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Branding: 5 Lessons to Get Your Federal Startup Off the Ground

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Since November 2014, I've been working to brand a public-private government initiative called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The NNMI is a collection of advanced manufacturing technology R&D institutes, each focused on a particular technology. The term "advanced manufacturing" means new and improved materials, made in new and improved ways (i.e., connected to the Internet).

Relevance

These institutes matter because the USA has been slowly losing the know-how to manufacture its own inventions for the past 15 years. Flat-screen TVs and lithium-ion batteries are just two examples.

And very often, as with robots, the means to make a thing can also become a product in and of itself. The industrial robot that assembled a car can also be the robot that serves as a personal companion. 

These technologies, when successful, have enormously wide-ranging capabilities. 3-D printing, for example, is a means to produce everything from the aforementioned cars to prosthetic limbs. Intelligent fabric can make a bulletproof T-shirt or a bikini that tells you when you're about to suffer a sunburn.

The Vision

Freedom. "Make it here, sell it everywhere." It's easy to depend on buying cheap foreign-made products on demand. And that's exactly what has happened to many American consumers, as well as the businesses that need to get their products made.

We want to ensure the long-term freedom of our nation by shoring up the internal capacity to make what we sell and use.

Presenting Problem

It's risky and expensive to invest in figuring out how to make a thing. But it's important to have the ability. That's why other countries have been pumping massive amounts of money into this kind of activity for decades. 

In this country, we put the emphasis on private sector priorities and private sector incentives. So to launch an institute, the government chips in half the seed money and the private sector chips in the other. Each center has to become profitable within five years or they go under.

Innovation Required

Given the limited window of time to become profitable, the effort to brand these institutes is time-sensitive. This gives the job some urgency. But it's taking place in a startup environment, as specifics regarding operations are being hashed out all the time.

There are also very limited funds available with which to do the job. 

Plus, it's an interagency effort. So there's a need to coordinate activity not only within one bureaucracy, but half a dozen.

Metrics

Before you do a thing you ought to know what your goals are. Mine are very simple because they connect directly with return on investment:

  • Inform the public about what their money is being spent on. (This is similar to any government branding effort.)
  • Connect our institutes with each other and the public to spark an ongoing conversation that helps people find well-paying jobs in manufacturing, and that helps employers manufacture things cheaply and efficiently right here in the USA.
  • Help our individual institutes become financially sustainable, relatively quickly.

Methods 

"Pressure is the only way to make a diamond." It's true: Even with all I've experienced, observed and read about branding, the methods I've ended up using are unusual. While it's too soon to tell whether the effort will ultimately be successful, I think I'm ready to begin documenting my methods for the sake of other brand practitioners.

1. Tell your spouse or significant other.

My husband has known me for nearly 25 years. If I'm spouting nonsense he's very comfortable telling me so. You can't convince the world if you can't convince your spouse.

2.  Find your audience on Twitter.

Twitter is highly sensitive to what people want to talk about urgently. Your tweets are a great indicator of whether the public cares about what you have to say, and more specifically, who in the public cares.

3. Talk about it on Facebook.

Brands are built one person at a time. They are built not in a vacuum, but in conversation. They are personal. This is why Facebook is the perfect place to engage in brand-building activity. You can talk about your experience building the brand, or you can share interesting popular new stories that relate, along with a comment.

4. Get help from as many people as possible rather than a select few.

When you are building a brand, it makes sense to engage as many people as you can along the way. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, you encounter talent that can take your brand in a completely different direction, in ways you could not have anticipated. Second, these small audiences can double as brand testers, as well as brand amplifiers. Whether you are talking about staff, colleagues, potential partners, or even the media, the conversational interchange between you and the other person leads to actual publicity as well as new ideas about which aspects of your message have the most impact.

5. Test and iterate in public. 

Normally one thinks of branding as a private, protected activity that is kept away from the public until a logo or tagline is ready to be unveiled. But if you take the opposite approach, and involve the public in what you are doing, a sort of bond develops between you and the people you are trying to reach. Even if you fail, you succeed—sort of like committing to lose weight in public. It is also cost-effective to pilot many outreach ideas simultaneously and drop the ones that don't work relatively quickly.

Undoubtedly there is a lot more ground to cover. But these are some of the essential things I've done over the past half-year or so. Further updates to follow.

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a communications specialist in government, as well as a blogger and speaker on branding and social media. The views expressed are her own and do not represent a federal agency or the government as a whole. Follow her on Twitter at @oursocialfuture.

(Image via Eugene Sergeev/Shutterstock.com)

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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