Time to re-brand our green spaces

In its report published in 2006, the National Audit Office recommended that it was time for parks to "re-brand" themselves. It may surprise many managers, particularly those of parks and green spaces, that a technique commonly associated with big business has found its way into their sector. However, it is something that both private and public organisations should take to heart.

In his 2006 book, Green Future, consultant Alan Barber makes it clear that purpose and intent are vital if you want to make progress in the provision of services — parks and green space managers, please take note. Branding is an important part of the manager’s repertoire.

Branding is usually thought to have been invented sometime in the 19th century, probably at the time that packaging of goods with specific messages and names took off. The term “branding” probably arose because of the practice of burning the name of a good on to the container it was shipped in. This practice quickly spread to include the company’s name, logo and often an advertising slogan.

From that rather basic beginning, the use of branding spread rapidly. In today’s marketplace the value paid for companies can be far in excess of the value put on their goods and service networks. The big difference is accounted for by the “brand” value. It quickly becomes clear that with so much competition it is essential that your service or product has to stand out from the masses and to be instantly recognisable. The same principles can be applied to parks and green space services, and all other businesses in the horticultural sector. But — and it is an important but — what message are you proposing to give? Too often it is a general image that is not quite matched by the experience provided to the user. 

What can branding do for you?

If your view is that brands are just for big companies, think again. They have a role in every size and type of business. Branding seeks to make your activities stand out from the crowd, particularly in a competitive market. In this way brands provide potential customers and users with a clear idea of what you do. If you want to build and manage a brand, you’ll need to focus on what your customers want and how you can guarantee to deliver it. You’ll need to be consistent in your service and at every point of contact with your customer.

In essence, branding sets out to determine what you do and how it is perceived by your customers. It should also result in the all important “no” response — what you do not do or intend to offer. Far too many organisations try to be master of all they survey and more. Such an approach is virtually unachievable, and leads to a tendency for managers and leaders to spread their scarce resources far too thinly.

In the creation of your brand, simplicity is vital. How many brands do you recall that have so many names and messages that they all merge into an incoherent assault on your senses? I recently wrote to a well-known grounds maintenance contractor who had so many letters after his name that it required a whole line of script to record them. What message are these giving? It has often been said that if you have more letters after your name than in your name you are living in the past. Try that test on your own title and address (ie your brand). How many lines of script does it take to describe you and your service? Are they all essential or are they pandering to some sense of ego and your past?

Take a minute to check the messages your organisation is giving about your service and your brand in the following things:
? Website;
? Business cards;
? Answering the telephone;
? Email footers;
? Letter headings;
? Posters advertising services or events;
? Signage on vehicles and/or the livery of staff uniforms;
? Job advertisements.

Are they all giving the same message? Does all of your written communication use the same font, colour and size — and if not, why not? Individuality is fine for some situations, but not when the organisation is communicating with its public and customers. They want to recognise you immediately and have faith in your services. They become uneasy when the messages and the brand are mixed and inconsistent.

Customers have a right to know what you do and don’t do. It is at this point that so many services and organisations fail their customers. Tell your customer what your brand will do for them, what services you will provide and the limits of your service.

The “no” response is an important part of your brand and service. You cannot deliver every aspect of what the customer might desire, so decide what it is you are good at and deliver that. For the rest, form a partnership or an alliance — and brand it.

Assessing your skills and values

Successful branding is achieved by promoting your strengths. Kick start this process by thinking about what you are good at and what you believe in as a business or organisation. For example, what are your particular skills and/or services? They could include:
? High-quality customer service;
? Green sustainable services;
? Great parks and greenspaces;
? Providing value for money.

You have to be sure that you can always deliver your strengths — your brand values — in all the markets and sectors you operate in.

The parks and green spaces brand, whether it is the contractor, the provider of plants and trees or the wider horticulture marketplace, is important. Parks provide value to health, wildlife, natural air conditioning and sustainability — all of these ­issues are part of the brand value. Many of these messages are well-known within the sector, but less well advertised or promoted outside of the professional network.

One good example of a high-profile professional brand that is not very well understood outside of the specialist sector is the Green Flag Award. Parks and green space services should be promoting this brand and enhancing the value it brings to local parks. Recent press coverage, particularly in Horticulture Week, has highlighted the move by some councils to spread spending and public support away from the Green Flag to more locally recognised branding and quality measures. This is an example of a failure of branding and local brand development.

A brand is one of the most valuable elements in an advertising theme, as it demonstrates what the brand owner is able to offer in the marketplace. The art of creating and maintaining a brand is critical to your success. Many grounds maintenance contractors market their services predominately to the professional audience. But it is the local tax payers who “buy” their services and that audience should also be included in their marketing effort.

Branding your service requires:
? Purpose What do you offer? In your definition, be sure to have also decided what you do not intend to offer;
? Clarity Keep it simple — don’t use too many words or pictures;
? Consistency You need a clear message that is the same across the whole of your service.

Branding in most commercial markets is usually represented by a name, logo, slogan, and design scheme. In this way it seeks to create associations and expectations among customers.

Successful brand management

Be aware of the various hallmarks of a successful brand:
? An explicit logo featuring the service name prominently;
? Individually branded events and services that provide consistency of marketing and message;
? Recognisable and consistently used fonts, colour schemes and symbols;
? Participation of all your staff in presenting a uniformed image in all dealings with your customers.

The branding effort must be aimed at linking your service and/or business to the values and wants of the customers and stakeholders — this should include your suppliers and others in your supply chain. This creates the value-added aspect of products or services, serving to denote a certain attractive quality or characteristic. People may often select the more expensive branded product on the basis of the quality of the brand or the reputation of the brand owner. As with all things in the modern world, your brand has to be protected so it makes good sense to register your intellectual property rights — something that parks and green space services often either overlook or are very loath to do.

Complementing the work on branding is the all-important communication effort. You will have personal experience of businesses that seek to enrol you in their “clubs”. How many people carry a store card or loyalty card, and receive emails or postal reminders of various company’s latest offers? I am not suggesting that you add to this deluge of paper or email traffic,but that you are selective about how and when you inform your customer about your brand and service. 

Involving your own staff in the process of branding is a wise move. These are the people that meet and greet your customers and are on the frontline when it comes to the personal side of your organisation’s efforts. Bear in mind that your employees meet, greet and assist your customers in many different ways. They are the face of your brand. Engage your staff right from the start and encourage individual input. Use your staff as a focus group — after all, who knows your clientele better than they do? By doing this you will not only get support from your staff but you will be given insight and ideas that you otherwise may not have considered. You can utilise staff involvement in three stages (see panel at below).

Reaping the rewards

There are very significant commercial benefits from getting your brand right and well respected in the marketplace. For example, contractors and other organisations may wish to borrow you brand and use it for commercial reasons. It can generate value, both in income and discounts against price when purchasing contracting services.

Many exciting examples of this approach can be found in the not-for-profit industry. Organisations in this sector have to make best use of their often meagre resources and “punch above their weight”. And the way many of them achieve this is through branding their services and campaigns in the most original and innovative of ways.

Branding services and organisations requires sophistication, persistence and innovation. It cannot be achieved in a flash of publicity and fancy fonts. What is required is a regular and consistent message. It is a message that can distinguish your services and set them apart from your competitors, be they competitors in the commercial sense or organisations or internal services that you compete with for finance and resources. It’s up to you to give your organisation a brand new start. ?

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