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Branding in an Era of Social Service Choice


27 August 2013 at 10:41 am
Staff Reporter
The days of “brand squeamishness” in the social sector are coming to an end and it’s time that social purpose organisations learn how to use branding as a strategic tool for achieving their mission, says strategy consultant Dale Renner.

Staff Reporter | 27 August 2013 at 10:41 am


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Branding in an Era of Social Service Choice
27 August 2013 at 10:41 am

The days of “brand squeamishness” in the social sector are coming to an end and it’s time that social purpose organisations learn how to use branding as a strategic tool for achieving their mission, says strategy consultant Dale Renner.

When I say the word “brand” to people working in the social sector, a common reaction is a slightly glazed look, perhaps nervous laughter, and somehow the conversation changes to another topic. At its worst, social purpose organisations (SPOs) see branding as ephemeral nonsense, an issue of strategic importance on par with choosing the colour of your curtains.

But there are shifts occurring in the social sector that may be changing those perceptions. A big challenge to social service funders has been the lack of a direct and transparent feedback loop about what works and what doesn’t.

It echoes the famous lament of 19th Century retailer John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

As a result, funders are triggering a fundamental economic change, by shifting from funding social service organisations, to attaching funds to the individual service user based on an assessment of their needs.

The theory is that individuals make their own independent decisions about which service provider to spend their funding on, and can move their business if a service provider doesn’t meet their needs.

While this is starting in disability and aged-care services, many people expect the practice to spread to other social services.

Brands as Signposts

All this activity means users will be required to make more choices (whether by themselves or supported by other intermediaries) between competing alternatives. But as Barry Schwartz argues in “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less”, more choice can be a stressful and taxing privilege.

That’s because more choice means choosers need to inform themselves about their options and make sense of a complex mess of information (have you ever tried to choose a mobile phone offer on rational criteria?).

This is where brands come in. Done well, brands simplify the decision-making process by creating mental shortcuts for service users.  

Brands act as signposts of quality or value, and in the process influence people to prefer an individual service provider’s offering.

Today we talk about brands not as logos or trademarks, but as the collection of ideas and opinions that stakeholders carry in their heads about an organisation or product.

Particularly in an era of consumer empowerment and social media, brands are “owned” in practice by their customers.

The role of the legal brand owner is to do their best to influence what people think about their organisation, through communications, product and service experience.

A Social Purpose Brand Approach

A recent research study from The Hauser Centre for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University on the role of brand has highlighted both the similarities and differences between social purpose branding and commercial branding.

The researchers point out that branding has traditionally been used for fundraising in social purpose organisations, rather than as a support for the core mission of serving their clients or beneficiaries.

A key brand focus has therefore been on maintaining trust and reputation of the organisation as a good steward of “your money”.  

The big brand crises have often been about breach of trust. Questions raised by victims’ families (and amplified by media) about how the Australian Red Cross managed $14.8 million of donations after the Bali bombing had a noticeable negative effect on its reputation, and therefore its trustworthiness at that time.

Years of negative media and current inquiries into sexual abuse by clergy will clearly have negative effects on the brand and reputation of the Church (across denominations), with some risk of this “brand contagion” flowing to Church-based social service organisations in the future.

At their worst, such disruptive events can weaken the “licence to operate” given by the community to organisations.

Moving to Brand as a Strategic Tool

This new era of user-based funding means that SPOs need to both defend their overall reputation, and build affinity with a newly powerful stakeholder group – the service user. SPOs will benefit if they can master service-user/consumer-oriented branding.

It means moving from a B2B (business-to-business) reputation approach (where key relationships are with governments, funders or other organisations) to a B2C (business-to-consumer) approach.

From a handful of strategic stakeholders, to a mass of strategic stakeholders. Service-user branding is a new capability for most SPOs, and may be a challenge to the existing culture of social service organisations.

Yet branding is a competency like any other. It is not a dark art or a superficial distraction. Although social purpose organisations are different from commercial purpose organisations, they will increasingly benefit from a mission-aligned brand competency.

It’s time that social purpose organisations learn how to use branding as a strategic tool for achieving their mission and better serving their clients and consumers. The days of “brand squeamishness” in the social sector are coming to an end.

About the author: Dale Renner is a strategy and innovation consultant to the social sector with experience in Australia and internationally. He has advised senior management across a wide variety of industries from health, banking and education to energy, tourism and social services. A former lawyer, Dale founded Iconic Consulting to help social sector organisations increase impact on social problems and build sustainable futures. Dale is a board member of VCOSS and Hagar Australia, and a fellow of the Williamson Community Leadership Program.

Details: www.iconicconsulting.com.au or dale@iconicconsulting.com.au  


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