At the 1855′ world’s fair in Paris a group of Christian men with organizations dedicated to men and youth across Europe and some from America met together and decided to form an alliance. They wanted to create a united front and band together to form an international organization dedicated to spreading the Christian values to young men and furthering the kingdom, this according to Wikipedia. Their joint effort became the YMCA – the Young Man’s Christian Organization.
A Rose by Any Other YMCA
After hearing this week that the YMCA had dropped the “Christian,” and other machinations from its name I started thinking about how branding and customer perception plays into marketing your product or organization. And since I’m obsessed with online marketing – including keyword search, analysis and search engine optimization I thought the Y’s name change provided a perfect opportunity to connect the dots on search engine theory and how to find the best keyword to optimize for your website. So listen up sports fans this will be a long and interesting ride.
What They Said Is the YMCA
The YMCA certainly has deep Christian roots. Historically, it was formed as a way to disciple young Christian men. Focused around the triangle of mind, body and spirit, the YMCA provided fitness, leadership development and youth programs to help usher in Judeo-Christian values into the youth community. So how did an organization dedicated to the spread of the gospel become known for as a haven for gay men and branded as the ultimate party song? Here’s the lesson in customer versus corporate perception and how that plays into a company’s branding and imaging.
What the YMCA Became to Others
As a perk to providing Christian discipleship to young men, the YMCA also provided much-needed warm beds. At one point in history, around the 1940s, the YMCA was the largest hotel chain in the United States. And to this day, if you travel abroad and are looking for a cheap, comfortable place to stay, try the local YMCA. You’ll find a nice friendly Christian staff catering mostly to Christian missionaries and ministry employees. YMCAs in Britain still have thousands of room for homeless youth.
In America, however, those boarding rooms were often used by men in transition. I remember the YMCA located in my neighborhood. It’s where I learned how to swim, but it also had a male boarding house so after I got 13 or so my mom wouldn’t let me go there by myself anymore. While large, mostly urban YMCA’s still had boarding homes, other local, neighborhood YMCAs began catering more to families than to young men. An organization that started out catering to young men became known for its family programming and the two brands began butting heads. Then in 1979, the gay disco group The Village People dropped a branding bomb on the fledgling Christian organization – it’s boarding rooms in large cities such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago had become a haven for many gay men, ostracized from society looking for a good meal, shower and place to stay. We all hear YMCA and think fun dance song with cool hand gestures but there was real meaning to what the VP were singing about. The YMCA was a safe haven for a lot of people.
Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.
Young man, there’s a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.
It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A.
It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A.
The YMCA Became What People Said They Were
The last of the YMCA boarding rooms were closed in America but the Village People’s legacy lives on. When you Google YMCA the song entry in Wikipedia comes up first not the organization’s entry. The song pushed the YMCA into the mainstream and it began to be known among secular groups. In the 1980s, and early 1990s the YMCA rebranded itself again as a family focused fitness center. This has been its strongest brand quality yet. And it has paid off. With more than 18 million members nationwide the YMCA has become the nation’s strongest nonprofit brand – beating out the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
Now, after two years of research, the YMCA is again rebranding itself as just the Y – with a superior focus on youth. There are many in the Christian realm who will see this as a departure from the organization’s Christian roots but from a marketing perspective I see it as an embrace of its strong brand presence in the secular marketplace. You don’t have to be Christian to use a Y. It welcomes anyone – regardless of race, creed or whatever.
But if you’re not family oriented, or focus on youth, you might have a problem there. (I’m a swimmer, and while I love the “Y”, if I had my choice I”d swim at health club and donate my Y dues. No offense but swimming after kiddos is not my cup of tea. :))
What the “Y” in YMCA Teaches Us about Keyword Search
So what does this all have to do with keyword search? I’m glad you asked. The Y’s lesson teaches us that what we call ourselves and what others call us can be- and mostly likely is – different. When you’re starting your keyword search analysis trying to find which keywords to optimize on your website you need to begin not with your brain but your customer’s brain. When was the last time you called the YMCA the YMCA? Never. Everyone always calls it the Y. And when they search for a local YMCA they might search for just Y. So even though you may have an idea of what services or products you offer your customer may have a different moniker altogether. So start your keyword research by listening to your customer instead of your inner voice. And then become what they say you are. Unless that’s a negative image then you need to change their minds. That’s a lesson for another day.