The Press, September 2008

As Bugs Bunny might say “What’s up, DOC?”

The Department of Conversation has become something of a political football in recent weeks with controversy over their proposed rebranding. Their approach holds some lessons for any organisations looking to tweak their image.

DOC let a tender for a “brand refreshment project” recently that attracted the ire of opposition politicians and lobby groups alike. Opponents reckoned the project would cost over $2 million when all the costs of change were implemented, while DOC itself estimated a cost of less than $100,000. Regardless of the politics, there is serious money involved.

What do the guardians of our environment actually want to do? According to their request for proposal (RFP), DOC require a marketing company that can help them “create and bring to life a brand platform that will shift attitudes and behaviours enabling DOC to achieve its goals.”

I think all this management jargon means DOC would like people to better understand what they do so they can work with them more easily. And part of this is tarting up the way they look and thinking up some smart ways to let people know what role DOC plays in protecting and enhancing our environment.

You couldn’t argue with the basic assumption – the quality of New Zealand’s environment is crucially important to our future. Core export earners like tourism, primary production and wine are heavily dependent on maintaining our international reputation as a relatively clean, if not 100% pure, country.

But surely people already know this? Most New Zealanders have some awareness of how important our clean, green country is. Whether they care about it or not, they will have some understanding.

At the core of this initiative is DOC’s desire to be seen “as a leading agency in championing, nurturing and sustaining a conservation mindset and conservation activities in New Zealand.”

They don’t believe that the public understands them, or sees appropriate value in them. To change this perception they think a ‘make-over’ is required, a new look and feel.

It sounds like a mid life crisis! And just like those reality makeover programmes on TV, it appears only skin deep. To change our views it is 99% about how DOC act and engage with us rather than how they look.

If the Inland Revenue Department got a new logo and changed the colour of their forms it would do little to improve our perception of them. But if they doubled the speed of telephone answering, halved the paperwork needed and paid your refunds as quickly as they demand tax payments, you would start to see them in a new light.

As Geoff Rowling, Recreational Fishing Council pointed out in a public announcement, “It isn’t a change of brand that DOC needs, it’s a change of behaviour.”

“Changing logos or buying public relations spin will do little to change the lack of affection many amateur fishers feel for the department.”

Of course the Council has an axe to grind, but they make a good point. DOC may achieve its overall objective much more successfully by focussing on the way it operates rather than flashing up its logo.

The furore over this branding project may subtract more from people’s perception of them than the fancying up of their visual identity will add to it.

Brands, as DOC point out in their RFP, are not just logos and websites. They are an accumulation of all experiences a person has with an entity. For many Kiwis like me, that is using a hut in the backcountry, walking a track or visiting a DOC information centre.

For DOC to shift public perceptions, they need to engage with the public and make our experience with them more positive. The public’s perception of them is not created because we don’t understand. It has been created because of our existing experience of DOC, or lack of experience, with them.

Maybe the biggest problem is the ‘communication’ about this communication. Telling people more about what DOC do is a great idea. I am sure they do a lot more than the tracks and species preservation we see, and there is probably a lot more Kiwis like me could do to get involved in their work.

But the impression we get from this initiative is that it is all about logos and signage, which make a marginal contribution to an organisation’s brand. Maybe DOC should have not mentioned the word ‘brand’ at all, and ruled out any changes beyond minor tweaks to their logo.

They could have said what they really wanted to achieve was some shared understanding, which is the definition of true communication. That would mean doing their best to understand what the public expects of DOC, and then modifying their own behaviour to meet those expectations. And for the future they could tell us more about what they want to achieve so public expectations would shift over time.

Government departments too often get carried away with ‘branding’ projects, when the value they deliver is only marginal, particularly in the public sector. DOC shouldn’t obscure the great work they do with this sort of muddled marketing thinking.

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