Facilitating Canada’s Smart Brand

We buy Smart Cars and smartphones. SSHRC facilitates the development of a “Smart Brand” for Canada — who knew?

The default image most people have of Canada revolves around nature: lakes, forests, plains, mountains, oceans, and wildlife (okay, cold weather and hockey, too).  It’s an identity thrust upon us by circumstance, and perpetuated by tourism – authentic, maybe, but also one-dimensional.  And because it’s so pervasive it almost seems like there isn’t room in Brand Canada for any other associations.

There is great hope Canada can soon be equally appreciated as an “innovative” and “creative” society.  Can our brand accommodate a widely-held impression of Canada as a land of smart people? It isn’t something we’ve tried quite as hard to cultivate as a nation.  Neither the government’s ham-fisted reaction to recent problems we’ve had producing medical isotopes for cancer diagnoses, nor deep funding cuts to the arts and culture sector, are doing much for the perception of Canada’s intellectual leadership.

What’s the point of making intellectual identity a component of Brand Canada? Research, and the communication of new, leading ideas, informs the world’s view of Canada as a successful and healthy society. But preparing for an increasingly global future requires raising our level of public discourse and creating new ways to engage in meaningful conversation.

Who’s helping us get there?  Research into the pure sciences gets most of the glory these days, but we’ve been too quick to dismiss the social sciences and humanities – a sector supported by the government through its agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In its realm, SSHRC is the facilitator of Canada’s intellectual achievement and is responsible for enabling the creation of much of Canada’s new academic knowledge in the liberal arts.

Is this important? Getting people to believe these disciplines’ sometimes-esoteric, and narrowly-focused projects have value and societal impact isn’t easy.  Nor, it seems has SSHRC made a believer of the current government.  The agency has asked for an additional $100 million (more than 20%) over the next three to five years so the sector can fulfill its potential “to become competitive on the international scene,” (Elizabeth Church, “Social Scientists to press Ottawa for more funding,” Globe & Mail, 25 May 2009), but the prospect for receiving that additional support will be low if politicians, like ordinary taxpayers, don’t believe social sciences and humanities research provides a return on investment.

It’s not enough to hope business leaders publicly admit to hiring liberal arts graduates. What really ails the sector and inhibits its success is a weak brand. SSHRC hasn’t made the case for its public value. Few people outside academia either know or care about SSHRC because it doesn’t celebrate its achievement: it is a faceless funder, little more than an acronym.  In The Art Of The Turnaround: Creating And Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations (University Press of New England, 2008), Michael Kaiser writes that too few organizations spend any time or effort engaged in the marketing of the entire institutional image that gets people excited.  Nor has SSHRC done that: in its present business model individual researchers take credit for their work; there are no accolades for the facilitator, no sense of the whole nor of its important impact.

SSHRC needs to control the message, not depend on others. Getting more people believing in the positive impact of the social sciences and humanities requires SSHRC tell its story of accomplishment.  It needs to leverage the stories that emerge from its funding to create a more public, more accessible, image that establishes the pattern of SSHRC’s impact on the Canadian brand. Stronger brand positioning should ensure the social sciences and humanities are better-appreciated as an enabler to Canada’s success, and position SSHRC as a champion of Brand Canada.

Like SSHRC, the American-based Fulbright Foundation is another underutilized “facilitator brand.” Fulbright’s fund-granting work also results in the development of significant intellectual capital. It makes a valued intellectual contribution by seeking out a multidimensional exchange of views enabling the United States to explain itself to the world, and visa versa. And, as with SSHRC, others ultimately take credit for producing the work Fulbright funds: lacking a book imprint, a journal, or even a centralized web site, the money the program invests to create this work has negligible impact on generating public awareness about the Foundation itself.  Fulbright is a brand of influence within academic and government circles – but without the capability to publicly promote the knowledge it creates as part of a larger institutional brand, Fulbright cannot fully advance its noble mission

There is a golden opportunity for organizations choosing to stand out by elevating discussion. “Smart” organizations wanting to differentiate themselves in a lowest-common denominator world offer substance to challenge audience thinking.  SSHRC’s job is to raise Canada’s level of discourse and repair the decay in our public forum; ensure quality intellectual leadership is a core component of the Canadian brand. To do that SSHRC must take credit for its work. It needs a communicating brand.

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