Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Paradox of Branding

Something has been on my mind a lot lately. In many ways, The Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) suffers from a dual personality. Officially, we are a public institution of the State of Texas, and we have a public mission to train, serve, and respond. We are very proud of that mission. We provide training, technical assistance, and emergency response services to almost 200,000 people every year. We are very good at what we do and have many repeat customers. However, getting new customers is a challenge. The way to do this is by marketing our products and services.
Without getting into too much organizational detail, TEEX is basically a decentralized organization that uses business units called divisions to execute our mission. Each division is fairly autonomous, and is responsible for its own performance and financial solvency. Arguably, this model has served TEEX well for many years. However, when it comes to marketing and branding, we are all over the map and do not really have a unified “identity.”
This is okay when you are serving a specific customer set, like firefighters or the search and rescue community. The Department of Homeland Security knows us as NERRTC (The National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center); most firefighters know us as the Texas Fire Training School; and the search and rescue community knows us as Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1). Most of our international customers know us as Texas A&M University, even though we are not directly part of the university. I can go on and on.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I think, “So what, who cares what our customers call us as long as they remain loyal customers?” But what opportunities are we missing because of this branding identity issue?

Recently, we decided that we needed a Marketing Plan that reflected the entire agency, not just our individual operating divisions. So next month, TEEX’s leadership is going to meet to develop a centralized Strategic Marketing Plan. Branding will be a big topic of discussion. We’ll discuss not only what to brand, but how and where to brand. Do we brand differently internationally, inside the state of Texas, and domestically in the U.S.? Or, do we brand according to our markets? Finally, do we choose one brand or multiple brands?

The marketing experts out there will answer that of course we need to brand. But my question is: how? Here is the paradox. TEEX is an agency of the State of Texas. And we are also a part of The Texas A&M University System. We are a public institution that gets less than 10 percent of its operating budget from general public funds. Plus, any public money we do get is attached to a focused statement of work. We run our organization like a business, and market and promote our products just like a business. However, we are not a business! How much marketing and branding is too much? And how much is not enough?
These questions about how and what to brand have been debated here at TEEX for at least the 20 years that I’ve been here. Over the next six months, we are going to answer those questions. I’ll be updating you from this blog. As employees and customers, what do you think? I would be very interested in your thoughts on this!

Gary Sera is director of the Texas Engineering Extension Service and invites your comments.