In my post from earlier this week on branding and usability, I referred to Gerry McGovern’s quip about how “Organizations need to stop trying to use traditional advertising techniques to create false images” (source: Building a brand on the Web). I’d like to delve more into this argument.
The “false images” dig refers to an idea of branding that’s along these lines:
The idea behind a brand, as opposed to a product, is that it’s intangible. Advertisers try to create a series of social associations with a product: these nebulous associations, not any physical attributes of the product itself, constitute the brand. The idea is quite simply to fool people, to make them think of one thing when they are paying for another [via Russell Smith, in the Globe and Mail]
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Here’s what I mean: those all-important associations that marketers try to create when they are building a brand don’t need to be a smokescreen — people thinking about X while they are shelling out for Y. Why does the attribute have to be dissociated from the product or service?
And when it comes to branding in a government setting, there simply cannot be any sleight of hand. None.
I’m sure you can imagine some possible outcomes for a government program or service that does not embody its brand promise. Take, for example, innovation, when in fact the systems and processes underlying the program or service are outdated and inadequate. Or service excellence, when frontline staff are inadequately trained or don’t receive the information they need to do their job. Or transparency when in fact opaqueness is the management team’s preferred operating style.
Leaving aside hypothetical examples, it’s basically this: when undertaking branding in government, realism has to be the order of the day. This is because our operating context is fundamentally different from the private sector. We’re not trying to attract citizens away from competitors. It’s not like citizens can choose which government they want to pay taxes to, or which government office they’d like to receive their passport from. It’s not that citizens particularly like dealing with governments.
Under these circumstances, governments cannot afford brands that promise feel-good abstractions. These are in fact distractions of no service to our citizens. Reality is paramount. The attributes that we need to restrict ourselves to are really basic stuff: competence, accountability, impartiality, helpfulness, efficiency. And then we must deliver on these — I’m sure you know the drill. So that citizens can get what they need from government and then government can get out of their way.