Branding as a strategy to improve public services’ perception in Africa. Mariam Essahih, Managing Director at Gazelle Touch

It is almost natural for people to associate ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ with business entities, their products, and their services. However, branding is a growing exercise among several public utilities services on the continent that have adopted it. In Côte d’Ivoire, the “Compagnie Ivoirienne d’Electricité” (CIE) is a testament of how branding has fully been integrated in the communications arsenal of the public utilities’ organizations in the country or continent.

As highlighted by the advocacy campaign, “Why Brands Matter,” the International Advertising Association through its President Joe Netty, explained that “Our campaign visuals show the benefits brands bring to consumers – choice, trust, identity, pride, and passion amongst many others. At the same time, they highlight what will be lost to all of us if we lived in a world without brands. It would be a poorer world with less choice, less clarity, and less trust.” These words show why the branding adoption should go beyond public utilities. Thus, public services, cities, and nations all need to re-adapt their communication to a changing world.

Why branding matters to public services?

Trust in public services and governments is at their lowest in Africa. According to Afrobarometer’s findings from July 2021 in South Africa, trust in elected representatives is especially weak, and two-thirds of respondents would be willing to forego elections if a non-elected government could provide improved security and better services. In Lesotho, popular trust in the police, the army, and the courts of law dropped sharply between 2014 and 2017. And for Angolans, recent results show that they trust religious and traditional leaders more than elected leaders.

Moreover, a specific Afrobarometer survey data around tax collected in 18 African countries in 2019/2020, show that most countries say they find it difficult to get information about tax requirements and uses, and many see tax officials as corrupt and untrustworthy.

Although traditional media are still above 80% as source of news, it is worth mentioning that empirical evidence shows that the literate population spends more time online than offline. Social media in Africa is a fast-growing platform where people get their news and are educated around topics that matter to them.

More so globalization and consumerism have changed the way people consume products and services and the expectation they have when they pay for a service. The rise of customer relationship management in the service industry can’t be ignored by public service brands.

Finally, governments are struggling to recruit or retain the best talent. Most government agencies are mistaken by the number of applicants to their recruitment offers that they don’t realize the talent war going on. The number hides the unspoken truth, no great talent essentially wants to work for the government, and even when they do, it is right before moving to the private sector or overseas.

While public services don’t always feel the pressure of revenue growth, they are being scrutinized about their relevance. The policymakers are also getting rejected by the general population. The poor quality and sometimes absence of public service has been seen as reasons behind the radicalization of the youth in many parts of the continent. Governments and states are now required to deliver value for their citizens and public services are usually the main experience points.

Driving positive engagement through branding

“At a time where government is learning how to engage and collaborate in the modern world — the internet gives everyone a megaphone — brand and reputation are everything,” says Tom Burton of The Mandarin. He talks about public service branding and how a coherent branding strategy assists in designing and delivering services by focusing on purpose and consistency.

To deliver this, the following approach to branding can a driver of positive engagement:

  • Trust: with the clarity of the messaging and consistency, public services can win trust. But in a digital world, it goes further. Faced with disinformation and the spreading of fakenews, branding can help build trusted sources and platforms.
  • Distinctiveness: the public service landscape can be quite confusing. There’s little difference between local taxes service and national tax service. Security services are multiple in some countries and can have overlapping missions. Branding will help create and amplify the distinctive assets that ease the recognition of the institution behind the service and the value of the service.
  • Communications: the growing social media adoption in Africa has made the platforms the primary space for communications. Social media platforms were initially designed to serve consumer brands for the purpose of brand awareness, their features are more compatible for brand use. Public Service will be social media-friendly by adopting branding. More so brand communication tactics are increasingly invading all aspects of communication, making it easy for branded services to be recognized.

Overall Successful organizations in the private sector tend to have a distinctive brand with clear values, mission, and goals. Public services or entities can emulate these proven strategies which can deliver positive engagement and translate into better relationships with stakeholders, attractiveness to the workforce, and / or investment from the private sector.

How can this become reality.

African corporate brands are still underperforming compared to international brands on the continent. In the last Brand Africa 100 survey conducted, only 17 African brands made it to the ranking of the 100 most admired brands in Africa. This is a double testament of the African audience’s likeness to branding and the need to develop local brands that can compete on global standards.

Here are three of the following actions for public services brands to immediately action:

  1. The global consumer brands on the continent are collecting millions of data points to develop their strategies. To create public service brands that are relevant and effective, it starts with a deep understanding of the people. Unfortunately, national data boards are focused on socio-economic data and do not provide much behavioral insight to the public organizations to help their strategies.
  2. The skills gap is a second obvious bottleneck to fix. Public organizations don’t have the skills and the talents to build, implement and sustain a branding strategy internally. There’s a strong cause for partnerships with branding agencies to support the development and the implementation of public service brands at least in the first three years. This should be a rigorous process that identifies experts with proven credentials. Governments should avoid using the standard terms of reference that confuse advertising, branding and communication altogether. There’s no room for communication PhD. Degree holders in this regard. A good mix of knowledge, proven experience, attitude and qualification is necessary.
  3. Branding starts with the customers. It is a euphemism to say that African public services have little concern about the customer. It is mainly a problem of performance assessment. The relevance of the customer orientation to a publicly owned organization goes beyond the idea of assuring taxpayers that the public is getting value for money, and specifically that organizations such as hospitals and schools are responsive to user views and needs. Customer orientation should direct to performance measurement including customer satisfaction, and customer feedback inclusion process. It should go beyond the budget consumption metrics often prioritized.

Populations across the world are more demanding. They are even more demanding in Africa where three quarters of them are young, below the age of 35. The rise of youth activism in Africa is now well documented. These situations have put public services under pressure. Their mistakes hidden in the past by a controlled media environment are now live on Twitter, TikTok, and the likes daily. There’s no other choice than to rebuild trust and adopt customer orientation. Toachieve this – part of the solution lies with a branding strategy.

Mariam Essahih is the Managing Director at Gazelle Touch, the leading Francophone Africa’s brand and communications agency. Since 2006, Gazelle Touch empower individuals and organizations to grow by being mentally and physical available.

This was originally published in French on Agence Ecofin