Every parent has faced that moment when a child asks: “So, what is it you do?" If you’re a police officer or a doctor, your answer might not only be pretty impressive, but also simple: “I stop crime" or “I save lives." For me, as the head of a trade association for the dietary supplement industry, answering the “What do you do?" question is a bit more complicated. And, as it turns out, my sons are not the only ones who are asking.
While plenty of companies are familiar with the work of trade associations, many others question both the value and impact of belonging to a trade association. Corporations create products and services that provide tangible benefits for their customers, and financial rewards for their shareholders; a trade association must also provide value for its members. Some of that value is easily visible, and some is more esoteric. The bottom line is, unless members of the industry understand how they benefit from membership and what the value for their dues is, an association is going to have difficulty staying in business.
Speaking specifically about the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), our trade association is a unique collaboration of industry leaders who deeply care about shaping an environment that allows companies to responsibly develop, manufacture and market dietary supplements and nutritional ingredients. Most importantly, we protect the rights of our companies to do business, unencumbered from overly burdensome restrictions. In return, we ask our companies to commit to manufacturing high-quality products that are both safe and beneficial; products that put consumers’ interests front and center. And, we ask our companies to play by the rules.
The benefits of joining a trade association can be just as varied as associations themselves. Companies want to find the association that best matches their company’s culture and aligns with their expectations. Each association has its own personality, and while it’s fine for members to disagree on some issues, you want to be able to look across the table and feel respect for those with differing opinions. Unlike Thanksgiving at Aunt Joanie’s where you’re stuck with family, a trade organization is a family a company chooses. Likewise, a company wants to reach consensus on important issueseven if it doesn’t always love the outcomes, is the process one it trusts and one that everyone “under the tent" can at least live with? The word “association" is no accident; who are the other companies you want to be associated with?
Some believe they can benefit from the work of the industry associations without actually joining, but one of the greatest benefits of belonging to a trade association is the opportunity to shape the direction of the industry, particularly in the legislative and regulatory arenas. Being on the sidelines doesn’t afford that ability. You want the association brethren to be forward-thinking, law-abiding visionaries who see not just what’s going on today, but what can (or should be) emerging for this industry in five, 10 and even 30 years. Rather than fighting over the drumstick, we’re creating an opportunity for the whole turkey. And you don’t get the whole turkey unless you are at the table, and your association has some meat on its bones.
Look for a trade association that has a strong presence in Washington, D.C., but also one that understands how policy gets enacted or gets left on the floor. In our business, what happens in the details of regulation is just as important as the broad strokes of a new law. As state requirements can be increasingly disruptive, a company also want a trade association that understands the ins and outs of passing and defeating legislation in the states.
Then ask yourself, what else is important to you? Do you want an association with a global presence; one that has a deep bench when it comes to scientific issues; one that understands rapid response when it comes to the news media, and not only issues press releases and letters to the editor, but gets traction in those venues? Who do reporters turn to as the trusted voice?
A trade association should be an extension of a company’s staff, and an extra set of hands to keep on top of the issues affecting the industry. Don’t expect that a trade association will replace staff members or legal counsel, but look for it to help determine whether issues will impact business. A company needs to dedicate time to its trade association to maximize its benefits, but it will also save time by relying on the association to do the environmental scanning and serve as an early warning system.
Through CRN membership, companies have access to respected scientists, skilled attorneys, regulatory and legislative experts, and a team of media relations specialists. These teams collaborate to keep members ahead of the curve when new regulations are proposed, or new scientific studies are published. Our team includes not only CRN staff, but also individuals from our member companies who share their expertise for the good of the responsible industry.
So, what do I tell my boys when they ask what I do? I tell them I help steer an ice breaker so dietary supplements companies can navigate through the uncharted channels of regulatory, scientific and political icebergs. I tell them I help make it possible for companies to continue to make products that positively impact the health of hundreds of millions of people. That’s what CRN does every day.
Steve Mister is the president and CEO for the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN, crnusa.org), a trade association for the dietary supplement industry.