09 December 2010

Branding in government. Necessary or not?

The following may form the basis for a Paper. As such, it is not academically structured at present. Just putting it out there.

“The value of a brand is in its reputation as a faithful provider” (Branson, as cited in Switzer, 2010).

Origin of branding

Moo-cows. What we now think of as modern branding began in the American Wild West, where cattle farmers identified their herds with a brand, delivered by hot iron. So the brand became the identity.

What is branding?

For most people branding is about a logo. Looking at government department guidelines around Australia, that’s mostly what they refer to – the use of logos and colour schemes.

That perception (and practice) is wrong, and scaringly so, particularly when considers the money that is poured into “branding”.

Branding is a deep understanding and appreciation of a range of forces that make an organisation what it is. The American Marketing Association (2001) said “the brand means the business … a reflection of everyone affecting its performance in the marketplace: employees, alliances, suppliers and consumers. The brand effectively represents the culture of all who touch the business.”

It involves
• messages,
• perception,
• trust,
• loyalty,
• psyche,
• your value (sometimes known as goodwill),
• image,
• symbols,
• organisational culture
• staff knowledge and demeanour

Edberg (2002) said your brand is the “soul of your organisation”. Or, as the lawyer in the Aussie movie The Dish said: “It’s about the vibe” (a feeling associated with that brand). It’s about everything an organisation does … what customers think about when they think about a company, a person, a product, or a service” (Graham, 2001).

Some ideas:

• “A brand’s attributes can be described by a consumer’s perception of trustworthiness and credibility.”
• “Brands signify meaning to consumers about the source.”
• “Brand signals (credibility, consistency, clarity, personality).”

Today, brands are moving away from being primarily about a product. “Major brands have increasingly focussed their efforts on associating themselves with the promise of an experience or lifestyle” (Lewis, 2002).

Many people that shop in surf shops do not surf. The same with outdoors shops and 4WDs. People are buying products not for their practicality, but for what they represent. So in the case of a Porsche 4WD, it’s not that the person wants to hit the outback, but rather they want to be seen as rugged, but not dusty.

Businesses spend billions on brand identity. Look at these businesses. What do they stand for?

• David Jones
• Myer
• Target
• K-Mart/Big W
• Best and Less

When you think of the following products, do these companies come to mind?
• Rental cars (Hertz, Avis)
• Stereo equipment (Sony, Bang and Olfussen)
• Computers (Apple, Dell)
• Clothing (Country Road, Rivers)

What does branding do?
It differentiates you from the crowd. As in the examples above.

So this begs the question? Do we need branding in government (departments); particularly when there is no competition?

It begs another question: why are we doing branding, when a sound communication program would probably suffice? Some possible answers further on.

Where does it sit?
In many ways, branding belongs more in the PR domain than in marketing, as the goal with branding is not so much the short-term gain of sales, but the long-term goals of shaping and influencing people.

How do you get it?
• Define our uniqueness and value
• Goal
• Message
• Audience/s
• Management and Ministerial support

What are we branding?
• Department/Program (Buy West, Eat Best)
• Kellogg’s/Nutri-Grain

Sure, government can do with sending out positive messages. Sibbick (2008) recognised “government agencies need to mange their ‘corporate image’, because it is
the overall impression that various stakeholders have of the government agency”.

However, as with many things in government, there is often little, if any, research undertaken to determine why things should be done. Often, it’s a case of “we need a newsletter”, with the rationale simply being that “we need it to show we’re doing something”. A case in point was the Sydney Olympics, where the Olympic Coordination Authority produced maps of the precinct “just in case somebody needed one”. This is supported by Sibbick (2008).

“Only some conceptual work has been completed to date about how a consumer’s exchange of value is influenced by a government brand and that only limited empirical work has reported strategies to develop brand equity when designing a social marketing program” (Sibbick, 2008).

Apart from the fact that government agencies are usually not in competition with anyone, there are other reasons which question whether branding programs are necessary.

“Exploratory focus group findings suggests that target audiences’ interpretations of government brand signals are mixed, and at best, consumers are ambivalent about the inclusion of government logos and brands in social marketing. As the following focus group participant’s comment illustrates: I think there’s less credibility with government brand[ing]because if you see this spot you might think of it. … But first [you’re] wondering why they do it. I think it is much better without a brand” (Sibbick, 2008).

Colyer (2006) also questions the notion of branding in government.

“While public bodies have a mandate to work on behalf of ‘the 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?”

The then director of publications in the UK government's Central Office of Information, Andrew Prince says: “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)” (Colyer, 2006).

That said, Colyer believes branding may go part of the way to assist.

“Branding is “shorthand for consumers” (AMA, 2001), or a shortcut to people's understanding” (Prince, as cited in Colyer, 2006).

“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” (Colyer, 2006).

All that said, and with all the best intentions, there are a range of problems in getting government branding programs underway. Josef Jurkovic, a partner and director of the Centre for Excellence in Communications in Ottawa, Canada, explains:

“For governments it is a more complex and difficult issue to brand than the private sector. 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 people], and it is hard for a large organization to exercise this control” (Colyer, 2006).


The challenges for government branding are in many ways no different to private enterprise. Everything operates in a Web 2 World, which is the overall communications environment. More groups are increasingly competing for someone’s attention. It is estimated the average American (sorry about that – couldn’t find Australian figures in the given time) sees between 3000-4000 marketing messages a day.

While we can be ever so vigilant about how we craft our messages (and our Brand) the world today is a heady place, and the best laid plans can be hijacked. According to Drapeau (2008) “everything put out there – video, blogs, tweets – is open to interpretation, comment, sharing, and re-use. It all affects your brand, and while you can direct and define things to some extent, it is largely out of your control”.


American Marketing Association (2001). Who’s in charge of the brand and just what do we mean by brand? Toronto Table Roundtable. www.glasgrp.com/downloads/In_charge_of_brand.pdf. Accessed 9 December 2010

Colyer E (2006) Branding in public: A waste of money? Brand Channel, http://www.brandchannel.com/features_effect.asp?pf_id=310
Drapeau (2008). Government 2: What’s your brand? Business.com, http://mashable.com/2008/09/03/government-brand/
Graham J (2001). The Canadian Manager. Toronto: Spring 2001. Vol. 26, Iss. 1;
Lewis S (2002). Who’s in charge of the Brand? Reflections on Brand and Reputation. millennialmarketing.com/.../brand-building-and-social-media-whos-in-charge. Accessed 9 December 2010.
Sibbick, Joseph B. and Previte, Josephine A. and Russell-Bennett, Rebekah (2007) Is government branding ‘just wall paper’ or does it enhance product acceptance : conceptualising brand influence in social marketing. In: International Non-profit and Social Marketing Conference, 27-28 September 2007, Brisbane.
Switzer P (2010). Brand power with Richard Branson. http://www.switzer.com.au/small-business/business-management/marketing/brand-power-with-richard-branson. Accessed 9 December 2010.

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The PR Lab is a consultancy, specialising on research, reputation management, social media, media relations and the development of measurable strategies that produce results. It is run by Dr Greg Smith, a former journalist and PR professional. Greg worked on daily newspapers in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. He held senior PR positions in the Australian Defence Force, Sydney Olympics and national not-for-profits. He has also lectured in PR at Edith Cowan University and the University of Notre Dame Australia.