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Branding in the Public Eye

Considerations for public entities in search of an authentic identity 

An authentic brand is one of the most valuable tangible assets any business entity can possess, including municipal and not-for-profit organizations. However, a common byproduct of many public-sector rebranding initiatives is dissent, especially in uncertain economic times. As Calgary Economic Development CEO Bruce Graham points out: “It’s quite peculiar how a tool is accepted and understood as having a proven success record in private industry helping businesses achieve their goals, but for some reason when it comes to the public sector, this is not the case.”

Detractors will always play an avid role in any public-sector rebrand, both within the organization and outside of its walls. Invariably, they will argue that branding is window dressing. That it’s a frivolous expense. That it will change things and change is bad. The counterpoint to these arguments is that thoughtful, authentic and professionally executed branding is the exact opposite of these concerns. A solid brand gives both internal and external stakeholders a symbol to stand behind. It establishes consistency and credibility. It builds corporate value and good will. It’s the best possible way to stand out in a crowded marketplace, and it’s nothing more – and nothing less – than creating a distinct personality for your municipality, community or organization, and then clearly and compellingly telling the entire world about it.

Every organization has a brand, whether it has been consciously developed or not. It’s shorthand for describing how a company relates to its stakeholders. On a municipal level, a strong brand impacts everything from the ability to recruit top talent and foster a positive public image, to maintaining a competitive edge and establishing the organization as a professional and forward-thinking business entity. The reality is that the lion’s share of municipal brand strategies fail to achieve these goals. Most date back to a time when the local sign shop was the brand architect. Many are the result of community design contests or other misguided attempts at public engagement. Some were ham-fistedly art directed by council or committee. Not surprisingly, precious few municipal brands truly represent the people who manage, work for, or live within the brand’s boundaries. More often than not, homespun brand strategies take a wide arc around killer and land squarely on kitsch. But this need not be the case.

Having successfully designed, deployed and managed the rebranding initiative for numerous municipalities and public-sector orgs, and having had a front row seat to some spectacular community branding misfires, I can state with some confidence that when it comes to branding in the public arena, how you manage your branding process is equally as important as your final brand identity. With this in mind, I’d like to provide a few considerations for progressive and fearless municipalities in search of their true visual language.

Have the courage of your convictions.

Before you even consider a brand strategy, you need executive-level endorsement. Perception is reality. If your employees sense managerial malaise, it will spread like wildfire. Generating internal buzz and buy-in after that will be an uphill battle. Worse yet, if management or Council members (the supposed ambassadors of the new brand) begin deconstructing, deriding, debating or – gasp – designing your organization’s new brand in the media, you’re sunk. If you plan to rebrand your organization, then your organization’s leaders must stand firmly behind the initiative.

Know who you are.

At the heart of your brand identity is your brand promise. A short mission statement that encompasses who you are, what you stand for, and where you plan to go. It can certainly be aspirational, but it had better authentic and achievable as well. Thinking long and hard about your brand promise is time well spent, and it accomplishes several strategic objectives. First and foremost, your brand promise will provide a beacon through the brand development process that all stakeholders can follow. It will be the philosophical core of your organization, around which visual language can be easily wrapped. And it will provide the thousand foot view of what you are trying to accomplish.

Engage your audience.

Any two-way internal or public-facing communications that take place throughout the rebranding process will be beneficial to your end result. Make your intentions clear to your stakeholders, and solicit their feedback. More than likely, this feedback will reinforce what you already know. However, these exercises are important from a public relations standpoint, helping to a) align employees with the brand, b) foster mass ownership, and c) encourage positive public sentiment around the rebranding initiative. Use existing channels of communication (utility bill inserts, corporate websites and community newspapers), and open new ones (online surveys and community engagement forums) to broadcast your intentions as widely, frankly and transparently as possible throughout your community. Keep people informed throughout the project, gather public opinion wherever possible, and constantly communicate. Trust the Professionals Engaging residents, business owners and various stakeholders into a discussion about what their community means to them is a recipe for an authentic brand. Allowing them to take part in the actual design of your brand assets is a recipe for failure. Admittedly, anyone can have neat ideas and everybody is creative to some degree. However, while graphic design by committee may initially be perceived as an anodyne, it’s as misguided and dangerous as cardiac surgery by committee. Rather than asking the general populace to act like designers for a few weeks, leave the work to people who do it for a living.

Branding is nothing more – and nothing less – than creating a distinct personality for your municipality, community or organization, and then clearly and compellingly telling the entire world about it.

Sean Mellis Rdeca Group

Launch with pride. 

Make the moment you publicly reveal your new brand a moment of significance. By no means does this entail breaking the bank. But the launch of a municipal brand is an historic event, and it needs to be observed as such. Quietly releasing a new brand into your community will not ease dissent; it will cause confusion, invite speculation, and raise questions about transparency. By launching squarely in the public eye, with court press, and with full executive endorsement, you clearly broadcast that you stand for something, and that something is your new brand identity.

A successful municipal rebrand does not begin and end with a logo and tagline. It’s about defining a community-based strategy that will allow the organization to communicate its services and experiences more effectively by unifying around a common message. It is the foundation of an honest and forthright engagement with all residents, businesses, employees and stakeholders. By developing a brand that accurately reflects the essence of your organization, and by broadcasting this brand with clarity and consistency, you will, without fail, establish a vital connection with all segments of our audience. As your brand experience gains momentum in the months and years to come, your organization’s brand equity (also referred to as goodwill; a tangible asset) will grow in tandem.

Research has reinforced time and again that investing in an authentic and professional brand has been proven to increase economic growth, tourism and business development for any community. Regardless of the economic climate, public-sector organizations must invest in their evolution just as private corporations do. This, in large part, requires a brand that shares the story of your past and present, and of your aspirations for the future. In doing so, you must leverage the heritage value of pride of place, and you must move forward with conviction rather than relying on the methods of the past, as familiar as they might seem.