Public brands must invest in a buffer for their reputation

12 June 2023

In episode 1 of the Public Brands series: Tom van Laarhoven (UWV) and Anke Heun (Belastingdienst) on brand thinking in the public sector.


Tom van Laarhoven and Anke Heun are colleagues. Tom succeeded Anke at UWV and they are both active in the Communication Council (consultative body) for public service providers. Both have extensive experience in large commercial service organisations and public organisations, independent administrative bodies and the national government. They have served their time in the communication field, and have a lot of thoughts on it. 

In recent decades, the public sector has moved from information to communication and, from communication to reputation. And now for Van Laarhoven and Heun brand thinking is an integral part of the job. But for other public organisations, brand thinking is still in its infancy. 

In the Public Brands series – a collaboration between Adformatie and iO we aim to conduct a professional discussion about brands in the public domain – the leading voices in the public communication profession have their say. About brands, competences, the limitations of communication, the usefulness of an advertising campaign and about enjoying your work. 

Does the term 'brand' often come up in your team meetings? 

Anke Heun (AH): 'Every day. We also see the Belastingdienst (Tax and Customs Administration) as a very strong brand. The blue envelope is a real brand asset. There was recently an attempt made to abolish them, but of course it failed.  

For at least 4.5 years, since I have been working there, the term “brand” has come up more and more. Brand identity of government organisations for citizens and companies, what we stand for, what it means, what they can expect from us. There is a different bandwidth than with commercial brands, but broadly speaking we are talking about the same thing. 

Tom van Laarhoven (TvL): 'For us it was always about reputation, but now it’s about the brand. Reputation and brand are of course closely related. My main concern is that all associations people have with UWV (Employee Insurance Agency) are consistent with what we actually do, with our promise in the market and with the desired image we have in mind.  

If you want to manage your brand, your reputation in the market, you have to think about it. Everything you do contributes to your brand. The most important thing I remember from my education is: you can't not communicate. You should try to align everything you do with that brand. It must of course be expressed in our employees’ behaviour. That always says something about what you stand for. If you want to have more control over how people think and talk about you, you should be aware of that. And that's why we're increasingly looking at how you can influence that. And then the words ‘brand’ and ‘reputation’ come up very often. 

Do you carry out your own research into how the brand is doing? Or do you piggyback on existing research? 

AH: ‘We have a combined study. We conduct brand and reputation research and campaign research at the same time. That, as we understand, is quite unique. We continuously collect data and use it to conduct in-depth analyses. 

TvL: ‘We also have combined reputation research. For me, reputation is the image people have of the UWV organisation. And brand image to me is how they think about a number of aspects of your organisation. That can be your service, that can be how you are as an employer, etc. And that is included in one study with us.' 

TvL continues: “We are looking for the drivers of reputation. I have compared it in the past to “watching grass grow”. You can see that it is quite stable in brand/image/reputation research. So you have to do it for a very long time to see differences in that and also to learn from it. What are the things that have been of influence. That is why we measure it daily and also keep track of it: in what way people are confronted with the UWV brand, so that we can see how it interacts with each other.' 

Do you look at brand campaigns of public organisations in the Netherlands? And which ones are you sometimes jealous of? 

TvL: ‘Yes, on the old pay-off from the Belastingdienst, of course. It stuck with everyone. I am also thinking of iconic employer branding campaigns from the Ministry of Defence. They portray the image of Defence well.' 

AH: ‘I really like the police slogan, “vigilant and at your service”. They say what they stand for in one sentence. I’m impressed by the way NS has been presenting itself in recent years.' 

And campaigns by commercial parties and brands? 

AH: ‘I like Albert Heijn. They always tell their corporate story very cleverly. I'd love to do that, but we can't.  

I would like to explain the importance, the usefulness and the need to invest in a real brand campaign. To tell them that we, as Belastingdienst, do not levy taxes for ourselves, but so that there is money for education, care and roads. Running such a campaign would probably raise questions about how much public money should be spent on it. Rightly so in itself to be critical of that, but I am sure that it would create more support in society for our work.' 

