Using Principles of Branding to Address Mistrust of Government

This is in response to the question of "Why do people mistrust government?" A comprehensive answer would get into politics, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc. I can talk about it from a branding perspective.
  • Here the noun "brand" means "your image" and the verb "branding" means "positioning" or the act of distinguishing yourself so that you have an image.
  • Branding is basically long-term, holistic marketing.
  • Branding is a business (government here is conceived of as a business) activity not solely a communications activity. It incorporates frontline operational decisions (mission), human capital decisions, technology decisions, etc. because all of these have an impact on your image.
  • Therefore "positioning" means setting up the organization in such a way that you actually can fulfill your promise (or in branding terms, the "brand promise.)
  • You can fail to live up to the brand promise through real activity or perceived activity where the perception is not credibly corrected.
Mistrust of government agencies is due to their failure to live up to the "brand promise"
  • The essential promise of government is that it will be there to provide society with the basic services necessary for functioning in a secure and orderly manner; that it will provide the most basic human care to individuals in desperate need; and that it will administer its services justly.
  • The "bonus promise" is transparency, something that was emphasized in recent years.
  • Mistrust of the government is due to a performance gap on the part of the government between the brand promise and the reality as it is experienced or perceived by the customer (taxpayer, stakeholder, constituent).
Actual Performance Failure
  • Insanity as we know is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
  • If you are in the government you know that there are things that are not working. 
  • On an individual level you can orient your mindset to the customer - that person being the person who receives services from  your agency. When you do your job you do it with excellence. You also do outside reading and studying of your agency so that you understand the bigger picture around requests, initiatives, etc. and can respond with more understanding of what the real issues are. Sometimes you challenge them.
  • On a team level you can find other people inside or outside your office who share a passion for service and don't care about ego and titles. You can work with them to solve problems. In your formal work teams you can deliver excellent customer service to others and establish a higher standard for working together. You can also call out instances where process is failing or someone is subverting it.
  • On an Agency leadership level the role of political appointees should be considered and clarified. (See the 2006 study "Political Appointees and the Competence of Federal Program Management.") 
  • Same for the role of contractors - clarify what is inherently governmental. Broadly institutionalize procurement training. 
  • Again on a leadership level there should be real (not just lip service) emphasize on coaching to lead, supporting leadership, human capital development, etc. as an activity that is AS IMPORTANT as operational implementation activities.
  • On a Federal level there ought to be consideration of broadly consolidating cross-cutting functions that provide service to employees (e.g. IT, HR) and having local agency representatives report to chains of command in those broad centers. This would reduce insularity of any agency in particular.
  • On a Federal level we ought to reorganize agencies in a way that makes sense to the customer - i.e. by service provided. If there are agencies whose services overlap, consolidate them. If there are agencies that are too big and providing too many disparate services that don't go together, separate them out. (This is brand architecture.)
  • On a Federal level we should finally accept the concept of pay for performance while at the same time finally put some backbone behind protecting employees from the wrath of irrational poor managers and/or whistleblower retaliation.
Perceived Performance Failure
  • Stop being snotty about social media. GovLoop is social media. It's not going away. People read it. They forward chain mails about how Wal-Mart is run better than the government. They make fun of us. Then they read our own pompous stuff and they make fun of us some more. Time to get over it and join the conversation in a plainspoken way rather than ignoring, denying, minimizing, marginalizing, or  punishing those who exercise their right to free speech.
  • Tell the truth about potentially controversial decisions early on rather than waiting for someone to say something, or posting something in some obscure place and hoping people don't find it, then reacting when they do. First movers have the advantage; defense in communication always loses.
  • Admit when we are wrong early on rather than defending ourselves.
  • Establish a coordinated mechanism for Federal communication rather than devolving it to every agency to act on its own. Think from the customer's perspective - they want simple and unified not to have to hunt down your special 1-800 number. 
  • Create an independent clearinghouse for public complaints about the government (don't leave it to each agency) and release scores quarterly. Require agencies to investigate and respond. 
  • Clarify the role of public affairs so that we distinguish between the provision of information (this is the job of the CIO) and the provision of media/outreach materials. These include basic factsheets that answer questions people have. The public affairs role should also include intake of public questions in combination or liaison with the Office of Federal Communications. 
  • The CIO function in each agency should include Federal records management and the response to FOIA requests, the development and posting of high-quality data sets (Open Government).
  • The Federal Government should cross-cuttingly take the data sets and proactively consolidate them into something more proactive - housed in the Office of Information Sharing. Instead of multiple portals, choose one and  and park as many raw spreadsheets into that space as possible. Explain how to use the data sets then let the public mash them up. The point is not to spin a story, but to let the public find and write its own - engaging with the government that is in the end theirs not the property of those who work for the Agency.


Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is an author, independent brand researcher, and adjunct marketing professor with 20 years of varied experience. An avid researcher and prolific, creative writer, Dr. Blumenthal's interests span communication, marketing, qualitative media content analysis, political rhetoric, propaganda, leadership, management, organizational development, and more. An engaged citizen, she has for several years worked to raise awareness around child sex trafficking and the dangers of corruption at @drdannielle on Twitter. You can find her articles at Medium, and, and she frequently answers questions on Quora. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal's own.