You Tell Me: Why Does Government Brand So Much?

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This topic contains 28 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Steve Ressler 7 years, 3 months ago.

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  • #176792

    Dave Hebert

    This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. No endorsement expressed or implied.

    “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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  • #176848

    Steve Ressler

    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.

  • #176846

    Dave Hebert

    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.

  • #176844

    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.

  • #176842

    Dave Hebert

    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?

  • #176840

    Britt Ehrhardt

    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?

  • #176838

    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.

  • #176836

    Scott Horvath

    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.

  • #176834

    Chris Trent

    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.

  • #176832

    Read the comments with interest. I want to respond to each separately but in the meantime some additional thoughts.

    Government vs. Private Sector Branding

    In the private sector you build brands to make money. The means of making money is to establish awareness, trust, loyalty and preference by the consumer – to the point where they would pay more for your product than a no-name equivalent.

    In the government you engage in branding so as to effectively inform and explain. This should result in increased understanding, participation, compliance with the law, more effective recruitment, etc.

    Metric for Results

    The ultimate metric for branding in government is not money but rather that it serves the citizens’ needs.

    3 Kinds of Communication

    Communication to Inform & Explain

    Within the U.S., federal agencies may engage in communication to explain. It’s OK for the communication to be memorable and engaging, but there are limits. Agencies may not engage in three kinds of communication:

    * Self-promotion

    * Politically partisan

    * Hidden messages

    Public Diplomacy

    Overseas, where it is in the U.S. interest to combat misinformation and promote positive relationships between ourselves and the world, the law recognizes a legitimate purpose to persuasive communication. This is public diplomacy and it is regulated by the Smith-Mundt Act,

    The irony of Smith-Mundt, particularly in the age of the Internet, that it was designed to combat anti-U.S. propaganda with the facts, yet unless 12 years have passed, domestic distribution is not allowed (a 2012 attempt to modernize the law was not enacted).

    Military Operations

    Further along the spectrum psychological operations (PSYOPS), a.k.a. “military information support operations,” is used by the military as a nonviolent tool of combat. Joint Publication 3-13.2, defines this as:

    “Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called MISO. (Approved for incorporation into JP 1-02.)”

    Why Branding and Propaganda Cannot Coexist Anymore

    In the past it was acceptable and even expected to tell a one-sided story. Today the facts are available anyway and the customer is talking back. That’s why it is more “effective and efficient” to simply explain things as they are, and show your audience your reasoning. You can’t control what they think, but you can show respect for the audience’s intelligence. By being straightforward and owning your story, you show leadership. The organization appears as one that is credible, engaged, and effective at doing the job it is supposed to do.

  • #176830

    Hi Britt. You can’t 🙂

  • #176828

    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.

  • #176826

    Chris, these are great points. Fragmentation is the #1 mistake Agencies make. In the attempt to build more awareness they end up dissipating it all.

  • #176824

    Dave Hebert

    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.

  • #176822

    Here are some examples of different brand architectures, the primary difference being “branded house” (everything is endorsed by #1 or the corporate brand) or “house of brands” (each brand appears to be a standalone). Often it’s a mix of the two.

    Branded House

    Companies use a “branded house” approach when they are very invested in the corporate brand but at the same time need a way to differentiate between the services the company offers. Here, GE.

    When the brand name is different from the corporate name but has the corporate name somewhere in there it’s called an “endorsing brand” strategy. Endorsing brands are used to build up the credibility of various standalone brands while simultaneously explaining that each one does something different (e.g. is premium or low-end). Here, Marriott.

    House of Brands

    The “house of brands” strategy is typically used when the company wants to grow market share. Under a single brand umbrella they proliferate products. You think you have a choice, one company makes all the money. This is useful in the mass market because consumers tend to get bored and want new experiences.

    In the government “brand wars” tend to erupt and become irrational for a few reasons.

    1) Someone is trying to establish precedent, turf, policy or power and the brand legitimizes that effort.

    2) There is a belief that a logo itself means that something has been achieved and so the more logos, the more achievements.

    3) There is a desire to either unify or break apart an organization and the logo becomes a way of doing that (rather than having conversation/agreement first).

