Branding: it isn't a pain in the behind

If you adopt a systems perspective to community engagement, you’ll understand at the outset that you can’t ‘direct’ the community to change. Instead, you can create the conditions for change by introducing some positive disturbance. And if you want to shake things up a little, your going to have to get noticed.

At the start of your community capacity building journey, you’ll be working to pull together a diverse group of people from across the community who are affected by or have power and ability to influence change. While they may have some degree of shared interest, there will also be areas of disagreement, competition and possibly conflict that must be taken into account for a group to work together effectively.

In parallel, you’ll also be looking to engage the wider community and forge new connections as interesting questions and ideas begin to emerge.

Creating a ‘brand’ for the engagement activity can be an effective way to create common ground and a shared identity that enables people to feel, very early on, that they are part of something with momentum and the potential to create real change.

The word ‘brand’ comes from the Norse ‘brandr’, meaning ‘to burn’. Livestock, slaves and other, less objecting, possessions, such as cookware and tools, were burned with the owner’s mark using a hot iron rod. Brand was a symbol of ownership, meaning “This is mine. Hands off.”

This use of brand to communicate ownership is still familiar in the public sector. Organisations seek to evidence their role in funding, delivery or involvement by placing their brands on leaflets and communications. The result can be a bewildering array of stamps and marks leaving readers none the wiser.

Over time, brands became important in the commercial world as sellers tried to communicate what was special and different about their product. “This is mine. Buy it”. As products proliferated, brand once again began to signify a kind of belonging. “David wears that brand. I want to be like David. I’ll buy that brand”. Brand enabled people to identify with others who were also associated with a given brand.

While in the commercial word brand is associated with making money, in the world of community engagement, brand is about making meaning.

At the outset in our engagement we want to be seen as ‘different’ in order to attract attention. Perhaps controversially, when we’re engaging with communities, we find that the use of public sector brands, with existing associations and marks of ‘ownership’, is not particularly effective in attracting engagement. Instead, we develop a new ‘brand’, unlike any of the familiar brands in the community.

The brand begins an empty vessel of sorts with early designs remaining flexible and open to being shaped by those who engage with it. As much as possible we avoid ‘calls to action’ or phrased that imply predetermined solutions. In the case of a recent demonstrator project in Inverurie, the brand was simply the word ‘INverurie’ using the uppercase ‘IN’ as an invitation to people to get involved.

Rather than get hung-up on fonts, logos and ‘corporate identity’, the brand should be allowed to be more fluid so that the design can evolve as an expression of the group’s shared identity, purpose and connection. While our role involves the design and development of the brand, at all stages it is important to avoid taking a stance that implies ownership of the brand. Instead, the brand is offered to others who are also working in a collaborative way or who want to show their engagement or alignment with the community engagement aims.

It is important to appreciate how disturbing that this stance towards brand can be. Systems exist to preserve their identity and the arrival of a new identity in town can be upsetting. This is necessary as nothing will change without disturbance. However, the intention is not to compete, just to get attention. You may need tenacity to resist your host organisation’s urge to stamp their brand on things, but resist you must.

Over time, the brand helps the growing number of people engaged and the engagement process itself to be increasingly recognisable and understood by others in the wider community. The shared sense of ownership helps those involved to spread their message with enthusiasm, energy and pride and, importantly, to invite new connections with wider networks.

In an age when many people now spend as much time in online communities as in their geographical communities, branding and identity can also create a consistent visual signal that links the online and offline spaces. This enables real world conversations and relationships to be built upon and reinforced using both domains.

As with every form of intervention, it’s important to plan for exit at the outset. In developing a brand and making this evident on a range of communication materials and channels, you’ll have to decide what to do with it when/if the engagement process ends. In the case of INverurie, the logo and branding were made available for others who wanted to signal a collaborative way of working to use. The Business Improvement District (BID) team adopted and evolved the brand, on the understanding that it would continue to represent collaboration and used it as a platform to make connections across networks of people in the town in support of their purpose of securing funding to develop local business. In other projects, community planning partnerships or multi-agency development activities have picked up the brands and continued to convene in line with the spirit of the prior engagement. This has supported the legacy and impact of the engagement activities beyond the initial intervention.

