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"Nabisco creates and markets many products with different logos and names — they don't just try to sell you 'Nabisco.'"

That argument was posed to me in a debate about branding some programs and projects at a particular federal bureau with logos and mission statements separate from said bureau's branding.

Here's the problem: Nabisco's funding model is a little different than the federal government's.

People can choose to buy Oreo's or Ritz without having to buy Nabisco stock. Citizens don't get much choice in what programs to invest their taxes in. And Congress doesn't typically dictate funding via branding mechanisms (program/product titles, logos, mission statements) — it dictates what activities the money should be spent on, and that those activities be conducted in an effective and efficient manner.

Here's a quick test: Take a look at some federal websites from various departments, administrations, etc., and count how often you see a brand (Program X, w/unique logo, mission, etc.) within a brand (Bureau of Y, Department of Z).

Also try to determine if the sub-brand has a unique existence beyond its parent brand: a separate funding mechanism, a legal requirement to exist in this manner, even its own website.

A cursory glance reveals quite a few sites with parent brand and sub-brand right next to each other. One organization I looked up had a ratio of almost 30 sub-brands to 1 parent brand, all on one website. And, of course, many of the names of these sub-brands are not helpful in telling you what they actually offer.

I also found several agencies/bureaus that have branded very well — no matter where you look, you know whose site you're on, and it's easy to find their products and services. Fed. websites have gotten much better at getting users to useful content.

But Congress doesn't decide what's valuable and compelling via websites (at least not in large part). Neither do news media. And websites can only provide so much value to citizens (and value and the perception of value are very different things).

We've also added to the mix consortia and partnerships with unique branding, acronym'd the heck out of everything (a branding of its own), and launched branded initiatives within sub-brands within brands.

Perhaps this would be like Nabisco saying, "We'd love for you to buy our products, but first you must buy our org. chart and the various cultural identities we have within our corporation."

So if we:

  • provide a collection of services that our investors are legally required to buy stock in, and
  • seem to be having a hard time convincing many citizens, legislators, and media outlets of our individual and collective value, and
  • have figured out that our websites need get users right to the services our brands provide, and
  • know Congress doesn't like to think that 10 of us are doing the work of 1 ...

Then you tell me: Why does government brand so much?


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Tags: branding

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I always find government branding as it really varies - sometimes you have a sub-component like a FBI with a bigger brand than DOJ.  And can be confusing in the same agency.  BLM has less recognition than Interior as brand but National Parks individually (like a Yellowstone) have a bigger brand than whole agency.

That's an interesting point, Steve, and NPS and FBI are two very strong brands, as you suggest. And I don't think there's anything wrong with the fact that they seem to have a bigger brand than their parent agencies. They've both carried out their missions in clear and visible ways for decades.

My concern is the fragmentation of otherwise perfectly good brands — I've seen quite a few instances of gov't organizations deciding that the best way to sell the value of something they do is to create another brand beneath or apart from the one they've already got.

More often than not, we'd be better off selling the idea that an existing brand can offer an even greater suite of services and products than Congress, citizens, media, etc., might have known we could.

Not only does over-branding weaken a brand, but it also implies that branding is something that can be taken lightly and executed without informed expertise. It undermines the role of the professional federal communicator.

Dave your post is right on target. There are many different definitions of the verb "branding" or "to brand" so let me be clear:

* Definition #1 is "creating an image" - more often than not through engaging the audience

* Definition #2 is "creating a name, symbol, sign..." - literally the word or the logo 

The product world uses branding approach #1 at the corporate level to build loyalty to the organization and #2 to create the illusion of value through a supposedly "new" product.

The federal government is stuck in Definition #2 and badly stuck at that. There is a constant push to create new logos, names, etc. that signify action or attention. Quality is judged by the quantity of logos you have. Terrible, wasteful, only splinters the image of the Agency and does not achieve the desired result except in the mind of Agency executives, mostly.

The discipline of systematic naming along the lines of Definition #2 is "brand architecture". Lots written on that. Branding Strategy Insider has an article here, but I can try to answer any specific questions someone might have as well.

Here she is -- our knight in shining, well-branded armor.

