THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
by Sue Dillon
When a company goes through reorganization, communication is one of the keys to success. Management has to communicate the what, when, why and how to its employees and motivate them to embrace the new culture. Employees then have to take those messages to heart and live them through their everyday interaction with their colleagues, business partners and customers. So what happens when a government organization reorganizes? That's the challenge USDA Rural Development had to face.
USDA Rural Development is a mission area of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It provides financial and technical assistance to improve the economic opportunities in rural America through its rural housing, utilities, and business and industry programs. But while these services have been around for many years, they haven't always been under the USDA Rural Development umbrella.
But USDA Rural Development had a particular hurdle to overcome. Its predecessor organizations were well known throughout rural communities. For example, most people still recognize the former Farmers Home Administration, which featured offices in more than 1,700 of the 3,000 counties in America. With the reorganization, USDA Rural Development's offices were consolidated to 800. And with little external communication about the change, few knew USDA Rural Development and the services it provides.
USDA Rural Development needed communication. In 2003 Tom Dorr, as under secretary, led the organization in identifying the need to establish a brand for USDA Rural Development. This brand would first serve to re-energize its employees, who were confused about their organization's vision but extremely proud of their dedication in helping their rural neighbors. It could then be introduced to business partners and potential customers to ensure as many people as possible would know about the valuable services USDA Rural Development provides.
To assist in the branding initiative, USDA Rural Development conducted a "request for proposal" review from marketing and communications agencies across the country. After narrowing the list down to five top contenders, the organization selected Osborn & Barr Communications, headquartered in St. Louis. The agency was chosen because of its research-based approach, solid experience in the rural market and demonstrated personal commitment to improving the quality of life for people living in rural communities.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A BRAND
USDA Rural Development and Osborn & Barr had their work cut out for them. It was late November 2003 when work began. The goal was to launch a fully developed brand at an internal meeting in February 2004 - a tight timeline for any private-sector company developing a new brand, let alone a government organization.
Osborn & Barr began by quickly conducting research with USDA Rural Development employees to get their understanding of the brand. Employees rated the community's awareness of them as 7.5 out of 10. Interestingly, this result was the flip side of the external research conducted.
The external research consisted of focus groups in 10 rural communities across the country. Two focus groups were held in each community to get a bigger picture - one comprised of rural citizens and the other including business owners and community leaders. Even with aided awareness, USDA Rural Development was barely recognized by focus group attendees. In fact, several people thought the organization dealt with meat inspections, since it was affiliated with USDA. Others noted they wished there was one government organization that could provide all of the services that USDA Rural Development provides (if the organization existed, they would want the contact information right away to assist their community). It was clear that awareness of the USDA Rural Development brand as it currently existed was nearly zero.
There was also much confusion over what defined a rural community. Many respondents from the focus groups, all conducted in small towns, did not consider themselves to be rural. You had to live on a gravel road outside of town in order to meet their rural definition. This presented a serious problem for USDA Rural Development when the primary audience they were trying to reach was residents of small towns.
Using this focus group research information, Osborn & Barr was able to begin developing various brand taglines and logos. Initial concepts were put under further testing with external and internal target audiences to ensure the essence of USDA Rural Development was captured and conveyed.
The result is the logo at right. This logo depicts a typical rural landscape - the distinct water tower and the mix of buildings (homes, storefronts and factories), all nestled in the rolling green hillside (the USDA logo baseline). The tagline "Committed to the Future of Rural Communities" was also identified. It notes USDA Rural Development provides the resources and has the emotional dedication to help these communities remain viable and thrive. Both of these items have been proven to communicate a clear, clean and positive brand position for USDA Rural Development and its mission to improve the quality of life in rural America.
LAUNCHING THE BRAND
To begin its internal communications, USDA Rural Development unveiled the results of its research as well as the new brand logo and tagline at its "change event" internal meeting in Washington, D.C., in February 2004. The event was held at Jefferson Auditorium, a 500-seat theater in the USDA complex, and was satellite broadcast and Web cast to the 800 offices across the country. The 50-minute program featured then USDA Secretary Ann Veneman and USDA Rural Development Acting Under Secretary Gil Gonzalez as "headliners" for the event to drive home the initiative's importance. To generate excitement for the impending brand rollout, a series of e-mail correspondence was developed to tease the event, identifying something big was about to be unveiled.
COMMUNICATING THE BRAND
But while a logo and tagline were unveiled, successful marketers know that a brand is more than these elements alone. In order to bring a brand identity to life, a brand promise must be lived and projected with consistency through all employees. As a result, extensive training was needed to ensure all internal employees were communicating the same consistent message to rural residents, business owners and community leaders across the country.
Following the brand launch, a variety of training sessions were conducted for state directors, public information coordinators (PICs) and key administrative officials. This training included an introduction on how to "Live the USDA Rural Development Brand" as well as media training and media relations.
In the planning stage of the training, the majority of the focus was placed on providing the PICs with the tools they'd need to implement the new USDA Rural Development marketing initiative. They had a big job to do and they needed to be successful.
A variety of materials were developed that the PICs could use while they were in training and then take home for their reference. In addition to the registration packet (which featured custom agendas, directions, nametags, etc.), three communication tools were developed to provide those useful tips and tools:
The Brand Strategy Book was a 10-page document that described the new USDA Rural Development brand and provided interactive worksheets to help the PICs understand how to implement the new brand in their state. The Brand ID and Standards Manual provided the technical specifications regarding usage of the new logo and tagline, including approved layouts for business papers such as letterhead, business cards, envelopes and fax cover sheets.
The Mission Communications Kit was the most comprehensive of the materials. The 50-page binder featured tips on how to actually communicate the new USDA Rural Development brand to internal employees as well as external audiences. Templates for flyers, oversized presentation checks, news releases and other key communication vehicles were developed. Tips for developing a marketing communications plan, coordinating an event, conducting media relations and more were also included.
All materials were later made available to the PICs on the USDA Rural Development intranet site.
After the initial training sessions in Washington, D.C., key leaders of USDA Rural Development, as well as representatives from Osborn & Barr, went on the road to conduct "Living the Brand" training sessions on the state level. These sessions reviewed how the brand was developed, the importance of consistent brand messages from all employees and specific ways every employee could "live the brand" - from calling on customers to answering the phones.
Overall, the branding effort has been well received among USDA Rural Development employees as well as within USDA as a whole. As the organization moves through year two of its brand initiative, it is now concentrating on communicating the brand to external audiences to ensure rural communities and agricultural leaders know about the resources it provides.
The organization has developed radio and print public service announcements, which it is distributing nationwide. Additionally, it is relaying success stories to a variety of media outlets to demonstrate how rural citizens, business owners and community leaders can utilize the valuable services from USDA Rural Development.
Through its work over the past year, USDA Rural Development has shown how important it is to consistently and clearly communicate a brand message - even for a government organization. Its branding efforts are helping spread the news throughout the country that USDA Rural Development is committed to the future of rural communities. It's getting the word out that there is an organization that has the resources to help these communities, and it's motivating its employees to live that message through their everyday actions. The organization can create the icon, but the actions of the managers and employees will build the brand equity. AM
Sue Dillon with Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis , contributed to this article.