being the clip art and comic sans police. and why it matters.

Brand identity is hugely important and many comms folk will relate to this post on the subject. It's an instant classic. Print it out and put it on your office wall today...

by GUEST EDITOR Ben Capper

comms2point0 is one of my favourite websites.

There are loads of interesting ideas and a great community. There’s stuff on here that helps me to find solutions to issues on a daily basis.

Not very colourful though is it?

Don’t know about you, but sometimes I think it’s crying out for a bright splash of pink, maybe with some orange writing on it.

And that typeface. It’s OK for some people I guess, but surely something friendlier, some more hand-writing-ish would make it look, you know, just a bit nicer.

And why don’t they put some clip art on there? There’s loads on your computer. It’d brighten it all up a bit. It’d make it “stand out”.

Actually, I’ll get my friend’s 10 year old daughter to knock something up. She’s good at drawing…

No I haven’t lost my mind. Yes I am being deliberately facetious.

These are very close to real life comments that I, as the appointed “brand guardian” for our organisation (a large NHS Hospital Trust employing over 5,000 people) have had to field in the not too distant past.

In big organisations, we simply cannot do every piece of communication. People are rightly proud and enthusiastic about their services, and often cannot wait to tell the world about how brilliant they are.

That’s laudable, and pretty much entirely positive. But, good grief, it does lead to some dreadful leaflets, posters and the like being created, that will make you cringe till you can cringe no longer.

And our role in this is to give these departments the tools and framework to do things for themselves, and unfortunately, play “bad cop” when things aren’t up to scratch.

This wonderful site that you’re currently reading (whose branding, just for the record, I actually LOVE), has a truly fantastic post on comms face-palm moments, and a comments thread  that never fails to make me actually LOL in those dark moments where you just need to feel that someone out there feels your pain.

For us communicators, sharing our stories about that department that did “that crap leaflet” that we had to sort out at the last minute before they ran off 6,000 copies is genuinely cathartic. It shows that we all, in large public sector organisations have very similar challenges. And it’s funny, in a kind of gallows-humour kind of way.

But we do need to remind ourselves as communicators that, as much as this stuff drives us mad sometimes, we do play a critical role in safeguarding and promoting our organisations’ reputations through holding firm, and making sure that our various brands retain the equity that we’ve worked so hard to create.

Every element of our organisational brand identity should be poured over. Every shade of colour, every bit of positioning, every relationship between image and text, and of course, every piece of lettering, needs to be guarded and owned meticulously.

Branding isn’t just something for blue-chips, retailers, or high end fashion labels. It’s an essential part of every organisation’s face to the outside world. And in public service, I’d argue, that it’s just as, nay, even more important.

The most precious commodity that we in the public sector have is trust.

It only takes one badly worded tweet (I’m looking at you The FA) or a badly briefed executive on the local news to undo all your good work, and erode the public’s trust in you.

We need to think of branding in this same bracket.

Personally, for my local hospital or local authority, when I visit their premises or get a letter from them, I want reassurance that they’re professional, trustworthy, using my tax dollars properly, and holding themselves to the highest possible standards.

I don’t want to think of them as friendly, well-meaning amateurs.

A badly photocopied leaflet with the logo stretched, and written in Comic Sans, covered in jaunty clip art gives me the latter feeling. It frankly erodes my trust in them to deliver when it really matters.

This shows us that all the details matter and that everything signifies something in branding.

So what to do?

Well, it’s not easy. But there are a few things we all need to effectively safeguard our brand identity and therefore our reputations, especially where, through necessity, we have to hand the reigns to other non-branding expert led departments:

A brand guidelines document.

What looks “good” is a notoriously subjective issue.

It becomes an especially subjective and even emotive issue when you have to tell someone, (usually an admin assistant or a junior member of a team, who are only doing what they’ve been asked to do, and who has “worked really hard on this actually”) that what they’ve spent all afternoon creating isn’t up to scratch.

