Is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a brand?

Talk of government departments as ‘brands’ makes many civil servants uneasy. If they wanted that sort of talk, they’d go to Hoxton, not Whitehall. Yet when the concept of, for example, the FCO as a brand comes under some threat, then there’s a different kind of uneasiness.

That uneasiness includes me – earlier this week, I was in an email discussion with some people in touch about using our travel advice in a widget (still available, as previously advertised). They asked, for largely space reasons so far as I could see, if we could take the logo off. I refused – ‘the brand is important’, I said, then pressed ‘send’ – and then wondered if I was right.

Surely, what we are delivering with our travel advice is a service based on practicalities and nothing more – can youfly to Iceland; should you leave Bahrain? Does it have a Lion and Unicorn on a crest somewhere really matter? As is usually the case, I mulled over the issue for a while – and decided I was right all along.

Because, in a society which is information-rich, where we all have easy access to all kinds of information, then the thing that the Foreign Office delivers into that information market is authority and access. We can, in this case with our digital channels, give access to policy makers (ministers or ambassadors perhaps) and we can give information which is important because it is the FCO that is saying it. Travel advice which advises you to cancel your trip resonates because there’s an assumption that, because we are usually on the ground, we know what we’re talking about. And that resonance reaches into the travel industry and the travel insurance industry. A claim against a cancelled trip has a lot more weight if the FCO told you not to go.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that concepts of authority and a couple of rampant mammals around a portcullis is what a brand is made up of. There’s a lot more hinterland to a brand than a logo and a sense of expertise. That debate becomes more important with the launch of the Alphagov prototype website. One of the assumptions of that is that a single web domain for government means a single brand for government. It’s not a logic I can fault (not least because I played a small part in the Alphagov project), but the creation of a single government digital brand will provoke some discussion – HMG? Great Britain? Under that, then departments and agencies will become sub-brands of the major brand. As Wispa is to Cadbury, to the FCO is to the UK government, so to speak. And, to me, this is right – but how is that sub-brand to be demonstrated digitally? Having different logos and suchlike is one of the confusions that the Alphagov project is trying to eliminate – different visual signals are no help to the user when utility and function is what Alphagov is trying to offer, not a pick and mix of brands, logos and typefaces.

The issue is, for now, an internal one. For the user, the authority of the FCO brand comes from the fact that the FCO is part of the government. That is enough for them. For the FCO internally, though, the sense of belonging is important to an organisation spread thinly across the world. That sense of unity is different internally to its public delivery and its digital delivery, but does the dilution of a public digital brand affect its strength in other areas? It’s a discussion we’ll be having in the coming weeks and months. Thoughts welcome.


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