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Branding in Public: Waste of Money?

Whether it?? vibrant colors, a catchy slogan, or an informative and navigable website, public sector bodies are looking like they mean business. No longer are they the aloof and ponderous bureaucratic behemoths that control our lives. They appear to be open, approachable, and wanting to build relationships with us, the citizens.

Yes, governments and public services are getting up to speed with branding. They have seen that it works for business. They understand that their clientele??itizens??ive in a branded world. It would be strange if governments didn't move with the times. Ignoring branding would be like rejecting the Internet, mobile phones, and globalization.

Or would it? While public bodies have a mandate to work on behalf of ??he people,?they have to be responsible with their finances too, demonstrating prudence with the public purse. So can investments in branding programs be justified, or is the public sector merely following a marketing fad? Indeed, is branding even appropriate for public services?

I think good branding is good marketing and communications. And I think that what you need out of the public sector is good communication, asserts Andrew Prince, director of publications in the UK government's Central Office of Information (COI). Government advertising and marketing competes for people's time like every other piece of marketing out there. Branding is necessary; otherwise we would be wasting public money.

Branding is a shortcut to people's understanding, Prince explains. You don't have to start from scratch with a concept or idea. In government, it is important that communications get through to people and brands are a part of that. Governments have realized the need to focus communications and marketing efforts in terms of consistency of message. They are looking at the private sector and the notion of branding to help them out.

We undertake branding work in exactly the same way as you would in big business; it is the output at the end that is different, Prince continues. Commercial branding is about getting people to act or buy into things. Ours is to get them to buy into a change in behavior, for example by stopping smoking, or not drinking and driving. Apart from that everything else is the same.

According to Prince, branding in government is not entirely newhe harks back to the Green Cross Code Man of the 1970s, a sort of traffic superhero who taught children proper road safety in the UKbut its understanding of it has become more sophisticated, just as it has in business. Five years ago the creative team in the COI would do the branding work for our departmental clients. Now we have two brand specialists. In government there are strong intelligent communications people working. They understand what a brand is and how branding works. They are comparable to brand managers in the private sector.

The main driver for this growing acceptance of branding isn't because it offers competitive advantages, at least not in its traditional business sense. You have to discard the private sector rationale for branding. It is not trying to do the same thing. This is not about competition or selling more products or services to the consumer, says Josef Jurkovic, a partner and director of the Centre for Excellence in Communications in Ottawa, Canada. The context is the overall communications environment today. More groups compete for anyone's attention. Today you are faced with as many as 4,000 marketing messages per day; 15 to 20 years ago it was less than half that amount. The competition is for attention and retention of any kind of message.

There's a realization that doing things the old way doesn't work anymore, agrees Prince. Everyone and anyone out there is communicating. Branding is interesting as it can get attention, cuts through the clutter and [allows groups to] develop relationships with audiences.

But while much emphasis has been placed on branding, all but a few projects (especially in North America, observes Jurkovic) fall flatmuch to the disgust of the taxpaying public. For governments it is a more complex and difficult issue to brand than the private sector, Jurkovic states. The main difference is the degree of control the public sector has over branding. In government, branding is made harder because of complex reporting structures, bureaucracy and decision-making. You need 360-degree alignment of all activities, and it is hard for a large organization to exercise this control.

There's a whole educational process required before you can even start contemplating branding as such, Jurkovic continues. They need to understand 360 alignment. You then need complete senior management commitment (and that means people like deputy ministers need to be driving the branding effort). You need a strong policing and monitoring effort so it is properly implemented, and you may need to create an infrastructure to administer the brand.

Given these major challenges, Jurkovic recommends caution, seeing a big difference between branded information campaigns and branding programs for entire departments, agencies and the like. The more targeted the audience of a brand, the more chance it has of working. Departments and ministries should stick to simple, basic brands that act as umbrellas for more much stronger sub-brands. Public sector branding is about strong sub-brands. You focus your branding where you have defined audiences.

We often advise clients to rethink their branding, Jurkovic concludes. Is it something they really want to do or is a solid communications effort what is really needed? Sometimes the effort and expense needed to brandfor it only to be changed after a few yearsis simply not worth it.

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