Branding the Federal Government, Part One: What would you say at the Super Bowl?
February 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm #122865
Suppose you had 30 seconds to show the value of the U.S. government to the world’s largest television audience. What would your message be? In its February 2011 issue, Harper’s Magazine put this question to some advertising agency creative pros that had done advertising for such Super Bowl stalwarts as Doritos and Nike. While their responses tended towards the humorous vein of Super Bowl commercials, the article highlights an issue that has become serious for Federal HR pros in a climate of budget cuts and hiring freezes.
The Paradox of an Unbranded House: No "Umbrella"
Harper’s credits a paradox for inspiring the exercise: On the one hand, when a Gallup poll asked Americans to "describe the federal government in one word or phrase," 72 percent of the responses were "pejorative." Furthermore, a poll conducted by Pew Research Center last spring showed that only 22 percent of Americans say they can trust government in Washington "almost always or most of the time."
Yet simultaneously the "trustworthiness" of certain agencies is rising. For example, over the past ten years, the IRS has moved up the trust scale from 36 percent to 47 percent. Some 83 percent of Americans consider the U.S. Postal Service trustworthy. The Center for Disease Control and NASA receive similarly high marks.
In addition, a large majority of Americans want to protect Medicare, support the military and avoid cuts to Social Security. They also do not wish to reduce spending on education and highways.
Harper’s comments: "A marketing consultant might reasonably conclude it's the federal brand we hate, not the product." (For a quick view, visit http://harpers.org/archive/2011/01/hbc-90007947.)
Our branding practice at TMP Government would frame the paradox a little differently. We look at an organization to see the relationship of entities within the overall brand portfolio, especially how units relate to the "umbrella" or "parent brand." Although these relationships form a spectrum of possibilities, they generally fall into two categories: "a house of brands" or "a branded house."
The government is a house of brands rather than a branded house. In the commercial world, Procter & Gamble (P&G) remains the archetypal house of brands. Under its roof, divided into categories like Beauty and Grooming, Health and Well-being and Household Care, consumers shop for some 80 brands. P&G itself stays in the background, so the avid fan of Lacoste Fragrances may not feel compelled to use Crest toothpaste or Cheer detergent.
In contrast, in a branded house like GE, the parent company confers some significant attribute (e.g.: quality, service, innovation) on all of its' progeny. GE says that you will find “Imagination at Work” in all of their businesses, be they jet engines, medical imaging or financial services. The key word is "significant," for a branded house to be meaningful – i.e., to inspire trust, which is the principal end of any brand, the audience must believe it.
In a branded house, newer or less-known brands can ride on the parent brand. Consider that all of the agencies mentioned by Harper's in their briefing to the creative teams were well-known brands like NASA, the U.S. Postal Service and the IRS. When job seekers turn to the Federal government, their applications tend to flow toward these marquee names. And in the court of public opinion, they can stand in stark contrast to the stereotypical views of Federal employment beyond the Beltway.
The Federal Employer Brand: An Invisible Partner
The Federal brand, whether or not it is marketed, has one major difference from P&G. Job seekers and employees are aware of “working for the government.” Applicants know the complexities of hiring and employees are aware of the benefits they receive. In fact, TMP Government urges agencies to be aware that they cannot coast on the generic value of Federal employment, but most find psychological differentiators to distinguish their place of work.
The current wave of public opinion, however, presents another kind of challenge. Even in a down economy, job seekers may be wary of government. The excitement of making government cool again, so palpable two years ago, must now contend with budget cuts and hiring freezes. Entry-level candidates or even current employees may rightfully ask, "How can I build a future when Congress may stop funding my program?" Such issues require more than a 30-second splash among beer and car commercials during a timeout.
To respond to this challenge demands getting at the root of why government exists and why your activities are essential to government. Our branding practice works with clients to probe answers to these questions through interviewing leadership and conducting focus groups with your employees. Since the Federal government cannot run a branding program, we seek ways we can incorporate the generic message of government’s relevance into a specific agency Employer Value Proposition.
In our next discussion, we’ll discuss what TMP Government has learned about the "invisible partner" of the Federal brand, how it is likely to affect you in 2011 and what you can do about it.
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