Branding: it isn't a pain in the behind

If you adopt a systems perspective to community engagement, you’ll understand at the outset that you can’t ‘direct’ the community to change. Instead, you can create the conditions for change by introducing some positive disturbance. And if you want to shake things up a little, you're going to have to get noticed.

At the start of your community capacity building journey, you’ll be working to pull together a diverse group of people from across the community who are affected by or have power and ability to influence change. While they may have some degree of shared interest, there will also be areas of disagreement, competition and possibly conflict that must be taken into account for a group to work together effectively.

In parallel, you’ll also be looking to engage the wider community and forge new connections as interesting questions and ideas begin to emerge.

Creating a ‘brand’ for the engagement activity can be an effective way to create common ground and a shared identity that enables people to feel, very early on, that they are part of something with momentum and the potential to create real change.

The word ‘brand’ comes from the Norse ‘brandr’, meaning ‘to burn’. Livestock, slaves and other, less objecting, possessions, such as cookware and tools, were burned with the owner’s mark using a hot iron rod. Brand was a symbol of ownership, meaning “This is mine. Hands off.”

This use of brand to communicate ownership is still familiar in the public sector. Organisations seek to evidence their role in funding, delivery or involvement by placing their brands on leaflets and communications. The result can be a bewildering array of stamps and marks leaving readers none the wiser.

Over time, brands became important in the commercial world as sellers tried to communicate what was special and different about their product. “This is mine. Buy it”. As products proliferated, brand once again began to signify a kind of belonging. "David wears that brand. I want to be like David. I’ll buy that brand". Brand enabled people to identify with others who were also associated with a given brand.

While in the commercial word brand is associated with making money, in the world of community engagement, brand is about making meaning.

At the outset in our engagement we want to be seen as ‘different’ in order to attract attention. Perhaps controversially, when we’re engaging with communities, we find that the use of public sector brands, with existing associations and marks of ‘ownership’, is not particularly effective in attracting engagement. Instead, we develop a new ‘brand’, unlike any of the familiar brands in the community.

The brand begins an empty vessel of sorts with early designs remaining flexible and open to being shaped by those who engage with it. As much as possible we avoid ‘calls to action’ or phrases that imply predetermined solutions. In the case of a recent demonstrator project in Inverurie, the brand was simply the word ‘INverurie’ using the uppercase ‘IN’ as an invitation to people to get involved.

Rather than get hung-up on fonts, logos and ‘corporate identity’, the brand should be allowed to be more fluid so that the design can evolve as an expression of the group’s shared identity, purpose and connection. While our role involves the design and development of the brand, at all stages it is important to avoid taking a stance that implies ownership of the brand. Instead, the brand is offered to others who are also working in a collaborative way or who want to show their engagement or alignment with the community engagement aims.

It is important to appreciate how disturbing this stance towards brand can be. Systems exist to preserve their identity and the arrival of a new identity in town can be upsetting. This is necessary as nothing will change without disturbance. However, the intention is not to compete, just to get attention. You may need tenacity to resist your host organisation’s urge to stamp their brand on things, but resist you must.

Over time, the brand helps the growing number of people engaged and the engagement process itself to be increasingly recognisable and understood by others in the wider community. The shared sense of ownership helps those involved to spread their message with enthusiasm, energy and pride and, importantly, to invite new connections with wider networks.

In an age when many people now spend as much time in online communities as in their geographical communities, branding and identity can also create a consistent visual signal that links the online and offline spaces. This enables real world conversations and relationships to be built upon and reinforced using both domains.

As with every form of intervention, it’s important to plan for exit at the outset. In developing a brand and making this evident on a range of communication materials and channels, you’ll have to decide what to do with it when/if the engagement process ends. In the case of INverurie, the logo and branding were made available for others who wanted to signal a collaborative way of working to use. The Business Improvement District (BID) team adopted and evolved the brand, on the understanding that it would continue to represent collaboration and used it as a platform to make connections across networks of people in the town in support of their purpose of securing funding to develop local business. In other projects, community planning partnerships or multi-agency development activities have picked up the brands and continued to convene in line with the spirit of the prior engagement. This has supported the legacy and impact of the engagement activities beyond the initial intervention.

As a tool for community capacity building, a well designed, coherently executed brand can act as an inspiration for others in the community. Where the benefits of such an approach can be seen, others will take an interest in learning and sharing the skills required to take a more creative approach to communication and engagement in the community.

Here are some practical pointers when using brand to get noticed and attract engagement:

  • Deploy someone with the appropriate specialist skills in visual communications to develop the brand. We all know what we like, but we don’t all know what good looks like in terms of design and communication. Graphic designers spend years learning this. It’s well worth using their expertise instead of being keen amateurs.

  • Abstract pattern and shapes are useful ways to bring visual interest while remaining open to interpretation.

  • Allow the brand to evolve over time and be shaped by the community. This means testing and adapting in response to feedback and also in response to the emerging ideas and patterns of the engagement activity.

  • Before deciding on a name, do a search engine check and make sure the name is available for use as a website address and social media tags and user names.

  • Do your research. Colours can often be associated with sports teams. Find out what other brands exist in the same area of interest.

  • Avoid any direct associations with existing organisations. Eg, NHS, council, specific third sector organisations, as this will detract from any sense of community ownership.

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