Having a brand guidelines document takes this subjectivity away. The best ones aren’t just a list of dos and don’ts, they’re manifestos for how the organisation is to be represented. They’re unarguable statements of intent, as well as essential guides for visual communications.

And they give you crucial back-up if you ever get into the horrendous back-and-forth of a manager who believes what you’re telling them is an optional opinion, just casually thrown into the conversation for good measure. They may well “prefer the one we’ve done actually”, but if whatever it is doesn’t do what your guidelines tell them: it ain’t good enough. End of story. 

An iron constitution

As a brand guardian, you will see things that horrify you. This is especially problematic in big organisations with lots of departments that you simply can’t sit with and direct on a daily basis.

It’s important to keep your cool when you see stuff that offends every design sensibility in your body. But it’s also important to stand firm.

You may well have to tell people what they don’t want to hear sometimes, but it’s important you have the confidence, and support within the organisation do to so, when the situation demands it.

Having a clear sense of what is acceptable and what isn’t is really important. Remember, we’re not dealing with subjective opinions here. We’re dealing with what the organisation has decided its face to the world is to be. It’s worth protecting.

Good relationships

Of course, we’re dealing with human beings here.

Hard and fast rules strongly enforced will only get you so far. In fact, I have a theory that for some people, the more you criticise their efforts, the greater chance you have of effectively ghettoising crap design. This stuff happens anyway, but you never get to know about it. And in a big organisation, it’s easier to get away with. And more damaging.

That’s why engaging with people that are being asked to put posters and leaflets and the like together on a human, equal footing is so important.

Go out and see them. Understand what they’re trying to actually achieve. Show them good examples. Explain to them why it must be done this way. Show them the high quality results of other work you’ve done, when you’ve worked closely with someone on a piece of work. Give them examples of people within the organisation that are doing things the right way, and explain how they got there.

Help them to understand that this is an important part of your remit.

If it helps, why not run a session to practically show people how to create decent communications on a DIY basis?

Involve, don’t just enforce.

An understanding that nothing happens in isolation

At one of the discussions at the excellent CommsCamp15 around the subject of “DIY Comms”, a provocative but really important question was asked along the lines of:

“If comms people give all other departments the tools and guidance to do comms themselves, what role is left for them?”

And, you know, this is a damn good question.

And for me, there’s a clear answer. Our role is to see the whole organisation the way the public sees us.

This means understanding that nothing ever happens in isolation, and that every activity, whatever it is, reflects on the organisation in some way – good or bad.

We have to remind ourselves and our colleagues that the public don’t see departments. They see one organisation. It’s our role to provide this context to everyone who is doing any communication on behalf of that organisation.

So when your local Library Services want to do a poster – it’s actually the whole Local Authority doing a poster.

When your Maternity Services want to do a hand-made leaflet to give out to new mums – it’s actually the whole hospital doing a leaflet to hand out to new mums.

Departments, rightly, focus their energy on themselves. We must focus our energy on the whole entity of what the organisation represents to its public.

If we adopt this attitude, this makes those difficult conversations with departments a lot easier.

This takes you from being seen as just the uppity branding snob (personal experience leaking into the blog post there), into being the guardian and advisor whose advice and insight is respected and actively sought.

And on a final point, it’s not just the public we guard our identities for. In this blog post I talk about the 4 pillars of internal engagement: a strong “Corporate Narrative” being the first in the list.

This means that consistently applied brand identity is just as important to your staff as it is to your public. For staff to feel engaged, it’s critical for them to have a crystal clear sense of the organisation’s purpose, it’s story, and it’s future. This is what branding is for in its most basic sense.

Inconsistent and poor quality standards in communication normalises inconsistent and poor standards in service delivery. It creates a workforce ill at ease with its identity, and its place within it.

Your identity and your brand is a window on your organisation’s soul, and your face to the world.

It’s important. And the details matter.

Ben Capper is Marketing Manager for Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

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