Old rules for new talent

Branding rules from the private sphere can and should be applied to the public sphere.



An employee from the public sector recently complained to me that seminars offered by an international business communication organisation were not interesting.

She suggested that if the organisation wanted to attract members from the public sector, they should take care to offer seminars and workshops for those who do not work in marketing, the private sector or in public relations agencies. This is not an unusual complaint. Public sector employees often inexplicably shy away from courses or seminars where the words ‘business’, ‘corporate’, ‘marketing’ or ‘return on investment’ are mentioned. They simply do not see what these topics have to do with them.

That is not to say that the public sector should be viewed the same as the private sector. There are considerable differences and they should be recognised; the primary one being profit motivation. However, there is ample evidence that many practices that have been successful in the private sector can be employed successfully in the public sector. In fact, there appears to be an increasing need for them.

While still relatively ignored in academic research, more and more governmental bodies are realising the value of viewing themselves as a brand. According to brand guru David Aaker, “a brand is a distinguishing name and/or symbol (such as a logo, trademark, or package design) intended to identify the goods or services of either one seller or a group of sellers and to differentiate those goods or services from those of competitors”.

Branding the public sector

There are examples of strong public sector brands – every country has their own highly profiled public sector brands. Some of these brands evoke strong emotional appeals, such as the military. Even national postal services can elicit strong reactions; in both Norway and the UK, there was quite an uproar when the governments attempted to modernise their visual identities.

However, the public sector is not trying to sell more products or services. Most public sector organisations work with limited resources; why should they use tax monies to support branding activities in the form of fancy communication campaigns? One trend that is fuelling this interest is the increasing competition between the private and public sectors for human resources.

The aging of the population in western societies, coupled with the growth of the numbers of young persons in the third-world, is putting huge pressures on all organisations to be better at enticing the best candidates and to keeping the employees they have. Some public sector organisations are meeting this challenge by applying branding principles to their human resources strategy, for example, employer branding.

Your value proposition

Employer branding is essentially another name for corporate branding. Corporate branding shifts product brand thinking to the entire organisation where the organisation’s identity provides the basis for distinguishing it according to its special characteristics. In other words, that which is 1) central, 2) distinct and 3) enduring in an organisation. Organisational identity answers the question: who are we as an organisation?

It provides the source for the value proposition that is the basis for the brand. Employer branding actively employs corporate branding techniques to position organisations as an employer of choice. This means managing how the organisation distinguishes itself with a unique meaning in the minds of future employees and defining how it wants to be seen and known as distinct from its competitors. Associations that distinguish the organisation are called employer value propositions.   

 One such example is the case of the Ministry of Finance in Norway. The Ministry of Finance has the constitutional responsibility for economic policy, budget policy, tax policy, financial policy and management of the government pension fund. The ministry itself has approximately 300 employees but it also comprises self-sufficient underlying units with more than 10,000 employees. These include The National Insurance Scheme Fund, Statistics Norway, Customs and Excise Authorities, Financial Supervisory Authorities, The Norwegian Government Agency for Financial Management, The Norwegian National Collection Agency, and the Tax Administration. The Central Bank of Norway is also tied to the Ministry of Finance as a totally independent institution.

Placed in a hierarchical scheme, the Ministry looks similar to a private sector organization with a number of subsidiaries or sub brands. They have a branded identity where each unit has their own web pages, their own logos, in many cases their own communication departments and their own human resources teams. But most critically, they compete with each other for the same highly qualified graduates, typically from finance, economics, statistics and the law. Norges Bank’s activities are also global and this gives added pressure to attract the best graduates with strong language skills and international experience. And of course there is the additional challenge of attracting these highly educated candidates away from the private sector.

Identity crisis

The Ministry of Finance has a formal role regarding its underlying agencies but in general views them as independent. Who they are as a ministry and as separate agencies is not normally a problem if the communication goal is to inform; for example sending tax information or providing data. The challenge comes when the agencies compete for human resources. Each needs its own value proposition that somehow distinguishes it from the others yet takes advantage of the positive association with the ministry.

