Why branding matters -- even in government

In the private sector, there is broad agreement that a strong, clear brand is critical for recruiting and retaining talent. In government, however, the notion of employer branding tends to be an afterthought at best -- unless you’re NASA.

Unlike in the corporate world, where devotion to branding dates back at least to Proctor & Gamble’s efforts in the 1800s, the public sector has little such history. Most agencies today don’t see branding as a critical asset of recruiting, said Adam Cole, senior director at CEB: “That’s something that the private sector is light years ahead of government -- in articulating their employer brand," he said.

An employer brand is not much different from a consumer brand, and embodies what people generally think of an agency, Cole said. The brand message itself should convey the main traits unique to the agency – and ideally, what candidates are looking for in terms of an opportunity.

That elevator pitch is not done very well in government, Cole noted. “Agencies aren’t focusing enough on their employer brand to highlight the unique aspects of how they have special opportunities that aren’t available in the private sector,” he said.

The employer brand, Cole explained, is based on four key components that agencies must keep in mind:

Relevance: “First and foremost, the brand has to resonate to the people the agency wants to reach – it has to be relevant,” he said. “You, as an agency, might be very, very good in some particular area, but if that area isn’t important to jobseekers, then leading with that does you a disservice.”
 
Strength: In the private sector, General Electric’s management-development program is widely known and something the company often highlights to jobseekers, Cole said. “It’s something that’s unique to GE,” he said, suggesting agencies take the same approach and look to what sets them apart from others. 

Differentiation: Agency components often compete with each other for talent; someone who’s an 1811 job category -- criminal investigation -- can be 1811 across government, Cole said. When that person looks to join government, agencies are competing for that talent -- and so are any number of industry firms. “The average agency doesn’t think about ‘who’s my competition for the person I’m looking to attract?’" Cole said. "But candidates do, and they evaluate multiple potential employers.” 

Sustainability: The focal points of a brand must be true today and for the foreseeable future, Cole said. "If we are misleading with our brand, we may get people in the door, but we create a secondary problem," he said. "The candidate will soon realize that they were sold a false bill of goods and will leave the organization. This is the worst-case scenario -- we spent a lot of time and money recruiting and training them, but they've left too soon for us to realize the benefits of those investments."

The government won’t have just one brand, Cole said, but several -- each reflecting the uniqueness of each agency. “Things that are always important to jobseekers are compensation, career and development opportunities, and manager quality," he said. "[But] that’s just the starting point.”

Sidney Fuchs, CEO and president of MacAulay Brown, Inc, and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, was more concise in his advice to agencies: Live your brand, and walk the walk. 

“A brand shows up before you do -- it’s the ultimate business card,” said Fuchs, who has written a book about branding and the power of networking. And if indeed your brand precedes your reputation, he said, managing others’ perceptions becomes key, both with potential employees and elsewhere. For agencies particularly, a strong brand can also help with budget hearings on Capitol Hill, Fuchs said, noting that many tend to vote “with a hand on their hearts.”

In contrast, the lack of a clear brand can lead to people projecting preconceived notions that don’t always align with an agency’s message. “It’s hard to shake off a negative perception,” Fuchs warned.

Conversely, Fuchs said, a strong and positive brand, once established, tends to spark more positive reinforcement. “How often do you see movies about the CIA and NASA? Now ask the same question about how many movies there are with the Education Department or the [Federal Aviation Administration],” he said. “It’s all about the perceptions people have.”

NASA in particular has been able to tap top talent despite budget constraints and other challenges, Cole said, because the agency has one of the most recognizable brands of any employer in the world.

Cole admitted, however, that NASA has a bit of an advantage at this point: 50-odd years of rockets and rovers to establish its cool factor. 

“NASA is kind of in the same category as the CIA – if they [started doing] a poor job communicating their brand, people would still think they’re cool,” he said.

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