Should brands be taking communication lessons from the UK government?

The underlying motivations for public service and private sector campaigns are surprisingly similar, writes the chief executive of MSQ Partners.

The government communication landscape was shaken up in 2011 when the COI closed its doors after 65 years of public service campaigns. But government campaigns did not stop; over the past few years a quiet revolution has been taking place in Whitehall's corridors. Behind the scenes, the Government Communications Service has been questioning almost every aspect of received communications wisdom, and using the learnings from dozens of campaigns by dozens of agencies to generate answers.

The motivation is simple: public campaigns spend public money, and so must be able to demonstrate value. In particular, the GCS has started questioning whether large-scale paid-media campaigns are the best way to generate the best results, instead prioritising campaigns rooted in behavioural science and designed to be digital by default a focus. It also insists that all campaigns explicitly identify partnership opportunities and deliver earned media coverage to ensure maximum return on investment. 

Whilst many assume that public service campaigns are different to private sector campaigns, the underlying motivations are surprisingly simila. Government communications may focus on action rather than ‘building brands’ – but what brand doesn’t want to change and embed its audience’s behaviour? What marketing department doesn’t want to maximise the effect of its budget?

From the long running "Change4Life" campaign by Public Health England, to the Department of International Trade’s "Exporting is GREAT", the starting point of campaign design is behavioural change theory; focusing not just on changing behaviour, but embedding it. And as brands are recognising that they need to join up communications activity along the entire customer journey or marketing funnel, they themselves increasingly need behavioural change-led strategies that inspire action, drive awareness, and create habitual behaviours vital to creating loyalty.

As permanently influencing the customer journey becomes more and more vital, GCS may benefit from adopting the "EAST" behaviour change checklist, which suggests that effective communications should be built on four pillars. They must be easy for an individual to react to, make the change appear attractive, be social to encourage sharing and be timely; delivered at the right time and context.

Here, "digital by default" is vital. Digital itself isn’t news, but GCS have recognised the importance of a full-service digital mentality. Award-winning digital campaigns such as "Say I donate" for NHS Blood and Transplant, or the "One you active 10 walking app" for Public Health England have ensured that channel planning is embedded in the creative development process, so that channel and idea are one and the same. Campaign amplification, through both PR and partnerships, is also considered at the start of the process. Perhaps the best recent example of this approach is the NHSBT "Missing type" campaign – built almost entirely around and earned media focus and the participation of partner brands.

NHS Blood and Transplant "Missing type (2016)" by WCRS

While not everyone has the same scope to exploit partnerships as some government departments, many brands could, and should embrace a similar strategic mentality. Hertz, for example, decided to stop all traditional advertising spend and adopt an earned-media approach that changes behaviour during the booking journey. In doing so, they have found creative ways to leverage partnerships and to generate earned media coverage – which is proving to be more effective in communicating their brand proposition and delivering on overall business objectives. 

Brands have tried, tested and valid ways of approaching communications. But as my grandmother used to tell me, there’s more than one way crack an egg. The government way embodies a distinctive view of the communication landscape – one based on behaviour, not brands. Perhaps it’s time for more brands to take a look at campaigns from the government’s point of view.

 Peter Reid is chief executive of MSQ Partners



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