The employer branding strategies of the ministry and its agencies are thus driven in part by the organisational identity of the ministry and in part by the organizational identities of each agency. Because each agency is concerned about attracting the very same employee profile, they must have a communication strategy that expresses to current and prospective employees what makes each of them individually a distinctively attractive place to work. One possible strategy would be using a sort of ‘supra’ strategy where the Ministry of Finance itself is featured. This would allow the sub-brands to benefit from the ministry’s perceived prestige while at the same time maintaining their independence. This is called a mixed brand strategy in the branding literature.


Whatever branding strategy is employed, a typical public relations process needs to be followed: research, strategy, tactics and evaluation. It must be based on thorough internal and external research. What keeps current employees from leaving and what attracts potential employees? Which messages should be sent through which channels, and by whom? Specific goals and objectives must be set. This can be a challenge to public sector communication practitioners who may be more comfortable with a role of informing, as opposed to strategising.

The ministry and the agencies are currently working on going forward with their employer branding activities. They have data from a national survey by the international organisation Universum, who regularly takes the pulse of students on where they prefer to work. In 2010 only three Norwegian public sector organisations were in the top 25 preferred employers; the Finance Ministry was ranked 13 and the oil company Statoil was number one followed by Ernst & Young. Interestingly, law students’ top five rankings were public sector institutions, but the Finance Ministry was number 25. And none of the Ministry’s underlying ‘sub-brands’ were mentioned by either student group.  


Discovering audience perceptions of the brand

The information from the Universum survey is adequate only to a point. While it provides a quick picture of an organisation’s standing with students, it says little about why they think the way they do. The first step for the ministry therefore will be to survey the actual perceptions of the ministry and its agencies held by students on variables that the students find important when seeking employment. One aspect of this will be judging the awareness level of the ministry itself and of its underlying sub-brands. This can tell the ministry where they need to funnel their resources. As marketing experts know, building awareness is the first step in a successful campaign. If awareness is low, then perhaps monies are better spent on increasing visibility as a first step toward increasing student interest in the ministry and its agencies as a preferred place to work.

Critical in this important process is the cooperation and coordination between the ‘mother’ organisation and the ‘daughter’ units. It is difficult to see how the responsibility can be left to the human resources function alone: the communication experts must also be drawn into the process. At first glance, this coordination may be easier to accomplish in a public sector ‘branded’ entity. Each agency has the common goal of service to its citizenry. There is no profit motive messing up their relationships, and working together can accomplish synergies that fragmentation can not.


Cost-efficient approach

Return on investment is another one of those business concepts that at first glance seems to have no place in the public sector. However, if there is one place where return on investment should be emphasised, it is indeed the public sector. Citizens entrust the public sector to do their jobs efficiently and effectively with the funds provided them through taxes – a fancy branding campaign could quickly draw the ire of tax payers. However, it is not unreasonable to assume a positive figure when dividing the monies saved through low turnover, lower sick leave and lower recruiting costs by the funds spent on an employer branding campaign. And this is without factoring in increased productivity from having better and more loyal employees.


Changing attitudes, attracting candidates

Research indicates that a well constructed and effective employer branding campaign makes it easier to attract candidates.  Indicators of success include, among others, the number that  would recommend the organisation as an employer, satisfaction of new hires, the time it took to fill the position, acceptance rate, and retention rate (particularly of high performers). Branding provides a clear and compelling reason as to why the organisation is a great place to work.  Success comes when organizations deliver on that promise, regardless of what sector they represent

If the opinion of the public sector employee quoted at the beginning of this article is any indication, it seems that there are still some attitudes toward private sector practices that need to be changed. The view of the public sector as something unique requiring special seminars needs to be replaced with an acknowledgement that the principles driving communication in the private sector can be successfully applied in the public sector. As noted in a 2006 Business Week article, governments and public sector services have seen that what is good for business can also be good for them. 

Peggy Bronn

Peggy Simcic Brønn is a professor and associate dean of the undergraduate public relations programme at the Norwegian School of Management, Oslo. She is also the director of the school’s Center for Corporate Communication.