Governments need to think about the brand they project

By Tom Burton

July 12, 2016

As the prime minister contemplates his administrative arrangements, can I make a plea for government to take its brands much more seriously.

In every machinery of government change names of agencies are changed and flipped with gay abandon. There is the obvious costly and distracting exercise of changing everything from business cards to building signs to web addresses. But much more importantly it reveals a recklessness and disregard about the core mission and promise a government agency has with its citizens.

Brand is everything for companies that operate in the fast moving consumer world. In some business schools, they go as far to say the only thing of any real value is your brand. Not the logo or tagline, but the underlying reputation of the brand and the organisation it fronts. Take for example the automotive world where Volvo equals safety, Mercedes signifies quality and Porsche stands for speed.

At a time where government is learning how to engage and collaborate in the modern world — the internet gives everyone a megaphone — brand and reputation are everything. Indeed many traditional companies are reconfiguring their brands to be publishing brands in their own right — thinking and acting like Rupert Murdoch himself.

Imagine government as ecosystem

My favourite is Athena, a health insurance company in the US, which has established a web site where it brings to life the insights and narratives from its vast data collections.

As the Athena example suggests, for government this needs to be much more than having a nice logo and tagline. Brand is about what you do and not do, so is deeply strategic. In the modern fragmented world this is a critical decision — where to play — and one government agencies need to make sharp calls on.

Take for example Medicare. Having reverted to the 1960s and decided that Medicare should be run like the PMG, aka the Post-Master General — excuse my rant — there is a much deeper question about what Medicare really represents.

Like Athena, Medicare sits on massive amounts of health data that for citizens, doctors, health administrators and policy makers could be incredibly valuable.

The less said about the UX and functionality of the current Medicare app the better. But imagine how useful the app would be to Australian citizens if the app was the portal for all your health and well-being data.

Not just the Medicare data, but your third party data, flowed in from fitbits and gyms and the myriad of touch points we are now collecting bodily data from. Google for instance is already proving to be the best forward intelligence for diseases like the flu, based on search data. And in this world Medicare becomes an Uber like platform, intelligently managing your health care needs – feeding you insights based on your DNA and environmental profile, warning you about excesses, and even booking you into various age based health programs.

And set up for the 21st century as an open cognitive system, it becomes an amazing Apple-like platform for the entrepreneurs — from big pharma to start ups — to develop a vast array of services and a rich ecosystem of innovation, the health system so cries out for.

In brand terms Medicare becomes a powerful tent pole for this ecosystem, as opposed to the clunky payments brand it arguably is now.

Customer care is a powerful brand to have

At a more fundamental level, the results of recent elections suggest that whatever the brand of government is, it is not travelling well.

The shenanigans and too often infantile games of the political class have created a lot of distraction. But it would be wrong to blame that noise for the collapse in citizen trust in government. Trust in public officials has plummeted in the last decade as the citizenry, business and community groups have lost faith in their governments to lead and resolve public issues.

To remedy this collapse in brand health requires, in my view, a fundamental rethink of what the brand of government actually stands for.

For many, government is the referee, the one you can turn to for fairness and remedy. When my internet at home simply won’t work (iiNet), when the telco bill is constantly wrong (Telstra), when my pay TV provider baits me and bills me for programs I don’t want (Foxtel), I need someone to be my advocate, to fix the problem and let me get on with my life (rant #2).

In that scenario government is a help desk . Someone who knows about tech stuff — and how flaky it is — and can get things fixed. But try getting help from the spaghetti soup of agencies in that world. A confusopoly of well meaning, but old world regulators.

As we digitalise everything in government, help becomes critical. The unified service offerings now emerging at state level, like Service NSW/VIC, are a good start. But with few exceptions, at agency level customer care systems and offerings are woeful and primitive.

Everyone likes a problem solver

Government is also who we turn to solve our hardest problems. And it is here where policy makers need to deeply rethink the brand of government.

Take domestic violence. If I extrapolate NSW data, there are about a million cases of domestic violence in Australia a year. Less than half a reported — and those that are reported are only reported after an average of ten violations.

Do the math and that is 30,000 people (mostly women) being assaulted every single day. A shameful blight on a supposedly civilised country — and that does not even go near one of our most nefarious and unspoken problems — family incest.

In recent times there has been a remarkable improvement in the end services and policing around domestic violence. But as front line staff will attest, we are still just edging forward in our attempts to stop the problem at source.

Much money and research is being poured into the area at federal and state level, but in my view it is still being done in the old Pentagon like way. Brute force may eventually work. But in the world of social policy there are a litany of wicked problems we don’t seem to have been able to lick, despite the billions of resources thrown at them.

An anecdote gives some insight to an alternative approach. Domestic violence spikes during the football finals seasons. According to field experts it is a toxic mix of alcohol and machismo tribalism.

This suggests that the solution lies at the feet of the big football leagues, media companies, gambling sites and alcohol giants who profit from the great Australian obsession with sport. And explains the sharpness of the DV advocates response against Eddie McGuire’s abhorrent comments about the Age’s football writer Caroline Wilson.

Rather than government bureaucratically trying to band-aid the problem, to my thinking this broader diaspora of enterprises and agencies need to create a focused vehicle to really take on this national tragedy. Not next year, but today.

And this is where government can remake its brand to be a real solver of problems such as domestic violence, suicide, children at risk and homelessness.

But not in the traditional way. Rather than having a dozen or more agencies doing their well meaning, but ultimately piecemeal thing, in this model government portfolio funds a solution outside of its bureaucratic structures. Smartly focused, it leverages the resources of these businesses and social enterprises to build a sustainable and deep resolution.

Almost certainly government again provides the all important data layer that brings evidence, and the right focus on the areas where resources that will be most effective.

There is a bundle of research on what the drivers of domestic violence are and what the early warning signals are. Two quick periods of financial stress are an early indicator. Foxtel bill delinquency is a good sign of financial stress. But for obvious privacy reasons this data needs to be brought to a trusted public-owned and secured platform, where it can be fed into a bigger intelligent system that learns how to interpret the data and activate service responders in real time.

Brand is about what you do and don’t do, and for government agencies it is this sort of fundamental rethinking of core purpose and roles that will bring the public sector back to being a relevant and valued player in citizens lives.

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6 years ago

‘Brand’ or ‘business model’? I wholly agree with the sentiment expressed in your article, Tom – particularly the need for Government to adopt a whole-of-ecosystem view – however, I’d suggest the ‘fundamental rethink’ needed is far more primary than what most would understand ‘brand’ to mean.

Reimagining, from first principles, the ‘business’ of the public sector (service agencies especially) in this context has enormous transformative potential, with (as you’ve alluded to) the increasingly digital nature of the system being the most obvious driver.

As a general observation, public sector agencies struggle to find the clarity of vision necessary to bring about the paradigm shift this type of transformation requires. Unable to see the forest for the trees. Unlike private sector organisations, government agencies generally lack the ‘existential crisis’ that competition provides as an impetus for this type of thinking.

Certainly don’t disagree that Governments need to think about the brand they project, however I for one hope that their thinking extends far deeper to the essence of how they deliver value, rather than just how they market it.

Alun Probert
6 years ago

Great piece Tom and good food for thought. The challenge in the parallel with branding is that companies with successful brands tend to have polar clarity about their customers. Both of the demographics of the audience and the understanding of the things that make them loyal. For many of the world’s biggest brands, this is the result of years of ongoing sophisticated customer research, a field of marketing that (politics aside) is underdeveloped across Government as a whole.

The digital age brings easier access to that data than ever before.

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