‘The importance of brand thinking, especially as a government, is sometimes underestimated.’

Anke Heun

TvL: 'A bit of a classic, but I really like Nike. Especially a lot of brand communication and little product. Nike stands for something and they really express it. They understand what is going on in society. Take a position. That also takes guts. There's a lot of authenticity in it.' 

TvL continues: 'I think it's important not only to tell what you do, but also how and especially why you do it. The Belastingdienst is there for society, and so is the UWV. More people should know that. Because we are from and for “them”. That is a difficult message, but the people in our society, that's who we do it for. We have to radiate that.  

What the UWV is mainly about is: we try to help people find work and provide income if that doesn't work out for a while, because it allows them to continue to participate in society. I think it's important that people realise that UWV keeps the Dutch economy running, that you involve people in society so that they don't end up on the sidelines. That is part of what we do as a public service provider. And if more people realised that, it would become much more a part of themselves. Now it is outside.” 

Can you invest at brand level? In what form and through which channels? 

TvL: ‘As a public service provider, we have difficulty clarifying why it is important to have the image in line with our social assignment. A good reputation or strong brand is not an end in itself. We invest in this because it creates support in society for what you do.  

It is an important argument for me to think about how we can influence how people think about UWV. Apart from other effects that you would like to see: we do wonderful work, and as an organisation and our employees also want to be recognised for that. Recognition in the form of broad support” 

AH: “You can say a lot more with images. It is also about telling the wider story. That you are reporting and why you are doing so. We don't just use that mass media campaign for call to action. It’s why we built it, but it also has an emotional charge. You will see the citizens and companies of our country reflected in our campaigns. It's not "we at the Belastingdienst are broadcasting something". It is based on what a citizen or entrepreneur experiences, that is always the starting point.' 

TvL: ‘The format determines the approach. It's never just about telling what you’re there for. You always do that along the “what” line. I think we’re perfectly capable of telling you what you can get from UWV and if you can include why we do that, then you pack two things in one. A single focus brand campaign is not really possible for us.  

The big shift you make as a public service provider is that we’re moving away from education, where you tell people what they can consult us for, what they can expect, to much more involvement in things. Much more involvement.’ 

AH: “That is exactly what our campaigns are about. For example: you only need to check something in your tax return. That is involving. It is not information, but a reciprocity: we fill in your declaration as much as possible, will you check whether the data is correct? There is interaction in that.' 

Can you make a top 3 reputation drivers for public organisations? 

TvL: Actually, for everyone, their service comes first! If you allow your image to depend solely on behaviour, progress will be very slow. Communication illuminates it, which enables an acceleration in influencing how you look at an organisation.  

We can make big promises, but you have to deliver.' 

AH: “With us, service is indeed at the top of the list. But also very important: justice. Everyone must pay their rightful share. This also has to do with legislation. It’s complicated because we do not make that legislation. But we can make it clear that we apply the rules in the same way for everyone. 

TvL: ‘Other drivers are openness and transparency. And that is linked to credibility. You cannot ignore the things that are not going well, the dilemmas, etc. Then you lose confidence. That is the shift that we are making as public organisations. That we don't just do that because we must, due to legislation, to be open, but because we really want to. Because we believe that if you do that, you really restore faith in the government. That includes reliability; delivering what you have agreed. And that you are open when things don't go well.' 

‘UWV is there for society, more people should know that.’

Tom van Laarhoven

Does investing in brand-like campaign techniques, in a brand campaign, provide some kind of reputation buffer?

TvL: “Most communication is directed to our target groups, but we are expanding our scope. For example, with our jobseeker campaigns we not only target clients, but also the working population of the Netherlands. Broader services on prevention and from work to work, for example within the regional mobility teams, are good examples of this.  

The STAP budget, a maximum of 1,000 euros per year for training and development that job seekers and workers can apply for, is also a proposition for a wider audience. Our Employer Branding campaigns also demonstrate a positive impact on our reputation. So we are already one step ahead. But that does not detract from the fact that we still see a challenge to properly explain what the relevance is for the whole of Dutch society. 