Thanks for some actual branding-pro perspective (as opposed to my hack's take). The moves being made in cust. service and web by folks like GSA are a step toward your #1. As you said, however, we are largely stuck in #2, and that's where a lot of the barbs about wasteful gov't are aimed.

To make a bit of a leap: There's a strong correlation between internal culture and comm. and external brand. However an org. manifests itself to the rest of the world is largely informed by what's going on inside it.

If that external presence appears badly fragmented and over-logo'd, imagine what's going on inside. You've got all those silos, the turf wars, the schizophrenic mission, the awkwardly branded and acronym'd IT and admin. systems and processes -- and employees are going nuts with all this.

Short story: A strong external brand starts with a strong internal brand.

Now a clarification from you, Danielle: In your model above, you actually figure out #2 first, and then you build #1 to support #2, yes?

In my opinion #2 is a direct outgrowth of #1 and all things are subordinate to it. The main way to build #1 is through internal communication from leadership to employees and vice versa.


Beginning of time - roughly 1950s: You did what you were told and #2 was primary. There was no such thing as #1. You bought image and image only and did not know what went on inside the ivory tower.

Roughly 1960s-1970s: The seeds for #1 were sown with the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, feminist movement, Watergate. Hypocrisy was the biggest sin you could commit. But still there was no Internet so not much empowerment of the individual with regard to forcing transparency.

1980s: All things branding became the craze because it was a wealthy, high-rolling time. There was very little interest in #1 and a lot of interest in turning yourself into #2, though nobody really thought of it that way.

Roughly 1990s - 2010: We tried to recover from the 1980s but didn't get anywhere till nearly the turn of the century. At that point and progressively more and more, we figured out #2 and paid superficial attention to #1. Mostly because we started to realize that not only could you write a blog but others could too and you couldn't control what they wrote! OMG!

Roughly 2010 - Present: #1 takes center stage as all attempts to control your image prove meaningless in the face of social media as a tool and the axiomatic belief that every person has the right to their say. In this environment the leader is the brand but the workforce is restless and every misstep, mistake, or lack of coherence generates all-out rebellion, too often played out in social media. #2 often is a direct outcome of #1. (There is tremendous emphasis on metrics but in the end personality dictates #2.)

Going forward: The concept of the genius leader will be obsolete and the focus will be entirely on employee-generated internal communication. Meaning, that employees collaborate to get work done and in the process help each other find the information they need. We will see companies relaxing the rules on what employees can and cannot say as they increasingly try to engage them for the sake of the mission. People will increasingly be thoughtful brand ambassadors at the frontline level, or begone. In this kind of organization #1 and #2 merge as customers interface with employees and real-time user demand generates the products to be branded and sold. 

Good points, Dave!

I wonder what the solution is? Government agencies already have logo policies that try to limit the brand-within-a-brand problem. Agencies also have some scary sounding penalties for straying from the brand straight-and-narrow.

Is it that we need something that's more user friendly? The Twitter logo guidelines strike me as an especially clear and well-done example of an organization trying to do away with alternative logos that are confusing, if not competing.

But the essential problem remains: How do you tell some important guy that he can't have a special logo for his special project?

Hi Britt. You can't :-)

You want solutions, Britt? I just came here to gripe.

Dumb stuff aside, I think those things you mentioned ideally would be products of, as others here have said in different ways, a strongly defined mission and a workforce invested in that mission.

There are three things people need to see in order to invest like that: 1. A real leader. 2. A clear mission (preferably laid out by that leader). 3. How each person fits into and makes that mission happen.

If you can make that work, you've got the proverbial greater whole, powered by a sense of mutual and individual responsibility and passion, and you've got leaders who know their most important job is to serve the people they lead.

To answer your question about the important guy and the logo, you try to get someone more important to remind him, "This doesn't belong to you," which should be especially compelling in gov't work.

If that's not possible, then you find metrics (which you ideally were already doing) to prove your point, and perhaps deliver those via peers of this guy or a third party (sometimes people just won't hear the truth from those they know too well).

If that doesn't work? Bloodless coup. Seriously, you try to work around it/cover it up with a more compelling approach.

Answer: engagement with stakeholder, policymaker, and broader public audiences.

