Rebranding Your Fire Department

To preserve community support, you may need an “image makeover”

By Marc Revere
Published Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Whether your members are proud to be a part of their department says a lot about it. So too does the department’s level of community support. A department that’s berated and belittled in the press or by community members—or even by its own personnel—suffers a drop in morale and stands to risk productivity. Has your department experienced an event with profound negative consequences? Does it have a systemic problem in one or more operational areas? Is it experiencing a mass exodus? Given the economy, probably not, but retirements are likely creating turnover in your ranks, and that can be dangerous in a place that favors a stagnant status quo or worse, having members retiring (mentally) in place.

Maybe it’s time to ask yourself: Does your department need a makeover?

Let Go, Embrace Change
To understand what an image makeover entails, it helps to look at the sports world. Today’s professional sport teams change their uniforms year to year, and sometimes within the season—throw-back uniforms, away uniforms, home uniforms, favorite colors of the month, etc. This isn’t a makeover; it’s a marketing tactic.

Sometimes, however, sports teams experience such a miserable season that the coach decides to make a significant change to break away from the past—and it’s not just the uniforms, because that would just be painting over the same old incompetency. Rather, the coach changes everything, usually starting with the coaching staff itself and moving to the playbooks, training and other trappings of the old ways. As the Bridges Transition Model explains (see FireRescue, February 2010), letting go of the past is necessary to new beginnings.

This is important to for-profit companies and government entities as well, because transforming and rebranding can enhance the public’s confidence in these organizations. When done properly, rebranding is a systematic—not just cosmetic—transformation, adding to the bottom line or improving customer service.

Successful transformation endeavors focus on three main elements: vision, culture and image, all of which require stakeholder involvement and—most importantly—long-term advocacy for the change. The goal of transformation is for members to get ahead of the past and embrace new practices and new ways of thinking.

Example: The 16 Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs) strive to reduce firefighter deaths, but they speak first of changing our culture. And to change culture, you must examine what you say you do, and what you actually do. We all say “Everyone Goes Home”; however, every three days we lose a firefighter.

Transformation Principles
An effective image makeover or transformation involves identifying what you want the end result to be, detailing the necessary changes to get there, devising a plan to bring about the necessary changes, and obtaining buy-in for and publicizing the transformation. Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles.

Principle 1: Start with a vision. In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen R. Covey encourages us to “begin each day, task or project with a clear vision,” then flex our “proactive muscles” to make things happen. Going back to the LSI example, our vision is to reduce line-of-duty deaths by 25%. Your vision should continue to support your department’s core services, yet move the organization forward in a new direction.

Principle 2: Identify what activities and/or services you do or have done poorly and want to improve upon and/or totally transform. Have after-action reports, white papers and/or public scrutiny revealed unmet safety or customer expectations? Have things gone wrong, or terribly wrong, in certain areas? Have injuries occurred?

Principle 3: Devise a plan that supports the needs of both existing core services as well as new services. This is best done through your vision statement. Example: “To become accredited agency” or “To lower the community’s ISO rating” or “To build a premiere fire agency.” Each supports the core mission but with focus in another essential area. This principle challenges the future in the form of a strategic initiative.

Principle 4: Obtain internal and external stakeholder buy-in. Transformation requires a tremendous amount of training and internal marketing. Keep in mind that a superficial transformation (e.g., new patch, badge, and slogan) is short-lived and that real transformation relies on commitment. Not delivering on change initiatives and snapping back to old ways can lower morale and reduce both internal and external confidence.

A note of caution: Transformation isn’t easy. Several common mistakes include lack of a vision, navigating without a plan, not letting go of the past (individually or organizationally), not leveraging existing core services, not seeing services from the customer’s perspective (customer service surveys can lend some insight) and limiting stakeholder influence.

Promote the Brand Experience
Branding—one of the most valuable advertising strategies—is an important concept that, unfortunately, most fire agencies ignore or overlook. Used to create an emotional attachment to products and companies, branding represents the sum of all valuable qualities of a product and creates a distinction between it and competing products. Branding takes many forms, including names, logos, signs, icons, color combinations and slogans (to name a few), and can induce feelings and perceptions collectively known as “the brand experience.” Ask yourself: What is your department’s brand? What makes your department special or unique? What emotions does your department evoke?

There’s an often-repeated anecdote about a constituent questioning his Senator about the costly redundancy in the U.S. military: He asks why the Marine Corps, with its large ground force and its own air operations, is necessary given that the U.S. has a standing army, navy and air force. The senator responds: “We will always have the Marine Corps.” This anecdote offers a prime example of brand recognition. Through transformation of combat, tactic strategy and leadership—along with a Semper Fi (latin for “always faithful”) motto that tugs at our emotions—the Marine Corps boasts a positive public image while remaining loyal to its core mission.

Rebranding can assist in the creation and acceptance of a new vision. Experts have different ideas of how rebranding works, but the end result is the same: a new direction. Kevin Lane Keller, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., describes rebranding as part of repositioning without destroying existing brand loyalty. Aidan Daly, a retired adjunct professor of marketing, and Deirdre Moloney, of iPhone marketing communications at Apple Inc., suggest rebranding can be viewed as a continuum that includes:
1)    minor change; e.g., aesthetics;
2)    intermediate change; e.g., repositioning; and
3)    complete change; e.g., rebranding.

According to Helen Stuart and Laurent Muzellec, lecturers in marketing at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane and at Dublin City University Business School in Ireland, respectively, transformation can be achieved with brand identity categorized into three main themes: name, logo and slogan changes. The authors suggest that minor changes on logos and slogans are evolutionary, while complete changes (e.g., new name) are revolutionary.

Discover the Benefits
We have a monopoly on emergency services, so why care about branding? The answer is, because people don’t make rational decisions. They form an attachment to a brand the same way they attach to each other—first emotionally, then logically. Although the public doesn’t always welcome change, rebranding initiatives are appropriate even if you are doing everything right. With the fire service, specifically, the sole purpose of rebranding is to reflect what the agency is already doing, but in a more compelling and persuasive manner.

We often approach our image or brand like we do our emergency operations: We arrive, take care of business and leave without fanfare. But fanfare may be advantageous if your community doesn’t recognize your department’s efforts and accomplishments (e.g., accreditation, ISO rating, significant awards, grants). Heightened community awareness can be very helpful in gaining budget support, donations, shared service agreements or redirection of resources.

Again, ask yourself: Does your department have a strong brand name that can influence decisions and shape experiences? Has your community formed an emotional attachment to the department? Has its members? Advertising that the department is serious about customer service helps project your commitment.

The late writer and management consultant Peter Drucker once wrote that an organization has two basic functions: marketing and innovations. Hopefully you are doing both. If not, consider that a top-priority bullet point on your list of things to improve.

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Rebranding Your Fire Department

To preserve community support, you may need an “image makeover”


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