Your name matters: rebranding in the public sector

Your name matters: rebranding in the public sector

Stewart Kiff | May 2017

Your name matters.

It is the first interaction you have with your clients, your customers and your funders. You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression.

Yet, the public sector is cursed with poor “brands”, as the civil servants who named your agency or organization typically did not take into account how to best tell your story to your customers or how those customers would react emotionally to the often very bland, cumbersome or byzantine brand they were giving you. What organization today would choose to be known as the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board or the Hamilton Niagara Haldimand Brant Local Health Integration Network, affectionately known as HNHB LHIN?

We now know how much brands matter. And as a result, a recent trend has been for government agencies as well as non-profit and non-governmental organizations to rebrand.

There are several incentives for organizations to rebrand. The primary one is that many have had, often for decades, a purely descriptive, “functional” brand –a descriptive name, often with a geographic location attached. This served well in previous eras, but no longer serves well today in a world where organizations, even publicly-funded ones, realize they are actually competing – for clients, for relevance, for voice and even more important, for a connection to the communities and the constituencies they serve. More and more, they recognize that identifying with those they serve and gaining their trust is vital to their survival.

Relationships between public agencies and clients or stakeholders were long seen as one-directional – such organizations had captive audiences with nowhere else to go. But these relationships have become more of a two-way dialogue. Aligning the values of the organization with those of the stakeholders is a key objective of rebranding.

Reputation, even in the consumer products area, is no longer based mainly on functional product attributes. In an age where there is an abundance of choices and less and less product differentiation, those functional attributes are mostly ‘table stakes’, the minimum that everyone expects.

On the other hand, the social values a brand represents are increasingly important. Today, public brands – from running shoes to community services – are centered on “aspirational” attributes, the attitudes, beliefs, values and hopes the stakeholder audience holds towards the brand. What the brand represents and promises is more significant than any functional aspects of its products or services.

Nike isn’t selling running shoes. It is selling a basket of aspirations and values. A school board isn’t providing education. It is providing futures that align with the dreams parents hold for their children.

This is the most compelling reason many public-sector organizations are rebranding – to align their organization with their stakeholders’ dreams.

Rebranding is not changing the name and logo. That is the tangible outcome of rebranding, not the over-arching goal. Just changing the name and logo can be, and very often is, a failure. Rebranding will fail when it is done without carefully identifying all the components of the values key stakeholder groups project on the brand, and the aspirations they seek to align with.

Without this knowledge driving the creative brief, there is a grave risk that the rebranding will align with the wrong values and miss its target.



Solstice Public Affairs has conducted very successful rebrandings in the public sector, most recently for a school board. Like most Ontario school boards, it had a purely functional branding that told what it does and the geographic area it covers, but didn’t tell any story about who it is and the values it represents. Worse, the branding didn’t tell anything about the customers – the parents the Board is serving, or the parents it is competing with other school boards to attract.

The branding did not create any emotional resonance, did not project any values, did not create any alignment with the aspirations – it was stale.

In a rebranding exercise, the first step is to understand the values and attributes the target audience seeks to align with.

A survey was conducted amongst current and potential parents in the community, asking them about their perception of the current branding of the school board.

We then asked them to evaluate the current brand against a range of values-based statements, such as:

  • Makes me feel included in the school system;
  • Makes me feel proud to have my child in their school;
  • Shows me a brighter future for my child;
  • Represents a wide range of possibilities;
  • Is dynamic and forward-looking.

Results show that the current brand ranked mid to low against these statements, while other competing brands – which were those that had rebranded away from descriptive brands to aspirational ones – ranked significantly higher.

This showed the need for re-branding and created a target for the re-branding – to “move those numbers”.

Parents were then asked if the brand was important to them (it was) and why. They were asked to select from a range of aspirational statements:

  • I want to be part of a Board that reflects my aspirations for my child;
  • I want to be part of a board that has a vibrant, contemporary image;
  • I feel greater pride of association;
  • It makes me feel that the Board is more leading-edge;
  • It makes me feel that the Board is made up of people like me.

The first statement – the aspirations for their child – was by far the strongest, followed by the Board being represented as leading-edge and made up of people like them.

This gave us another target that the design brief had to achieve.

When we asked current and potential parents whether the Board should rebrand, the answer was overwhelmingly “yes”. This gave the Board social permission to move forward.

What was desired was clear – “a more evocative, contemporary branding”.



Particularly in the public sector, there are many competing pressures and interests that can derail a rebranding process. Having benchmark research with prospective and current “clients” – parents – was the first step in not only creating a strong design brief, but also in keeping the focus on the goal of the rebranding and managing those various pressures and interests.

Once the design brief was created, it gave overall direction towards a rebranding to create a more vibrant, contemporary image and project key values identified by the parents: leading edge, a brighter future for students and inclusiveness.

The attributes the design must represent to most closely align with those values and create both a name and visual identity that could make the Board stand out against other boards that are possible choices in the market, was now known.

A second survey was conducted, again among current and potential parents – reaching down to parents whose children are not yet of school age – to evaluate a range of descriptive and values-based words and attributes, which included modernity, spirituality, inclusiveness, global and others, to identify which ones the new branding needed to capture.

This gave greater depth and nuance to the design brief, and set another benchmark that creative concepts could later be evaluated against.

Late in the design phase, the creative team proposed a range of possible name choices, which had to be run against a battery of checks, and a range of visual representations – images that should evoke the most relevant attributes identified in the research survey.

Again, the design brief provided valuable input for the creative process, making it easier to eliminate concepts or elements that were not aligning with the desired attribute set.

Once the creative team had refined the concepts, the strongest names and images were combined to create three possible new visual identities – represented by three possible logos. The visual identity was again evaluated against the attributes previously identified and the board selected the concept that was evaluated as most strongly representing those values and attributes. Having evidence of both the alignment with existing and potential parents and the impact of the choice on raising perceptions of the board alleviated the tendency of invested parties to evaluate the designs based on their own preferences rather than those of the relevant target audience.



Once the Board had a new brand, it had to be brought to life. Any new brand launch must be an event, and there are many elements that must come together at the same time.

The boards coordinated the launch, creating a single “hub” event with multi-platform extensions, thus ensuring simultaneous live and online launches.

This immediately invested students, staff, and external stakeholders in the brand.

A lasting impact of the rebranding is that all stakeholders know exactly what values and aspirations the brand now represents. All stakeholders are now invested in the Board’s mission and the promises associated with the new brand infuse every element of the Board’s culture.



Regardless of what sector your agency or organization is a member of, branding can be a useful tool in helping further your organization’s objectives. It is a strategic investment that can lead to an improved ability to communicate and internalize your organization’s mission and vision. It is certainly worth considering. We at Solstice Public Affairs would be happy to discuss it with you.


This article was also published in French the newspaper l’Express de Toronto.


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