As a tool for community capacity building, a well designed, coherently executed brand can act as an inspiration for others in the community. Where the benefits of such an approach can be seen, others will take an interest in learning and sharing the skills required to take a more creative approach to communication and engagement in the community.

Here are some practical pointers when using brand to get noticed and attract engagement:

· Deploy someone with the appropriate specialist skills in visual communications to develop the brand. We all know what we like, but we don’t all know what good looks like in terms of design and communication. Graphic designers spend years learning this. It’s well worth using their expertise instead of being keen amateurs.

· Abstract pattern and shapes are useful ways to bring visual interest while remaining open to interpretation.

· Allow the brand to evolve over time and be shaped by the community. This means testing and adapting in response to feedback and also in response to the emerging ideas and patterns of the engagement activity.

· Before deciding on a name, do a search engine check and make sure the name is available for use as a website address and social media tags and user names.

· Do your research. Colours can often be associated with sports teams. Find out what other brands exist in the same area of interest.

· Avoid any direct associations with existing organisations. Eg, NHS, council, specific third sector organisations, as this will detract from any sense of community ownership.

Communities need therapy. A person-centred approach to community engagement

Mindset matters, especially when it comes to engaging with people in the community and the way you approach your engagement will have a significant impact on your ability to forge good connections and build trust.

At Kinworks, we talk about adopting a ‘design-led’ approach. We favour design because it places the person, in the context of their whole life, at the centre of any new or changed service. Across public services, “person-centred’ has become a well-used term - it makes intuitive sense that we should put the person, not the organisation, at the heart of what we do when we design and deliver services. But what does it mean for ‘person-centred’ to apply to community engagement?

In his 2013 discussion paper for the Carnegie Foundation, “The Enabling State”, Sir John Elvidge highlights the strength of the public sector in providing more transactional, technically expert services and interventions while, in the more relational sphere, “the capacity for communities, families and individuals to provide mutual support and self-help is the most convincing way to add to the wellbeing we have now.”

With this relational, mutual support and self-help activity in mind, when we considered a person-centred approach in relation to community engagement, we looked to therapy as a metaphor. We gained insight from ‘person-centred therapy’ as developed by Carl Rogers. This approach has influenced many therapeutic approaches, and the field of mental health more generally, so it will be familiar to many in caring professions.

In common with asset-based approaches, person-centred therapeutic approaches start from a premise of individual human potential. This approach also aligns with our ‘living systems’ perspective and Rogers likened individuals’ tendency towards growth as like a living organism, seeking balance, order and greater complexity.

What does this therapeutic analogy mean for our engagement with communities? The person-centred approach highlights the importance of a particular stance and specific factors that enable effective community engagement:

There must be a relationship to enable change. It seems obvious, but unless practitioners form relationships with people in the community, there won’t be a positive change in outcomes.

Perceived power imbalances between public services and communities can make people feel vulnerable or anxious.

There must be genuineness on the part of the person seeking to engage. This doesn’t mean you need to know all the answers or be perfect. It just means being honest and trustworthy in your engagement.

Empathy without emotional involvement makes it possible to understand people’s experiences and how they feel about them, while maintaining neutrality and concern for the whole community.

Adopt a stance of unconditional positive regard. This means being open and able to listen to people’s experiences, good or bad, without conditions or judgment, so that people can open up and engage in honest dialogue.

Adopting this stance means being prepared to start somewhere, and go where the conversation takes you, genuinely holding the person, or people you are engaging with at the centre of your intention, letting them know they matter and you are an available resource for them.

