I write about the things that matter to me. All opinions are my own.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

No, Government Branding Is Not A $$ Waste

Look...I totally get that you, the public are sick of us in the government wasting your money. I am a Libertarian, for crying out loud!
But when it comes to spending money on brand, I have to tell you, you're worrying about the wrong thing.
This is not to say we should throw the money out the window. I'm pretty well aware of the articles slamming the tens of millions of dollars we spend on slick graphic productions. I'm an anti-propaganda, open government advocate. And I worked as a brand consultant - you, the taxpayer most certainly can get soaked.
It's also not to say we should do branding wrong. The reality is that most organizations, government or not, still think of a brand as a pretty little logo. Yeah, sure they might have a brand reference handbook, a statement of cultural values, and other trinkets of goodwill.
But real branding is so much deeper than all of those things. So much more integrated. I feel like the Europeans understand that much better than we do here in America. (Although to be fair, there are some in the U.S. who have long understood.) Already ten years ago I read with appreciation about a more holistic approach: looking at the entire business as the brand, the critical role of employee communications, aligning the brand with corporate social responsibility, and so on.
The U.S. federal government has become much more brand-savvy. But it has not yet absorbed the fundamental basics of branding, which have much more to do with organizational development, frankly, than marketing.
We need to do better. But we will not do better without a significant, significant investment in the effort. It comes down to money, but it's not really about the money - in the end one actually saves on needless, duplicative and confusing expenditures.
I started out my branding career at Young & Rubicam, working in the Brand Futures Group (later The Intelligence Factory). That was all about trendspotting; it was all about consumer research, branding to the outside. Later, I learned the more holistic approach at The Brand Consultancy, as one of their consultants in Washington, D.C., and as the head of its international Institute for Brand Leadership. 
What they taught me at TBC, and what I learned from the experts at the IBL, is so very simple and so basic, but let's go ahead and shout it from the rooftops just in case.
YOUR BRAND IS YOUR PROMISE.
IT IS THE PROMISE YOU MAKE.
IT IS THE PROMISE THAT YOU MUST KEEP.
In the government we promise to do so many things. But the most fundamental promise we make is to work on behalf of the taxpayer. We owe the American public a system that works, that is efficient, that is lean, that is fruitful, that serves them when and where and how they need it. We owe them a system that does not obey our stovepipes but rather conforms to the way they think and to what they need from a rationally ordered and civil society.
It would be great if one person alone could write a manifesto and have that transform the entire way that government works. But the reality is that to achieve a great brand you have to bring in resources, you have to work among the people on a massive scale and for a sustained period of time. You can never let up.
One final thought here...I'm currently addicted to the new show "Marco Polo" on Netflix. The show portrays Genghis Khan, how he leads, who he is, what he says in order to motivate the hordes to ride into battle and basically get their heads chopped off.
Genghis Khan, at least as he is portrayed in the show, is an amazing leader and a builder of the Mongol brand, although one might not naturally think of it that way. Every word he utters, every step he takes, every breath he breathes is about the higher order of the Mongolian people - their identity, their values, their meaning as a people. He welcomes all religions into the kingdom but tells his son, "You will lead as a Mongol and not as a Chinese man, or I will kill you myself."
In Judaism it is the religious custom to mourn a person who marries outside the faith - as if they had died. It is seemingly illogical to do this, right? After all, it splits up the family, causes rifts, and the Jewish person can and often does maintain their faith separately.
But there is a point to this belief, as unpopular as that may be: Religious observance is part of a total and holistic system. It is a brand. 
You can't pick and choose from among the fundamentals and still be in keeping with the brand, any more than you could pick apart the Starbucks mermaid and still call it authentic.
The lack of understanding as to what true branding is, is the reason why so much money has been wasted on so-called branding. It's why the public distrusts government efforts in this direction. And it's a shame, because we need to do a better job of making promises and keeping them.
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All opinions my own. Photo by epsos.de via Flickr.