Governments don’t need brands

The Liberals’ rebranding exercise was a waste of money. The new website was not

It is not entirely clear to me why the Yukon government decided to roll out its new logo and website with a press release providing a breakdown of cost. Perhaps it expected kudos from the public for jettisoning a stale old look and an out-of-date website. Certainly it received some of that.

It also received some embarrassing (albeit misleading) coverage on the national news which the official Opposition gleefully disseminated on social media.

Personally, were I charged with maintaining this government’s approval rating I would have framed this entirely differently. The words “brand” and “visual identity” never would have been uttered. This would have been about a website. If someone had asked what it had cost of the new “visual identity” my response would have been to trail off and pivot to the new user-friendly appearance and mobile compatibility of the site.

But of course no one asked a dull penny pincher like myself — someone who would stare at you blankly if you ever asked me what colour I would associate with a particular word — for his opinion.

There are two very separate issues here and they need to be critiqued separately: the rebranding and the new website.

The majority of that $500,000 was actually spent on a new website. Functional websites bring convenience to citizens and can lead to greater productivity for business if we are able to access the information we need to find. Add in the promise of $75,000 in annual maintenance savings and the decision to invest in a new website is not only defensible, it is, assuming the claim of cost savings is true, a good investment in the long run.

Spending six figures on a new “brand” or “visual identity” or whatever you wish to call it is another matter entirely and questionable on a number of levels. The advertised price tag for the rebranding was $135,470 but, as the Yukon Party noted, this figure wouldn’t capture all the employee time invested in the transition.

The government’s purported rationale for this part of the spending was exceptionally poor — claiming that it “is simpler, easier, and more efficient for the public.” It claimed that they heard from Yukoners who “weren’t always sure if they were actually dealing with the government of Yukon.” I’m skeptical that this was a problem of such wide scope that it justified such a large expenditure.

It also occurs to me that such a concern might be addressed in a far more cost-effective manner by simply ensuring the word “government” appeared under that old brown Yukon lettering we are all accustomed to. Ironically, despite tens of thousands of dollars spent “rebranding” the word “government” appears neither in the new logo nor the first half of the main webpage and even the letters “.gov” were removed from the website (an oversight the Yukon government’s Twitter operator assured me they are aware of and working to remedy).

This wasn’t about accomplishing any tangible policy goals. It was a feel-good exercise that was all about image, ego and glamour. It was — like all forms of advertising and marketing — about appealing to your less rational faculties to make you feel good about the government.

In the study of politics we have another word to describe attempts by the state to enhance our opinion it by appealing to our subconscious instincts and it is not a complimentary one. That word, of course, is propaganda.

I must confess to a bias here: as someone who once participated tangentially in a branding exercise I am dubious about the value of certain parts of the exercise — like removing employees from their jobs to play word association games. One defence of the government’s rebranding was that it is just what it costs. If it took $135,470 worth of effort to arrive at the product we now have, perhaps there was some overthinking involved.

Surely somewhere between Brad Cathers’ cheeky and widely panned foray in to graphic design (where he attempted to create a new logo on his computer) and a six-figure rebranding exercise was some sort of reasonable middle ground.

Besides, if it was a foregone conclusion (as I suspect it was) that something needed to change did we really need to spend $38,590 on an audit of existing government branding?

At the end of the day how important is branding to government? In my 35 years as a Yukoner I must say that I have never once accidentally purchased a fishing licence from the wrong government, or shopped around for a different regulatory authority to obtain a building permit. Maybe the Northwest Territories has a deal on driver’s licences? Governments don’t need a brand and consequently don’t need to rebrand. They have a monopoly on governance. They have cornered the market. There is no market share to expand.

In the grand scheme of the territory’s fiscal challenges this was all a drop in the bucket. The deficit shortfall we need to somehow find a way to make up is tens of millions of dollars per year.

But this rebranding was a completely optional spending on a purely superficial product at a time when we are supposed to be tightening our belt. It will no doubt contribute to a widely held sense that governments operating under the Liberal brand are uniquely carefree with the taxpayer’s hard-earned money.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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