Branding: Is it Appropriate for the Public and Nonprofit Sectors?

Edwin Coyer asks in his article Branding in Public: Waste of Money“ Does branding deliver real information or is it a needless expense?

I reviewed the opinions of a few experts in the field to get a better handle on this issue. Hope you find the following informative.

As markets become more competitive, and clients become more demanding, organizations must work harder to secure their fundamental relationships. Building distinctive relationships with their clients and stakeholders is what branding is about, whatever the market, whoever the client. The brand is the marketer’s most advanced emotional tool. It combines and reinforces the functional and emotional benefits of the offering, adding value, encouraging consumption and loyalty. A good brand facilitates recognition, makes a promise, and, provided the full marketing back-up is in place, delivers satisfaction. Brands can provide very practical benefits. For example for young people, quick and clear brand identification can make both the buying and smoking of forbidden products such as cigarettes much less risky. Over time, brands become a fast, powerful way of confirming the synergy between marketer and Client   (Kotler, P., & Lee, N.R. (2007). Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good. 3rd Ed. Sage Publications.)

Branding in the commercial sector is pervasive and fairly easy to understand and recognize. However, branding in non profit and government marketing is not as common but is becoming more popular because of its ability to create visibility effectively and ensure memorability. Many members of the public and not-for-profit sectors are hesitant to recognize that they face stiff competition and they fail to see the need to put an emphasis on branding and positioning. However, this view is slowly changing as more leaders in these sectors are recognizing that they are in a competitive market with limited funding. This realization highlights the fact that strategic identity and branding can significantly help organizations achieve increased program awareness, utilization and satisfaction, improved funding and donations, and ultimately improved social welfare.  (Andreasen, A.R., & Kotler, P. (2003). Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations. 6th Ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.)

Andrew Prince, director of publications in the UK government’s Central Office of Information [COI] states that ,branding is a shortcut to people’s understanding.  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.

My colleague Josef Jurkovic at the Centre of Excellence in Communications (Ottawa, Canada) maintains that 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. The context is the overall communications environment today. More groups compete for people’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.

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 fall flat–much 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 alignments. You then need complete senior management commitment i.e. the brand leader has to be at the Deputy Minister level. You need a strong policing and monitoring effort so it is properly implemented, (There is a government organization here in Ottawa which actually has a “brand police”) 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.

But when it comes to public-sector communications, too many managers equate a new logo, a zippy tagline or other cosmetic fix with the cure for public apathy or ill will.

According to Greg Brooks, marketing builds the brand in the mind of the customer. There’s a symbiotic relationship here — if the brand doesn’t reflect the realities of your organization, then all the advertising and public relations in the world won’t help achieve your objective. Conversely, a strong brand can, naturally boost any marketing effort, which in turn strengthens the brand even further.

Public-sector agencies are in the business of stewardship and service. Any branding effort for an existing, high-profile public agency or jurisdiction has to start with a simple truth: there’s already a brand in play, albeit one that likely exists by default rather than design.

Branding gets thrown about as a synonym for “new logo,” but if that were the case, then branding would be the domain of graphic designers alone.

To find out how branding works, and how to build a brand in government and nonprofit sectors ;Check out our Guide to Branding in the Public and Non Profit Sectors which has been published by the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing.

I would be interested in any comments you may have on this topic.

4 Replies to “Branding: Is it Appropriate for the Public and Nonprofit Sectors?”

  1. Simon Anholt in his article “Place branding: Is it marketing, or isn’t it?” references research done on place branding that suggests that it doesn’t work. “… between 2005 when the Nation Brands Index was launched and the latest study in the last quarter of 2007, there has been no detectable correlation between changes in national brand value and expenditure on the so-called ‘nation branding campaigns’. Several countries that have done no marketing during this period have shown noticeable improvements in their overall images, while others have spent extremely large sums on advertising and PR campaigns and their brand value has remained stable or even declined. ”

    I agree that places and governments don’t own their brand, it already exists. If the messages coming out of governments don’t line up with public policy and public perception, I think it tends to be discounted by the public as political messaging.

    1. Thanks Edwin. Branding only works if you have a comprehensive marketing strategy and plan. Branding without a strategy is ineffective. I will have a look at the linked article you sent. Good to hear from you and hope you are well.

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