You must have a good story to communicate to people who do not use your services. When it comes to reputation, it is about support, especially among those people in society. Because they are actually only confronted with you – via the media – when things are not going well. That is why you need to build a reputation buffer with the Dutch public so that they are not solely confronted with the things that are not going well, but that you also show what you do and why you do it and why it matters.  

You can build up that buffer with external communication, also in advertising form as far as I'm concerned. However, this really has to be done in a different way than with commercial brands. Because a good reputation is formed by the actual behaviour of employees, we pay a lot of attention via internal branding and internal communication, just like commercial companies, to what UWV stands for.'  

So to put it very simply: investing in that buffer would help you as an organisation, but if you do that, part of the social context says, ‘is that really necessary with public money’. Dilemma? 

AH: “We are increasingly investing in brand communication. It helps us to make more visible what we do and who we are. That is especially important in the difficult times we are currently going through as an organisation.  

If you are only in the news in a negative way, it has strong reverberations. The moment something negative is going on, and these are sometimes very personal stories, then it’s very difficult to communicate about it. This influences the image of the organisation enormously. And that can also affect your reputation rating. Trust is a precondition for us to function. So the moment you no longer have confidence in the Belastingdienst and you receive a tax bill, you may think in advance "I'm going to file an objection, I'm going to call 7 times, etc." Then the whole system feels the pressure.  

The importance of brand thinking, especially as a government, is sometimes underestimated. Because the focus is often on the short term, or on specific target groups. You also sometimes hear: why should you, after all we are not Nike, they sometimes add. No, we are not, but brand thinking is also extremely important for the government. 

You both work at 'the big institutions' in the public sector, but there are also medium-sized organisations. Do they have more leeway to build a brand? Say a Chamber of Commerce, CBR (driving test organisation); organisations in the public domain that have a somewhat more specific task. 

TvL: ‘The problem is the same everywhere. The size doesn't matter. The question for all public service providers is: how do you create support in society? You do this by not only making it clear what you’re there for, but also why you’re there, and what your role is in society. Whether that is CBR or the Chamber of Commerce, you should always be able to get this message across and it’s your responsibility to make this clear to society.  

We do everything with public money, so you have to be able to make clear what citizens are getting for that money. And if you don't do that properly, you will lose support in society and they will wonder whether an organisation like the UWV is even needed. So with your behaviour and by just doing it right – that's the foundation, that's all that matters, that's what we're obliged to do – you are also obliged to speak out about why it's important why you're here for society.' 

Do you feel in recent years that new competencies have been needed in your team to do what you need to do? Due to changes in the media landscape, professional development, etc. Do you see changes in the skills of the people who come to work in your teams? 

TvL: “No, we don't have any new professional competences. I worked at Rabobank for 20 years before this, I do not feel that other competencies are needed at UWV in the field. The mechanisms and issues are the same. What you need even more with public brands than with commercial organisations are things like environmental awareness, political and administrative sensitivity. These are competencies that are very much needed to be successful as a professional in an organisation such as UWV. Apart from your profession.' 

AH: “I agree with Tom. So not many new competencies. Well, you're talking a little more about specialists versus generalists. In addition, we do see new positions: image editors, social media editor, internet or online specialist. We didn't have functions for that in the past.' 

'The issues are no different with public brands, but the way you look at them is.'

Tom van Laarhoven

TvL: “What I can add to that is that brand thinking has come to the foreground more. And by that I mean that you align everything you do with the desired image of the brand. Your house style should reflect your brand.  

When we talk about encouraging people to participate in society, I don't want to see buildings, which used to happen very often. Then you profile yourself as a kind of “institute”. We're showing a lot more people now. We also talked about words. We talk as much as possible about real people, while in the past we talked much more about people who fell under a law, we called them “WW people” or “Wajongers”. Now we say: they are “people looking for work”. So we try to align everything with that brand idea and that awareness exists a lot more than in the past.’ 

Are you also looking for people who have other, broader experience than just 15 years of background in the public sector? Do you aim to bring in a more mixed picture? 