  • #176820

    Is this always true?

    provide a collection of services that our investors are legally required to buy stock in”

    Citizens still have a choice in many situations where government offers information / service – but they aren’t required to use it. In those instances, government could potentially to do a better job of branding:

    • Why does WebMD have better branding than
    • Consumer Reports vs.
    • Dave Ramsey vs.

    The good news is that all of these government sites show up prominently in a logical search for information via Google or Bing – but will a citizen choose the government site over the commercial site? I’m doubtful! 🙁

  • #176818

    Dave Hebert

    The investment, in this case, is taxes. Gotta pay those, and you don’t get to choose where they go.

    Which makes your point even more compelling in this sense: Citizens are paying for services that they still may eschew in favor of better-branded private offerings with essentially the same info/services.

  • #176816

    Chris Trent

    Oh, they choose, alright. Every other November…

    To turn Dave’s comment below around, I would ask why the government seeks to provide services that are provided by the private sector? If WebMD exists, why are we still paying for

    To use another example, would we want the National Weather Service to design a full-service mobile app? I think it makes more sense for them to focus on providing high-quality weather data to private firms, like the Weather Channel, which in turn design apps for the consumer.

    This does raise an interesting branding problem. It makes the government a bit like BASF. “We don’t make a lot of the products you use…”

  • #176814

    Chris Trent

    Here’s our branding tree:

  • #176812

    Dave Hebert

    Hmmm … I suppose an election can have an effect on how much total money the gov. collects via taxes (mortgage breaks, income cut-offs, etc.), making the pot we fight over bigger or smaller.

    And that is a great point (flipping) that really is being underscored by at least some parts of the exec. branch right now — see GSA’s call for gov. to provide APIs and data, not apps and platforms.

  • #176810

    Dave Hebert

    So what’s your point, CHRIS?


  • #176808


  • #176806

    Bingo. What does the government do that cannot and should not be provided by the private sector? Versus what can be eliminated and the private sector step in? That’s a critical question – but it’s also one for the public and their elected officials.

    For the sake of civil servants on the job, what is important to know is this:

    “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.” (5 U.S.C. 3107)

  • #176804

    Mark Hammer

    …And sometimes it works the other way. Our current government adopted the moniker “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” over the last few years, complete with logo and advertising campaign ( ). Unfortunately, the “brand” has been applied to such a broad array of things, that it seems to have stopped representing anything in particular anymore. I see an ad on TV for environmental protection and the logo for the “economic action plan” pops up. My reaction, rightly or wrongly, is “How are job training programs and environmental protection connected?”. And I can’t imagine the confusion is mine alone.

    So, sometimes, separate brands are a handy thing to have when the scope of something gets broad enough. There is something to be said, I suppose, for unifying multiple things under a single brand, but that needs to be balanced against a brand becoming too diffuse for its own good. I mean, heck, what do Sony, Siemens, and Time-Warner actually DO? I have no idea.

  • #176802

    Chris Trent

    And this poster doesn’t capture the myriad of program and office logos.

  • #176800

    To Dave’s points, the one thing I’m learning is how crucial that *internal* commitment to and capacity for Danielle’s 1st definition of branding – *engaging* the audience – to deliver services effectively and efficiently.

    Standing at the top of agency mountaintops to shout our important information through 127 brand megaphones doesn’t engage anyone to use our services. Messages just come down the mountain as cold, fuzzy, and irrelevant.

    Another resource I’ll throw into the pile of awesome knowledge on this thread is Interbrand’s take on brand strength, from 2011 (here it is online as a PDF, page 68-69). It captures some of those critical *internal* factors for “creating an image” in the public sector, namely – clarity, commitment, responsiveness to SWOT, and protection of the brand. cheers!

  • #176798

    Chris Trent

    Excellent points!

  • #176796

    Dave Hebert

    Thanks for the perspective, Mark — I think this is a twist on the same problem. Another brand was created (Canada’s Economic Action Plan) and shoved down on top of existing brands in a one-size-fits-all manner.

    The right approach here would be to consider how such an action plan would play out in the existing brands/missions of each agency and to find messages that articulate that in a compelling and brand-relevant way.

    As far as those really big brands you mention, maybe they have failed at articulating the overall purpose of their existence. Or maybe they want us to know them by their little bits and pieces (Sony: PlayStation, Vaio, etc.), unless you’re an investor (in which case, again, perhaps they are missing the mark; not sure).

  • #176794

    Chris Trent

    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?

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