In practical terms, what does this mean? Simply put, adopting a person-centred approach to community engagement means that your personal commitment to adding value to people’s initiatives and activities, is evident, whether that’s by the mere act of listening, offering advice or opinion, raising awareness or acting in support. It builds the necessary trust and connection to enable change.

Communities are living systems. Don’t try to engage them with dead strategies and plans.

Anyone who has spent time connecting with local people, perhaps as part of a ‘community engagement’, ‘consultation’ or ‘community planning’ type process, will know that ‘communities’ are not neat and tidy things. They’re messy. There’s no directory of contacts or ‘community job role’ that helps you to identify who knows or cares about what. Rather, there are lots of different networks of people, connected and interconnected through families, friendships, shared interests, the streets they live on or the sports teams they support.

These various networks are not planned or controlled. They are dynamic; changing as people join and leave, as their interest rises and wanes and as a response to changes in the environment. Whether it’s due to a service closure announcement or to local flooding, new networks can form quickly, organizing themselves effectively to get things done without the structures, systems and processes we are familiar with in public sector organisations.

This dynamic, unstructured nature of communities makes them quite different in nature from the public sector organisations seeking to engage with them. The structures and channels for connection and communication within public sector organisations, for example hour-long meetings, dissemination of documents and plans, emails etc, all generally occurring during business hours, are a poor fit with the habits and patterns of communities.

To help us think about engaging communities, and specifically, engaging with communities in order to affect change, it’s helpful to take a ‘whole systems’ perspective and think of communities as complex, adaptive, living systems. There are certain characteristics of living systems that we can see in communities. Think of the community as a whole as a bit like a flock of starlings. The ‘flock’ is function of the relationships and connections between the individuals and networks that form its component parts; the flow of energy moving through the community — in the form of the varying levels interest, activity and enthusiasm of its members — means that the community is dynamic and able to change in response to changes in the environment. This change is purposeful and dependent on the way individuals communicate and make sense of each other and the environment in which they operate. And, like a flock of starlings, although the particular shifts and movements can be unpredictable, there are underlying principles generate the shifting patterns of community activity.

Taking this systemic view of communities also means accepting that it is not possible to direct a community to effect a particular change. Yes, it’s possible to nudge, provoke, disturb or catalyse change, but you can’t just tell them what to change and expect it to happen. The tools and methods appropriate in hierarchical organizational settings — agendas, project planning, target setting, performance management etc — don’t function in a community setting.

This lack of ‘control’ can make public servants and pracitioners reluctant to genuinely engage with communities in an open dialogue, exploring possibilities for collaboration. Often they are wary of going out and talking to people, without an agenda, because it is unpredictable. People might identify things that could be better and often professionals feel that they need to defend, excuse or fix those things in response. This reluctance is totally understandable. It’s also inexcusable.

At a time when public service transformation is a necessity, not a choice, it is more important than ever to work creatively, with communities, to make best use of all our available resources to ensure that services and support provided are designed for best effect. This means stepping across the thresholds of organisations and out into the places where people live, where they work and where they gather. The focus is not on fixing what’s broken, it’s on discovering what’s possible. Engaging intentionally, with purpose, means taking a whole system perspective. It also means equipping yourself with a new set of tools and methods, ones that are more useful in a community setting.

Although systems are complex, the way we think about them doesn’t need to be complicated. There’s a lot of talk about ‘whole system transformation’, ‘systems thinking’ and ‘systems leadership’ across the public sector. It can seem quite overwhelming and intellectual. It doesn’t need to be. Our focus Is on the simple and the practical, built on the principles of systems leadership:

  • Create a positive disturbance. Get noticed
  • Begin a shared inquiry. Good questions are attractive, they provoke fresh insights and enable new connections
  • Connect the people who are ‘doing’. Nothing changes if people don’t change what they do or how they do it
  • Always connecting the system to more of itself. Builds healthy, resilient systems where people have access to one another and trust emerges