Government interference with iconic branding will make our institutions feckless

As the NSW government begins the process of replacing its institution’s unique branding with the state symbol, Principals director Sandy Belford argues the move will implicitly reduce their power.

What has happened to conservative government butting out of people’s lives and quietly facilitating their version of progress, as opposed to trumpeting over all that gets done in their name?

When the NSW state government instructed state-owned institutions such as the Opera House and Taronga Zoo to alter their distinctive branding and give greater prominence to the state symbol, the Waratah, to “ensure consistency across public sector communications and improve recognition of NSW Government projects”, I had to wonder.

Government branding is always going to be tricky as people don’t really understand what government actually does. They don’t run zoos or art galleries. They support and fund them, a vital difference. It’s true they rarely get credit. So, if its frustration they are feeling, I understand.

But that’s not the point. Consistency – their first demand – is one thing. Recognition, their second, is something quite different and they seem to be wading, jackboots and all, into a minefield of identity, the purpose of these institutions and what we want visitors, residents and well, everyone, to get out of the experience each of these brands offers.

I am reminded of one of my favourite jokes ever, told by Julian Clary when, decades ago, we hired him as the entertainment for our Christmas party. He arrived and looked around the room, eyeing up targets for his camp wit. Soon enough he settled on someone and announced: “Who did your hair, my love?” Pause. “Was it the council?”

I foresee endless jokes about what government takes the credit for. And, of course, everything one of these icons does badly will be attributed to state government and not to the institution in question.

Council, government, state or federal, it’s all the same. We’re never going to love them. We want them to do as good a job as they can and not get in our faces. We’re happy to let them do that. But do we need to be reminded at every turn they are there? Must the Waratah “always be the more dominant mark”? Should it “always be taller”? I don’t think so.

It will implicitly disempower every single one of these institutions. It may even make them look potentially feckless and antithetic to consumers.

It will compromise each one of them – their sense of purpose, their distinctiveness, even. And what will consumers and visitors take out of it? What will they see?

These icons will be labelled and, dare I say it, lumbered, with the State government’s presence. Presence, and that’s about all. Will it have meaning? I don’t see it.

And two years after it is instituted, if it ever gets anywhere near a resolution, it will be abandoned with a monumental sigh of relief and every one of these organisations will get back to doing what they are good at. And the state government will take a step back and quietly get on with… whatever it does.

Sandy Belford is the director of branding agency Principals.


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