Brand-name Government

It is commonly accepted that any company, regardless of industry or size, must develop equity in its brand: it must have a differentiated product that is marketed with a clear, consistent message; it must ensure customers become satisfied, loyal users. The company that does not do this will not rise above the cluttered business landscape.

But does a state need branding? In the “The Rise of the Brand State” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2001), Peter van Ham argues that a state, just like a company, requires a strong brand. To rise above the cluttered political landscape, a state must be able to define and promote its vision. The government of Canada admits in a white paper produced by the Department of Foreign Affairs (Canada in the World, 1995) that a “country that does not project a clearly defined image of what it is and what it represents, is doomed to anonymity on the international scene.”

No state wants to be anonymous. The goal, rather, is to have a brand that makes winning friends and influence easy. Take NATO, for example. NATO membership is highly coveted because – like they say at American Express – it has rewards: entrée to a range of benefits from increased tourist dollars to reliable foreign investment to improved national security. Van Ham reminds us that NATO itself has a very strong brand that stands for the affluence, stability and democratic traditions of Western-culture. As with buying any quality brand, however, the cost is high: new members have had to prove their national brands share the values and attributes of existing alliance members. And even existing members, to remain trusted, must ensure their national brand stays in-line with the current standard.

Despite the Canadian government’s recognition about the importance of a “clearly defined image,” years of internal bickering about the brand’s meaning, cultural absorption, and economic integration have made the brand fragile. Recent international events have exposed other weaknesses: the work of Canada’s military, security, and immigration establishments – components of the national brand – are not up to scratch. The imposition of a North American security perimeter may further underscore that Canada’s branding efforts have failed. With unclear and outdated attributes, the country is slipping into anonymity.

Canada can reverse this trend if it rebuilds its brand from the ground up. Not surprisingly, the staging ground for a meaningful new brand is government. Building a compelling brand with deep, multi-faceted attributes requires a long-term, team-oriented commitment. It will require politicians and bureaucrats to understand how identity is developed, promoted, and maintained. By developing and promoting Canadian intellectual strengths and leadership, the departments of Canada’s government can help remake Brand Canada.

In selected government departments and agencies, the use of branding to captivate stakeholders is taking root. They may be partly motivated by self-preservation. Just as the lack of brand equity can result in corporate bankruptcy or failed international alliances, the lack of brand equity has equally grim consequences for a government department. Each department must effectively support the national brand or it will lose three important things: the ability to attract quality employees, media attention, and influence with the politicians and bureaucrats who determine budgets. In other words, the department whose internal brand is neither strong nor adequately compliments the parent brand will be influence-less.

I want to highlight three categories – policy leadership, scientific thinking, the performing arts – where government departments have recognized the importance of brand building, and one category – museums – where the government has not. Admittedly these are very diverse categories that promote “hard” and “soft” brand attributes but, to build a deep and meaningful national brand identity, both are required.

The Privy Council Office, as the department responsible for operating the public service, is an obvious place to coordinate the Canadian government’s thought leadership. It is home of the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) which helps PCO strengthen the policy research capacity in Canada and encourages a wide range of people to become interested and involved in public policy research and development. One of their tactics is a multi-disciplinary magazine, Isuma (Inuktitut for “idea” or “thought”) that attempts to disseminate important, yet underdeveloped, policy topics. So far it has been a small but significant step forward in promoting PCO’s thought leadership within government. Outside the government, however, Isuma seems to be a bit of a secret. Better marketing and wider distribution of Isuma would help make the PCO brand more widely understood to the Canadian media and Canadian public. These tactics would also help the PCO demonstrate the richness of Canadian thought leadership in public policy issues to a global audience.

The National Research Council (NRC) just announced its goal to turn itself into a global leader in science. By 2006 it wants to be as recognized as America’s NASA. Why? Branding the NRC as a scientific leader would promote the Canadian government’s strengths in this crucial field to an international audience. These days it is important for any government – especially a member of the G-8 and NATO – to demonstrate that it has a strong science culture, which Canada does not now have. The NRC can help create this culture if it can transform its intellectual capital into accessible knowledge products that promote Canadian strengths in science. It has a solid start: the NRC has been publishing scholarly journals since 1929 and it now publishes 15 scholarly journals online. Of course you don’t promote your image to the general public or even the media with scholarly journals; both are vastly different from the academic audience. Still this wealth of NRC content highlights its very broad, very deep expertise. Success will come if it can creatively shape its significant reserves of intellectual capital into tools that the public and other stakeholders, such as the media and politicians who decide the NRC’s budget, can understand and appreciate: popular books and magazines for adults and children, science-based television programs, a broad array of newspaper and magazine articles…all branded to the NRC.

What Western nation doesn’t have a national forum to showcase its performing arts? Canada has the National Arts Centre (NAC), but years of creative and administrative complacency have resulted in the loss of its once-highly-regarded innovative ability and original entrepreneurial spirit. As the organization became less visionary, more bureaucratic, and unwilling to be different, artistic quality and programming were compromised. Current NAC board members seem to understand the need to reestablish the public’s awareness of the NAC mission. They have recently produced a new study recommending the NAC create a clear brand image in the minds of Canadians. How this branding exercise plays out remains to be seen but it is an important task: not just to educate Canadian stakeholders about the importance of the creating and supporting a vision for home-grown artistic events, but to tell the world that Canadian performing arts culture is vibrant and world class.

Finally, the general neglect of Canadian history, especially in schools, has weakened one of the pillars supporting the national brand. Museums would be a logical focal point for brand development and education. Although each of Canada’s national museums is a wonderful organization with diverse intellectual capital, the museums’ potential to support Brand Canada is undermined because they work and speak independent of each other. The national museums can rebuild this fragile pillar if their disparate operations are replaced by a single museum identity.

One only has to look to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to see the benefits of scale and cooperation in museum work. What the Smithsonian does so well is offer leadership and accessible, popular communications tools that build community, promote awareness of history, and advance the American brand. If Canada’s national museums worked cooperatively to advance a single national museum brand, at least at the level of communications and public relations, they could make similar accomplishments.

I end with museums because they are, to paraphrase former Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty, one measure of our civilization; achievements in the performing arts, breakthroughs in science, and thought leadership in public policy are other measures. To deepen the loyalties of its citizens and to strengthen the national brand, the richness of Canada’s civilization must be effectively developed and widely promoted. Once the brand is strong the world will again perceive Canada as an important and distinct enterprise, secure and reliable.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, October 2001)

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