AH: 'Yes, but we are looking for people with experience in a social context or large commercial organisations. I don't care whether that is FrieslandCampina or KPN. The fact that people have experience with large organisations or with a social environment is an important factor for us. People from the banking world are often very interested in working for the Tax and Customs Administration.” 

TvL: “Agreed. That is actually much more important in order to do well. More than whether you have experience in a commercial versus a public organisation. It's about the competences and then that you can move in a complex organisation. Rabobank is no less complex than UWV and vice versa. That makes no difference. The difference is made by having people in-house who are administratively, politically and environmentally sensitive. Because that determines much more how you look at things. Again, the issues are really not that different at all.' 

Governments want to digitise and personal contact must be optimised. Commercial brands often deal with customer journeys, touch points and so on. A lot goes along the line of digitisation. How do you notice this in the communication department and how are you working on it? 

AH: “That is certainly relevant. With us, we never try to make a distinction between digital versus personal, because digital can also be very personal. So that includes our customer journey: if you go to a website or you receive a letter, it can be very personal without meeting anyone in person.  

What you do see in our society – and perhaps that is a difference with commercial organisations – is that you have a responsibility towards society as a whole. So that also means that you have to serve someone aged 80+ or people who do not speak Dutch properly. We see the importance of physical counters and information points.  

We also work with libraries to sit next to people one-on-one to fill in their tax forms, for example. You can always go to a counter near you, with all your records in a grocery bag and then you will be assisted there. For a long time, there was a social belief that everyone in the Netherlands is self-sufficient and digitally skilled, but we overestimated ourselves there. So we as the Belastingdienst, but that undoubtedly also applies to UWV, feel a responsibility to the entire population of the Netherlands. And not just to the people who can handle it easily.” 

TvL: We are now looking much more at what is desirable and where the need lies in order to be able to serve in that way. It used to be much more imperative that things had to be digital and all other options were actually minimised. We have benefited from this, because the services have become very digitised as a result. But nowadays we have more room to provide personal, physical services based on what the service user needs. If you take that as a starting point, then you are in line with what is going on. Instead of being forced to do everything digitally.

AH: ‘That also applies to us. We also say “a little help is never far away”. You can call the Tax Information Line, send an e-mail to an office or helpdesk, we have an app. People are very diverse in their preferences: young people generally have no desire to cycle to anywhere whatsoever. But there are also plenty of young people who need just that. 

TvL: ‘You’re there for everyone. As a commercial organisation you make a choice in your target group. Our target group is society as a whole. That means you think a lot about accessibility, communication, information. Websites should be accessible to everyone and everything. That kind of testing is more likely to happen with us – I think – than with a commercial organisation that focuses on a specific target group.’ 

Where do you get your inspiration from to improve in your field? 

AH: ‘We have, and I am still very enthusiastic about this, the learning caravan. This means that we bring in external people 9 times a year for all colleagues. People from other organisations who have valuable experience in public service. But also scientists, for example, colleagues who are doing PhD research. That way you get impulses from within, but especially from outside the organisation.' 

“Service determines your reputation. We can make big promises, but you have to deliver."

Anke Heun

TvL: ‘We have a similar thing, which we call “Com-in-Motion”. I myself read everything that’s available about the profession. I also often try to network and see what is going on in other organisations. What I also encourage employees to do is that they go outside. They are generalists, but they are also specialists in the field of communication.' 

Which media channels do you use yourself? Where do you get information, what do you see, read and watch? 

TvL: "Adformatie, Logeion, news and current affairs, newsletters, MarketingTribune, all marketing platforms." 

AH: ‘I think communication professionals should have a broad interest. I myself am a huge newspaper lover, a book lover, I like to watch beautiful documentaries, listen to a lot of good podcasts. So it is broader than just the communication profession per se.' 

Daan Goote
Daan Goote
Client Lead & Consultant behaviour and psychology

Daan Goote is a psychologist and consultant in the field of (public) communication and marketing. He applies knowledge and learnings from behavioural science. 'People are not as rational as they think' is by far the most important insight.

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