Pohler and Phillips

A perfect union

Union membership has been on the decline over the past few decades and researchers have examined myriad reasons for this, from structure to public perception. But nobody, until recently, has considered the role visual marketing plays in the decline and in a potential revival.

U of S researchers Dionne Pohler and Barb Phillips decided it was time to see just exactly what unions in Canada were doing with print advertising, particularly ads directed at external audiences rather than internal members.

"With permission, we looked at the ads of two national private-sector unions and one provincial public-sector union over approximately a five-year period," said Pohler, assistant professor in the Johnson- Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. "Many non-business organizations do not do marketing well. We wanted to see whether unions adopted best practices in visual advertising."

The project, she continued, has filled a major void in the research, as there "is very little literature on union marketing communications."

Phillips, a marketing professor in the Edwards School of Business, said they studied 177 different ads to determine if unions followed advertising best practices such as including a call to action, using a catchy headline or engaging images, and being relevant to the intended audience.

"What we found were some good things and some things that could be improved," she explained. "The ads, in general, were good at showing diversity of age and minorities. They were also good at using visuals and the soft-sell appeal of emotion."

But Pohler and Phillips also found the ads were often far too text heavy, often did not have a call to action, and missed the mark on answering the "what-does-this-mean-for-me" question, particularly when it came to providing an understanding of what unions do for the general public. They also found that many union ads too frequently focused on strikes.

"Strike ads are often seen as attack ads, which the public does not like," said Pohler. "Unions should use marketing communications aimed at external audiences to change public attitudes toward unions by focusing on what unions do for broader society."

They need to move beyond advertisements about "wages, benefits and what's good for the unionized worker, because the public may not see what's in it for them, reducing broader public support for unions," she continued.

Contributing to a negative perception of unions, Phillips said, are media portrayals of unions. This happens mainly during strikes, and advertising by government and industry often hinges on negative stereotypes, even though most collective agreements in Canada are settled without a strike.

To counteract this, Phillips said, union marketing communications should shine a more positive light and focus on how unions assist in helping address broader social issues.

"They (unions) need to invest more advertising and focus on what they do for society to build good will with the public. Public attitudes impact the ability to get members or public support. Effective marketing has been shown to change public attitudes."

Overall, Pohler and Phillips agreed on a couple things: unions are doing a better job on advertising than the researchers thought; and they really enjoyed taking on an interdisciplinary project because it offered them a glimpse into each others' respective area of expertise.

"I knew nothing about marketing and now I have a great starting point after working with Barb," said Pohler of Phillips, the Rawlco Scholar in Advertising.

"And I certainly know more about unions than ever before after doing this project with Dionne," said Phillips of Pohler's expertise in employment and labour policy.

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