Friday, November 25, 2011

Branding as a tool to reinvent government

One of the things I have never understood about "nation-branding" is its use for tourism. It seems to me one of those cancerous outgrowths of thinking of branding in a very limited, superficial, advertising-campaign-like way with a very short-term return on investment if there is one at all.

In fact, this kind of activity isn't branding. It is really marketing, supported by advertising. Here's the difference:

* Marketing is always focused on what the customer wants. This is classic Peter Drucker: "You get paid for creating a customer, which is marketing." Marketers think in the short-term: Campaigns are for right now and they are best measured in sales.

* Branding is always focused on keeping a promise. If you're doing your job right you will draw some customers in and turn other prospects off completely.

Marketing and branding are both tactics and they're appropriate at different places and ties. But when it comes to something as weighty as nation-branding, marketing is inappropriate as a tool. If you could somehow market a tourist attraction and divert the customer's attention from the nation's politics and policies, it would be one thing. But you can't: People read the news and have opinions and to pretend that you can visit a historic landmark without being conscious of weightier issues is just foolish. The reality is that government has policies and takes actions that are popular among some, but not everybody.

So the better tool for promoting a nation is the use of branding, specifically by making a promise that is relevant and differentiated; making people aware of that promise; and then keeping it. The promise is then carried out by architecting government politics, policy and operations on the ground.

Sometimes when I talk about this with people I hear the concern that branding is propaganda and that therefore the government (meaning the U.S. government) shouldn't do it. Well I suppose if you are using the term to mean self-promotional advertising then you have a point. But if you are using branding in a real way - not like an ad campaign but as a business strategy with the fundamental power to reshape the entity itself - then it is not propaganda at all but rather the greatest accountability and transparency tool there is.

Used properly, branding has the potential to actually reinvent government in at least 5 ways that would have a positive trickle-down effect:

1. Promoting strategic thinking: Branding involves making a long-term decision about what the promise is and whether it is actionable or not.

2. Promoting objective metrics of success: A brand promise can be reduced to key performance indicators, measurable as metrics, that enable the public to see whether forward movement has occurred.

3. Promoting change: Based on metrics, change has to happen to make the promise real and better serve the customer. One of the most important changes government can make is to operate from the perspective of the customer even if it feels unfamiliar or inconvenient to do so.

4. Promoting transparency: A promise made is a promise that has to be kept, and the audience wants to see that for themselves.

5. Promoting accountability: When a promise is broken, the customer demands that someone takes responsibility, or a key aspect of the brand - its reputation - suffers or is shattered.

The catch with all this, of course, is that branding means some audiences are going to like what the government does while others are bound to hate it. But trying to make everybody happy - taking a marketing approach - isn't doable in this context.

There are some who would demonize branding as a tool of the rich to make themselves richer. But you could demonize any powerful tool by focusing on its potentially negative impact. Rather than focusing on its destructive aspects, it is smart to take advantage of the enormous benefits it can bring to any individual or enterprise - and use them well.

From where I sit, making a promise and then keeping it - or doing your damndest to try - is a very good thing.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!