The vital (and ironical) difference between brand and identity

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Are there such things as brands in much of the Government sector? I don’t think there are. That’s a good thing. And here’s why. I believe brands fundamentally require a competitive environment in which to actually work. I’m sure there’s an economic model that explains why – I don’t know it. But the reason why and when I believe brands work best has to do with the value I think they are intended to create: to drive preference; to encourage loyalty; to lift margin; to underpin and align a competitive and commercial business model with the people who believe in and buy from that organisation.

Brands have to work to help consumers to make choices. They need to stimulate recognition, preference and loyalty based on interaction and clear senses of expectation and delivery. Therefore you need to have both choice and competition available. There are of course parts of the public and local government sector that are contestable – and there the dynamics of brand work well. Equally in the NGO sector, one of the most competitive sectors of all in my opinion, there is huge opportunity to use brands to good effect, although many don’t. (We should talk about that some time.)

But where brands don’t work is where people have no choice and no competition. You can’t brand treasury functions for example or Inland Revenue. You can’t brand welfare. You can’t brand public health, airport security, food regulators (in fact regulators of any sort) etc. And you can’t brand local government either.

You can, and must, give those organisations identities so that they can be recognised and contacted but that doesn’t make them brands. An identity is not a brand.

Brands are driven by the need to create profit by delivering to customers. Non-brands are judged on their ability to frame, uphold and deliver on robust systems and processes.

Those are completely different frameworks – and rightly so. As the world has discovered on a number of occasions, bad things happen when you let brands run riot without market controls and equally when you ask public-good entities to suddenly adopt a commercial model when there are no competitive forces to keep them in check.

So to the irony. A brand always need an identity. But sometimes organisations with an identity work best if they don’t try to behave, or think of themselves, as brands.

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