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Trade Associations or How to Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

Andrejs K. Bunkse

What do the most stable and predictable industries have in common even in the face of controversy? They have exceptional trade associations, where resources are pooled to create reasonable industry standards to combat political challenges and enhance the public’s perception of the industry. In industries from gaming to banking to energy, competitors set aside egos to create an environment where the fiercest of competitors collaborate to protect, enhance and expand their market share. Competitors realize they are on a boat together and they have to row in the same direction.

Throughout my career, I’ve been involved in industries in controversial spaces – charitable gaming, photo enforcement, collections, and the like. A common theme across these industries in their nascent days was the threat of regulatory shut-down by municipal, county, state or federal authorities. Another common theme was an industry-wide lack of focus and funding to fight those trying to legislate away a market or a niche.

So what’s to be done?   Hope that the bad legislation or restrictive administrative rules simply go away?

Ever heard the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats”?   In the 2003, the charitable bingo industry faced oblivion as jurisdiction after jurisdiction implemented rules limiting jackpot levels and product placement. These limitations coupled with the rise of Las Vegas-style gaming outside of Las Vegas allowed me to convince even the most hostile CEO’s and VP’s of Government Affairs to come together and create an association – the Electronic Bingo Manufacturers Association. We created the EBMA to draft model rules, standards and to promote a united face for the industry. This was no mean feat given that almost all of the participants were suing one or more of the other members! This layer of “adult supervision” significantly rehabilitated the industry’s profile by infusing credibility into what had historically been a disparate and unruly group. Through collective, thoughtful effort we were able to defeat many bad pieces of legislation and open new markets.

The EBMA model is far from unique. In 2009 and 2010, the photo enforcement industry was in desperate need of a concerted push to get on the right side of public opinion. We were acutely aware that we were failing to communicate to the public how they benefited from decreasing the number and severity of traffic accidents through the deployment of photo enforcement products. Our vision of a forum for victims of traffic accidents and their families, police departments, doctors, hospitals and cities to show the public what it meant to have safer roads was manifested in the Traffic Safety Coalition and the National Coalition for Safer Roads. The grassroots nature of these associations provided a vehicle for industry supporters to gather together and collaborate on public policy initiatives. The results were striking and powerful. Extensive public safety databases were collected and disseminated and aggressive positive media outreach occurred resulting in wide spread positive trade publicity in the face of considerable political headwinds, including outright bans of photo enforcement equipment. And most importantly, industry expansion (rather than constriction) caused significant public safety benefits by further reducing traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities.

What is the takeaway here? It doesn’t matter what industry you are in, or how actively antagonistic the competition can be.   There will always be political issues and opportunities facing even the stodgiest of industries.   And there almost always are opportunities to turn the swords away from each other from time to time to unite in preserving and expanding your market. Those that fail to recognize these challenges and opportunities risk getting relegated to the island of misfit toys – and eventually a commercial graveyard.

© 2016, Endurance Strategies Group, LLC


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