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Why U.S. federal government agencies don’t brand themselves

In an article titled “Treasury's £2.4m on ‘image’,” U.K.’s The Sun newspaper states that England’s “Treasury chiefs have blown £2.4million in a year on image makeovers. The cash was spent on logos, branding and marketing staff to promote the work of the department and its agencies.”

The article notes that the “biggest spender was the shambolic HM Revenue and Customs, notorious for losing the bank details of 25 million people. It lavished £390,000 on seven brand management staff plus £750,000 on a marketing team last year. Chancellor Alistair Darling blew another £130,000 on ‘branding manuals’ for his departments.”

The article goes on in this vein, eventually quoting Tory spokesman Philip Hammond, who said: “It beggars belief that departments that are supposed to be responsible for the public purse are lavishing millions on self-promotion.”

This kind of story, in a nutshell, could be a key reason why U.S. federal government agencies don’t brand themselves. They could be concerned that the public will view money spent on branding as wasteful frippery rather than serving the taxpayers’ interests.

The job of a brand is to create an emotional connection between an organization and its (external and internal) customers. In doing so, the brand improves the relationship between agencies and their public stakeholders and unifies employees to perform the mission. Branding, in short, makes organizations function better. It is the furthest thing possible from waste (unless, of course, it is done badly, incoherently, inconsistently, or inauthentically). Yet the media is ready to pounce on any dollar spent that is not purely operational—that does not go directly toward the mission.

I ask you, where would agencies be without other mission support areas, like information technology, human resources, finance? The answer: Nowhere, and everybody knows it. Agencies need mission support in order to function. The same is true of branding. Branding, and its sister function marketing, exists in order to make operations palatable to the public, to increase public consumption of products and services, and even to increase the likelihood that the public will pay attention to the informational messages that the agency is sending.

More than that, agencies have public affairs staffs whose job it is to disseminate key information to the public. Their jobs would be made immeasurably easier if their information were associated with a powerful brand, a brand that people paid attention to. How many U.S. federal agencies can you name, off the top of your head?

In short, U.S. public agencies need a brand. And it is up to agencies’ public affairs staff to make the case for branding both within and outside the agency as necessary. The problem is, branding is a “soft discipline,” so it is difficult to make a numbers-based business case—you can’t quantify exactly how much the relationship between the agency and the public will be improved, for example, or predict how much public consumption of agency products and services will go up after the brand has been instituted. I know that Interbrand and perhaps Young & Rubicam (through its Brand Asset Valuator) can quantify the value of a brand of a publicly held, commercial company, but no comparable measures exist for the value of a brand to a public agency.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much research in this area that I am aware of. It would be helpful if there were.

Until such best practice research arrives on the scene, perhaps in the form of a ground-breaking book on federal agency branding, we public affairs professionals working in government can wait for the winds of enlightenment to spring up and carry us to the promised land. But right now, with the lack of information/education available on the taxpayer benefits associated with branding, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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