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Using Brand Architecture to Rethink Government

Everybody knows what branding is - the creation of a consistent image to the outside world, that will hopefully "stick" in the customer's mind and add a premium to what is otherwise a generic product.

(Behind the image there should be substance of course.) 

There is less familiarity with brand architecture. But it's pretty simple. Basically it's the naming and logo system you adopt to explain your business to the outside world.

Again, not to dwell, but there are three basic kinds of brand architectures. These can be used in the strict way or in a hybrid model, but generally you have:
  • Corporate - one name covers everything (Amazon.com)
  • Endorsed - one name endorses a variety of individual names (Coca-Cola C2)
  • Sub-brands - baby brand has different name and logo (Caribou Iced Coffee, owner Coca-Cola)
The beauty of brand architecture is that it allows the same organization to offer completely different products and services to the public in an orderly way.

What I mean by this is that strategic brand architecture maximizes synergies where they exist, and enables different lines of business to ignore each other where they don't. It's not just about marketing, but about the core of the business itself.

As a former brand consultant working in government for nearly ten years, it's surprising to me that we don't use the principles of brand architecture more.

You don't need to pay a consultant lots of money to do brand architecture, necessarily. If you can apply common sense and be objective about it then the cost is - free.

All you have to do, really, is think about what your customer already expects from you, then ask if you are organized to meet those expectations efficiently.

For example, to the public, I think it is fair to say that the federal government is seen as a single entity that operates in a consistent way. They may have awareness that certain agencies exist (for example the VA or Social Security) but most of the time, to them we're "the government." 

So from a brand architecture perspective, there ought to be a brand or seal applied to all federal agencies and activities that is consistent - almost like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval - to indicate a certain oneness of operation.

Based on that mark, there are certain expectations that the public has - for example that we operate according to core values of integrity, efficiency, and diversity. We should examine all federal agency operations to ensure they meet a consistent brand promise. When something is "backed by the U.S. government" people ought to know what that means, regardless of whether it comes from Agency A or B or C. At the very least, every federal website ought to have a U.S. Government seal somewhere on the site to indicate that it's for real. Publications too.

Sub-brands can work across government too. Two great examples of sub-brands that probably have more recognition than their parent agencies, especially outside Washington, DC:
  • USA.gov is the government's official portal for information. It is operated by GSA.
  • USAJOBS is the official portal for searching for government jobs. It is operated by OPM.
Brands mean something. Brands are powerful. We put our money in banks or credit unions that are backed by federal guarantees. That's the only reason not to put the money under the mattress - that little mark telling us that our funds are safe. 

We ought to invest in brand architecture across the government. It's not, repeat not, about marketing only. It's about creating a system of symbols across siloes that shows we operate as a single functional unit and that we've thought through the various promises we are making to our constituents.

We should institute brand governance in the federal government. Orderly, rational, logical. Applicable to all agencies. Coordinated. Singing from the same song sheet.

Sounds pretty good to me.

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