In my experience, those "important guys" are the Federal managers who have not yet engaged their audiences thoroughly, and thus have not yet tested just how special their project really is. Meeting with groups that have separate interests from your own is a great moderator of the ego.

In fact, I would argue that such engagement should be the first step in Federal brand development, rather than the last. If it is clear, after a rigorous outreach plan has been implemented, that a strong brand is essential to the success of the mission, then this provides a case for a sub-brand. Could this method be built into an agency's policies?

Regarding what Danielle said:

* Definition #1 is "creating an image" - more often than not through engaging the audience

* Definition #2 is "creating a name, symbol, sign..." - literally the word or the logo

I agree that many Government agencies have focused on #2 too much. I think this is a natural outgrowth of being able to connect with others through the Web (speaking circa 1995, right now). I remember building my first Government website for the Environmental Systems Branch at Ft. Belvoir in the mid 90s. I also remember the conversation was along the lines of "we need to tell people about us because no one knows what we do...we build AC units for Patriot missile batteries...who doesn't want to know about that?!"

And since those days of internet-goodness and the ability to market like a Nike, it's been an all out branding competition in Government.

We're at a point, I believe, where agencies are realizing that #2 is not the right way to go...but it's at the beginning of that realization. I do think you can show some brand strength for a product/service within your organization and still have strong brand strength at the agency level. The combination of the two has a better chance to keep Congress informed of what an agency does, as well as keep the public informed on where they're tax dollars are being spent. At the same time, a good combination of agency and product branding can also lead to greater scrutinization of your agency's efforts. That's actually a good thing, though. 

Take for example NASA. Outside of the fact that they have a compelling mission (space) and cool toys like rockets, telescopes, and wise-cracking rovers...from a branding standpoint they're very strong. Take the Mars rover for example. It's got a name...Curiosity. It's got a personality of it's own. It's on Mars. It's a very cool thing, no doubt. These things, amongst others, have really launched it into it's own "brand" so-to-speak.

But I bet you any money every single person that's ever heard of Curiosity knows exactly who's running it...NASA. Why? Because NASA does a great job with their Agency branding...from products, to the Web, to TV, to the stickers and logos they stick & paint on every rocket and rover...they know that keeping a consistent brand of always having NASA attached to everything they do is important. The brand is so strong that even into the near future, if you even say the word "curiosity," it's almost guaranteed that "NASA" will pop into your head. 

This just shows you a good combination of sub-agency branding, but always with parent agency branding. It's very effective. 

The question, though, isn't how do we copy what NASA does...but it's how do we copy the culture of NASA so that employees feel proud of the agency they work for, understand what their agency mission is, and can become our own brand ambassadors. Once they feel that sort of involvement then they're more likely to stop thinking in terms of #2 when they're discussing their work/programs, and starting to think along the lines of #1 and 1/2.

Scott - I agree with you that NASA has a good job of branding themselves but to what end? I'm a simple person and despite the fact that I know their name, I don't know what they do that's worth paying a government agency to do. What I do know is that whenever they announce a liftoff on CNN, something seems to go wrong.

When we planted an American flag on the surface of the Moon, that was branding.

When JPL put their name in Morse code on the treads of Curiosity, that was branding.

Nearly everything we do is a form of branding, both #1 and #2. This comment is branding.

Some might argue that there ought to be only one brand for the Federal Government, and I think once upon a time there was only one brand. It was a serious, White male in a dark suit who somehow had acquired significant power despite a total lack of charisma. He was a Bureaucrat.

Now, Bureaucrats have mohawks, and they're memes.

There is no right answer to the question of where the branding balance should rest. It's true that Congress defines Federal agencies by what they do. Congress, however, gets most of its information from Googling now, which means they see the same branded websites the public sees. The challenge is that the only good brands are successful ones, and there's no way to measure that at the outset.

My standard is this: brand conservatively. If you exist under an already established, trusted brand, then ride that pony as far as it takes you. Don't stop using your agency's logo until you get a letter from your Director telling you to knock it off. Bureaucrats have forgotten how useful it is to present themselves as representatives of a much larger entity.

As we go into sequestration, a lot of folks will complain that the public now casts aspersions upon them as Federal Employees. But how many of those same folks reject their agencies' brands? We should not be surprised at all that when we fragment our identity then we are easier to belittle.


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