canada logoWe called in Interbrand to do a brand valuation assessment. There was a certain humble quality about the YMCA, people found it difficult to boast about their achievements. That was part of the challenge. We didn’t celebrate our many achievements publicly.

That made talking about branding, marketing and communications a foreign idea. We did good work and good deeds and assumed everybody would celebrate that with loyalty to the brand. We learned that wasn’t so.

BC: How had the brand veered off-course?

DH: We hadn’t invested in it. We underinvested in telling our story. At one time, the YMCA had the first-mover’s advantage in almost everything we did. We’ve been around for more than 160 years and were a leader in almost everything we were doing. Over time, others started to fill the space and new pressures were put on out brand to try to create more awareness and what differentiates the YMCA (from its competition). This was new to us. The YMCA does so many different things. I think sometimes that becomes a challenge, focusing on what we do and not the big idea of the YMCA.

Interbrand helped us with this as well, working through our positioning, and verbal and visual identity, we were able to shift our message to all stakeholders, transitioning from the things we offer to reinforcing the underpinning value the YMCA brings to Canada.

BC: What are the pillars of the new brand?

DHL: The positioning exercise with Interbrand helped us all align under a banner of “Building Healthy Communities.” We ran our first national campaign a couple of years ago around the potential that we see in kids and in communities. We had the first national roll-out of a campaign and everybody got behind the unlimited potential in kids and the YMCA’s role in achieving that potential.

We’re focusing on a common visual and verbal identity. Because we were separate and autonomous organizations (across Canada), each one would often make different decisions how to communicate with their community. That led to everybody going their own way. It took a conscious decision of the YMCA’s national federation to say ‘we’re all going to move towards having a common identity with a common look and feel.’

YMCA Canada Building Healthy Kids

We all now align under the banner of “Building Healthy Communities.” We ran our first national campaign a couple of years ago around the potential that we see in kids and in communities. We had the first national roll-out of a campaign and everybody got behind the unlimited potential in kids and the YMCA’s role in achieving that potential.

While we know we have made great strides by making a common visual and verbal identification, we’ve gained significant advantage by having a collaborative effort behind the national campaign. We hadn’t been able to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.

BC: Why not?

DH: It goes back to a very crowded marketplace with lots of different providers. We had a wide range of service offerings, including health, fitness and aquatic centres, camps, employment services and childcare facilities. Many people wouldn’t realize that we are the largest non-profit childcare provider in the world. We are also active in youth engagement and employment programs, education and training programs and we have global programming. It’s such a wide and varied list of things we do. Articulating the master brand idea of what the YMCA is can be very difficult.

BC: So what’s next?

DH: At this point, we are focused on reinforcing the power of communities to advance the health and well-being of Canadians in every way. That is the core pillar of our message. It really is around the power of community. The YMCA is a cross-section of declining health and increased social isolation. It’s where health meets social. When bringing these two together, we can be in a category with few competitors. We’re finding the blue ocean, that uncontested marketplace where we’re unique. That’s where we want to focus in the future.

BC: And we have to ask: does the Village People’s “YMCA” song help or hurt the Y’s brand?

DH: It goes both ways. There are very few conferences or events where it isn’t played. It’s done affectionately. But there are also lots of people who are tired of it and will associate us with the song and not the great community work that we do. We would rather people not know us for the song but for the many lives we’ve changed in 160-plus years.


Interbrand is the parent company of brandchannel. Get more branding insights in our Q&A series.

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