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Using Market Research to Redefine the YMCA

The YMCA conducted marketing research to gain a better understanding of how its brand was viewed by consumers. This activity is important because marketers are frequently called on to design and implement marketing research projects.

The goal of this activity is to apply marketing research frameworks to the YMCA's research activities.

Read about YMCA's marketing research efforts and answer the questions that follow.

Over the years, the YMCA has come to mean different things to different people. Depending on the meanings that people embrace, the charitable organization sometimes struggles to achieve its mission and goals. Accordingly, a key element of its efforts, at both national and local levels, is to conduct ongoing and persistent research into what people perceive when they think of the Y.

Founded in the mid-nineteenth century in response to the new challenges of an industrial society, the YMCA sought to give young men coming to the city for work a place where they could stay safely and for a reasonable rate. In the United States, local YMCAs quickly became known as sources of assistance for new immigrants; though segregated, they also provided meeting places for African Americans and eventually emerged as important rallying sites for the civil rights movement. Once barriers to race and gender fell, the Y embraced its role as a place that every member of the family could find the resources, self-fulfilment, and support that they needed.1

Many of those resources historically and still today have focused on exercise and health. Different employees of YMCA facilities have contributed to exercise culture: one originated the term “body building”; others invented games that we now know as volleyball, racquetball, and basketball in Y gymnasiums; and its initiative to help everyone learn to swim led to the vast expansion of public pools and swim classes throughout the nation.

This focus on exercise and health remains a primary element of the reputation of the Y in most Americans' minds. Approximately 13 million adults and 9 million children in the United States turn to their local Y to lift weights, shoot hoops, swim laps, or jog around a track.2 But the national organization also began to suspect that those purposes were all that members, and other stakeholders, were seeing. As the president of the national organization explained, even as membership numbers were climbing, other data related to charitable donations suggested some concerns. That is, people were perceiving the Y “as a gym and swim place. We're also a charity, and that is the missing ingredient. We want people to realize that we're deserving of their charitable donations.”3

To make that case, the Y (which rebranded in 2010 to take the single-letter moniker, though it also still relies on the longer YMCA acronym to maintain links to its historical functions) relies substantially on research. The goal is to show, with data, facts, figures, and graphics, how programs run by the Y and sponsored by charitable donations actually change lives and improve communities.

For example, a vast survey of consumers across the nation showed that 98 percent of people knew of the YMCA, and 92 percent of them had favorable impressions of it. But only 50 percent indicated that they understood why the Y offered the programs that it did.4 The national organization considered its mission—to give families resources that they needed to build self-esteem and self-confidence, and thus build communities—evident, but the market research showed that these notions were not widespread among people who might use or contribute to their local organizations. In response, it encouraged the local branches (each of which is run autonomously) to emphasize four core values: caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. It also recommended that local branches consider conducting their own research projects, to ensure they were providing the types of resources their local members wanted and needed most.5

In other, more targeted, market research projects, the national and local arms of the Y also have sought to determine which price points will attract the most members. For example, the Boston branch cited extensive market research that showed that if it cut membership fees by 11 percent, it could attract 10,000 new members. The research got it a little bit wrong though: After it reduced the fees, the membership rolls swelled by more than 20,000 users.6

Research also has informed which initiatives the Y has made its primary focus for the near future. First, noting extensive academic literature that shows that impoverished students retain less of the education they have received during the summer months, the Y is expanding a summer camp program in an effort to reduce the well-documented “achievement gap” between children from poor and wealthy families.7 To support this initiative, the Y also instituted its first national advertising campaign, in which one televised advertisement highlights the various after-school, summer, and meal programs available for children. It also ends with a clear call for contributions to support such programs.8

Second, the Y cites national statistics about the number of people with diabetes or pre-diabetes, as well as scientific evidence that shows that losing even 5 percent of their body weight can help at-risk people avoid becoming diabetic. Accordingly, its second main initiative is to expand its diabetes prevention programs, in collaboration with national health care organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and the Let's Move campaign.

Some evidence suggests its efforts are paying off. Visits to the Y's website increased in just the two months after it launched the national advertising campaigns.9 In addition, the new communications are attracting attention to the Y in various outlets and sources, including a prominent role in a documentary about a swim team for people with autism.10

So the Y means a lot of things to a lot of people. The national organization continues to find out what people think of when they think of the Y. In addition, it seeks to learn how it can convince them to think about the Y and its valuable programs as a destination for their charitable donations.

Please help answer, Thank You!

4. What was the research objective of the large-scale project conducted by the YMCA, as described in the case?

a. to guide decision making about how best to raise awareness of the YMCA’s role as a charity

b. to survey the public about the YMCA    (Annonymous)

c. to choose the best marketing research technique to obtain the desired answers

d. to increase membership revenues

e. all of these were part of the research objective

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