Public trademark – to be or not to be, is that really the question?
The debate about the appropriateness of public organizations (such as municipalities, authorities or other administrative bodies) increasingly engaging in branding work flares up at regular intervals. Now most recently in relation to the issue of the growing number of communicators within Swedish administration.
Branding has historically been associated with the private sector, and with attempts to make money rather than serve society. However, the approach seems to vary within the public sector. Brand platforms and stories about branding campaigns can be found on some government websites. Elsewhere, there is a certain skepticism towards the concept of “brand”. At most, one talks about “reputation” (an aspect of, but not synonymous with, brand). In addition, the issue is complicated by the fact that approximately half of our authorities have as part of their mission to carry out communication activities (e.g. via the dissemination of knowledge or information).
Opinions divided on whether public branding helps or undermines democracy
Voices critical of public organizations’ branding efforts question the scope and cost (as a collective, government agencies are among the largest purchasers of services from advertising agencies and communications consultancies), as well as consistency with their politically driven mandates. Some consider branding work to be contrary to the duty to prioritize the best interests of citizens, while others see it as a cosmetic embellishment of the organizations’ function and operations.
Those who are in favor point to the branding work as crucial for the legitimacy and functioning of the administrative apparatus. They see it as a means to meet higher citizen expectations, where a strong brand facilitates trust and effective mission execution. In addition, branding is considered to help public organizations attract and retain talent, which benefits citizen service quality. Brand work can thereby have great value for the organizations themselves and strengthen trust in the democratic system as a whole.
And can they really be dismissed?
The uncertainty surrounding whether brand work in the public sector is completely “pure” or self-evident is also a possible explanation for why research in the field today is limited, and access to sector-specific theories, principles and evaluation models as well. So how does a branding geek think? Well, that all organizations have a brand to relate to whether they want to or not. Public organizations are no exception. As you know, brands are not something you create. They exist in the minds of stakeholders and are made up of their accumulated perceptions, associations and experiences. Brands are also not just communicators, logos and campaigns. It is everything an organization does in relation to its environment and involves everyone in the organization. Everything from external communication efforts, to media reporting, to a website visit, to a phone call with a manager, forms a component of the total brand experience.
Such a statement naturally raises a number of questions that need answers. In what way is it ok for public organizations to engage in brand care? In what extent? Is the answer to directly apply existing brand logic, born out of the private sector, to a public context with its unique set of values, context and requirements? Most likely not. However, refusing to call a spade a spade is hardly the answer either. Rather, it seems to hinder a knowledge-seeking dialogue about what it means to manage a public brand and what requirements should be placed on such a brand. After all, the very core of public organizations’ operations is to serve the best interests of citizens, and this should also apply to their branding strategies.
Client Advisor, Novus
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