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April21

Branding in the Public Sector – Pitfalls et al

The dawn of South Africa’s young democracy has, since 1994, encouraged thousands of attempts to rebrand all types of things that reminded the majority of this country’s population of negative memories of the past. These attempts at rebranding, some with more success than others, have ranged from personal names – e.g. former anti-apartheid veterans, “Terror” Lekota changed (Africanised) his name to Mosioua Lekota, and Sam Shilowa changed his to Mbhazima Shilowa; Soapie and theatre actor Sam Ncube changed his name to Sam Maake ka Ncube, while Soapie (Muvhango) Executive Producer Duma Ndlovu Africanised his name to Duma ka Ndlovu – to geographic names (e.g. Johannesburg International Airport to O.R. Tambo International; Pietersburg is now called Polokwane; Greater Metropolitan Pretoria is now Tshwane, etc.). South Africa also boasts many post-apartheid Nelson Mandela Drives, a Bram Fischer Lecture Hall, a Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden, and many other new names. Apart from these famous examples, many other changes have been made throughout our short democratic history.

Current emotional discussions on the need to rebrand the Springbok Team and how the process going forward will be managed are interesting to continue watching closely.

Central to all of these changes has been the need, no doubt, to replace negative, apartheid era, perceptions with more acceptable – some say “inclusive” – ones. Brands are, after all, “perceptions in the mind of the [beholder]”, according to David A. Aaker & Erich Joachimsthaler, in “Brand Leadership” (2002, p.17). Despite all appearances, it can be argued that, no matter how flawed some of the processes might be accused to have been, the changes made to apartheid era brand names were made in order to facilitate the creation of better dialogues between the geographic places and citizens who have to relate to them in their everyday lives. In pure brand talk, the changes were made to facilitate better dialogues between the “products” and their targeted “consumers”, the public. The Africanisation of personal names is also a form of “identity reclaim” or indigenisation. Unlike during the apartheid era, when Africans were expected to give at least one “Christian” (read “European”) name to their offspring, fewer post-apartheid African parents name their children Peter, Mary, or Elizabeth.

Many post-apartheid municipal, provincial and national public administrators have, upon assuming office, jumped quickly onto the brand-wagon, attempting first to deal with the image of what they were employed to administer before even focusing their attention on their core business of service-delivery. Public sector re-branding is no doubt a costly affair that, ineluctably, also makes many enemies, especially when it encounters the opposition of civil society interest groups who think that public administrators should focus all their energy on the provision of services and nothing else. This is even more complex in the South African context because opponents to any attempt at re-branding are often seen to be apologists of the apartheid past, people who continue to live in denial about the effects of apartheid on the minds of those who were at the receiving end of discriminatory apartheid policies. Furthermore, racial undertones are almost always evoked whenever opposition to rebranding is made public. While all of this makes for rich public conversations, it also calls for a need for a balanced approach in re-branding processes. New brands, after all, have to appeal to all of the people that have to associate with them in any way. It is always vital to try and adopt a balanced, consultative, approach that would effectively remove past negative stigmas while minimising the alienation of those who are opposed to change.

The chief mistake that is often committed by many public sector administrators when they embark on rebranding processes is to omit sufficient budgeting for post-rebranding communications. In many instances, new brands are left without a “guardian”, someone – or a team of people – whose job it will be to ensure that they protect the integrity of the new brand against misuse through bad, unintended, applications. No successful brand, private or public, succeeds without a “Brand Manager” of sorts. There is even increasing talk in the industry about the need for “Chief Brand Officer” (CBO) positions to be integrated into company structures by organisations that are serious about maximising the value of their brands. A brand is like a slow growing tree that will one day give a good shade. In order to do that, it has to be carefully nurtured over time, planted in the right soil and fed with right quantities of water at appropriate intervals.

Lasting brands are not fast-tracked through growth processes. The process that saw the latest rebranding of Johannesburg International Airport to O.R. Tambo International was, in many respects, one of the most well managed in recent South African public sector rebranding. There was opposition, firm persuasion, and swift post-rebranding application of the new visuals on all signage leading to and from the airport, all capped by a clear and consistent post-rebranding communication strategy. Even pilots addressing their air passengers upon arrival and departure were encouraged to move quickly to referring to the airport by its new name.

The other challenge often faced by public sector brands, apart from a perennial lack of resources dedicated to their management, is the high turn-over of marketing and communications staff, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the tendency by many newly employed senior managers or directors to want to re-brand in their own image, thus failing to appreciate the need to nurture brands that were developed under the watch of their immediate predecessors. This is often the result of excessive “personalisation” of public sector brands by their internal sponsors. The Western Cape’s “Home for All” campaign is a good example of this. While the merits and aims of this campaign were noble in all respects, the fact that the campaign’s brand was, from the onset, too linked and attached to the person of former Premier Ibrahim Rasool, has not helped. His successor and intra-party political opponent, Premier Lynn Brown, is known to be opposed to the campaign and is therefore not expected to dedicate the same level of resources, if any at all, for its promotion. In fact, word is already making the rounds that there are plans to “kill off” the Home for All campaign and replace it with something else!

In order to be successful, (re)branding processes, whether in the private or public sector, should never be seen as short-term journeys aimed at achieving short-term goals!

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