Should the Government be a brand?

Does use of HMG name suggest a joined-up comms approach or is it set to fail, John Tylee asks.

No 10 Dowining Street
No 10 Dowining Street

It might strike some as ironic that the Government's announcement that it will use the HMG brand across all its future communication coincides with the TV return of The Thick Of It, Armando Iannucci's satire set amid the Westminster political village.

The generous interpretation of the move is that it indicates a more joined-up approach to Whitehall communications in the wake of COI's demise.

The sceptical one is that it smacks of something dreamed up by a hapless minister from Iannucci's mythical Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship and - like so many of that department's pet projects - gets abruptly dropped when either the nameless prime minister or his spin doctor deems it politicallyexpedient.

Carol Fisher, the former COI chief executive, has already waded into the fray, claiming that using the HMG brand could be seen as a political statement and that government ads will look as messy as many others in the public sector.

Of course, it could be argued that the Government is doing nothing different from other big advertisers such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble in linking its name with the products and services it offers.

While agency bosses looking for a slice of the Government's £285 million communications spend are reluctant to criticise its decision to follow suit, some privately express reservations about it.

"P&G and Unilever do this because they see it as giving them an advantage when they launch a new product," one explains. "It's not like that for the Government. Most people couldn't care less whether they see its logo on an ad. In fact, in the case of something like an anti-smoking campaign, it may be counterproductive. People tend to trust these kind of messages more when they come from a charity."

Alex McKie is a former European planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi who helps companies adapt to new communication challenges. She suggests the move reflects the growing importance of digital in government communication and the need for people to find it more easily on the web.

Cynics claim that what is happening symbolises the rising obsession with marketing by recent governments, irrespective of their political persuasion, and of a move away from the impartial information that COI was briefed to generate.

Dave Trott, the creative director at CST The Gate, compares the Government's attitude to communication to a trip on the Tube.

"I'm deluged with messages telling me there is a good service on all lines," he says. "But all I really want to be told is when there's a problem. Like so much government advertising these days, it's just propaganda."

Communication bearing the government's name has been tried periodically before, most notably during Gordon Brown's premiership. More recently, Whitehall communication specialists have been studying an initiative by the Scottish Government that has been using the saltire on all its communication in an effort to boost recall among consumers.

But as McKie warns: "There's always a strong risk that you end up valuing what's measurable rather than measuring what's valuable."

Others predict the idea is destined for a Malcolm Tucker-type inhumane killing.

"This is about the Government trying something new," someone with extensive experience of government advertising remarks. "If people don't recognise a Department of Health poster when they see one, what planet are they living on? My bet is they'll look at the research results and drop it."


Peter Buchanan, former deputy chief executive, COI

"There are a number of practical benefits to having the HMG brand used across all government communication.

"One is that the public will be more aware a programme has the Government's backing. Another is there will be greater consistency across campaigns by having a common branding approach.

"At the same time, it will lead to more co-ordinated branding by the seven government departmental hubs.

"It's important that people not only recall the programme being advertised but that they know where it's coming from. That's why there needs to be closer alignment between the policy message and its originator."


Jamie Matthews, chief executive, Initials Marketing

"Branding all government advertising is a good idea because it gives clarity to consumers, who don't always know what is a government message and what isn't. That's because it's not just government departments but quasi governmental organisations and other government-funded bodies that are pumping out community-based messages.

"This will have the effect of drawing together a lot of disparate campaigns and that has to be a positive for the Government.

"The fact is a lot of consumers don't recognise a government message. The mass market isn't nearly as sophisticated as we in London think it is. Ten million people read The Sun every day."


Alex McKie, communications consultant

"When the government becomes a brand, I fear the world has gone completely mad and I'm living somewhere beyond satire. I shall be watching to see if ministers start colour-coding their clothes according to their new department identity.

"While it makes sense from a design and digital point of view - different logos and tone of voice on a single website would be a dog's breakfast - it makes less sense in terms of advertising. How will that rather formal identity work with campaigns that are intended to engage and enthuse people?"


Dave Trott, creative director, CST The Gate

"Using the HMG branding in all its communication just shows how fixated with marketing the Government has become. It's no longer enough for it to provide essential information about preventing fires and keeping children safe on our roads. Now we get things like the anti-obesity campaign, which is costing millions of pounds, will make little difference and is merely an attempt by the Government to show that it's doing something.

"Government branding would be OK if we still had COI disseminating impartial information. But so much government advertising is now little more than propaganda."