From Off-the-Rack to Off-the-Shelf: What the Federal IT Community Can Learn from New York Fashion Week

The Ralph Lauren Spring 2015 collection is modeled during New York Fashion Week, Sept. 11, 2014.

The Ralph Lauren Spring 2015 collection is modeled during New York Fashion Week, Sept. 11, 2014. Richard Drew/AP

The fashion industry grasps the importance of leveraging brands unlike any other industry. The federal IT community should take note.

Winston Chang is a director at The Ambit Group.

Surrounded by the high-speed world of models, socialites and glamor of New York Fashion Week earlier this month, I found myself reflecting on the benefit potential for government by leveraging its brand identity.

While most agencies have a small budget allocation for PR and media relations, branding can and should be used beyond managing reporters. The fashion industry grasps the importance of leveraging brands unlike any other industry.

In fashion, branding is a critical aspect of the business model, even fundamental. Pulling lessons from fashion will allow the government to use branding internally and prevent a weak brand from hindering its mission.

A brand is not the logo, color scheme or font choice used in the agency approved PowerPoint.

While most textbooks define a brand in literal terms, a brand is simply the personification of an entity.

People do not buy Burberry because of its attractive plaid pattern. They buy purses, scarves and umbrellas with the distinct gray, white, red and tan pattern because the look exudes luxury, achievement and status. Burberry spent years -- and billions -- to create and maintain these attributes, known in marketing as brand associations.

5 Fashion Lessons to Better Branding in Government

1. Know the Brand

What personality traits define the brand? What is the brand known for? What reputation does the brand have externally? Internally? Understanding the brand starts with an introspective look at the mission and people of the agency, line of business or department. Recognizing the culture of the team behind the brand and what drives it is critical.

A good brand connects with people. Like relationships, if the company is trying to reach everyone, then it is in fact reaching no one. A strong brand has a focused core with support built around the mission.

Bonobos, an upcoming fashion brand, has successfully embodied the development of a brand through a strong core product. It became popular for superior fit and wear with its men’s chinos. While maintaining that core focus on semi-casual men’s pants, Bonobos slowly expanded into other clothing and accessories and now offers a huge selection. This focus and attention to the company’s core, while strategically expanding, allowed it to strengthen instead of dilute its brand as it grew.

An effective way to drive to the core of a brand is to brainstorm single words or short phrases that embody the entity. Do this brainstorming exercise with a small team and it should reveal two to three words or phrases that consistently show up in individual’s results.

Those words are the starting point to building the brand’s core focus. The words should align with the leadership’s vision and complement both the mission and philosophy of the team. Lack of consistency suggests the leadership and people -- and by extension, the brand -- lack focus. The team should circle back to redefine and focus the group’s mission.

2. Identify Communication Channels

Once the vision for the brand is determined, knowing the mechanics of how the brand connects with people is essential.

In a shared service, such as finance, one might communicate through two basic channels: the support for daily activities and the budgeting cycle. These are touch-points, times when your brand comes into contact with your customer. Each touch-point is an opportunity to either support and grow the brand or hurt the reputation. Understanding the mechanics of the various touchpoints will allow a team to curate the interactions and outward face of the brand to strategically build their identity.

Social media is a way many fashion companies interact with their customers. Each social media platform creates different contexts for touchpoints to occur. Twitter, for example, encourages brief conversations. With the ability to share tweets, these conversations also provide huge scalability and reach. Pinterest is a unique, purely visual social media site. Instead of conversations, photos of products like purses or shoes are endorsed in a portfolio style.

Companies can leverage the strengths and weaknesses of each social media platform to devise strategies for growing their brand through word of mouth.

3. Know the Customer

Customers have diverse cultures and needs. While an IT shop might have to convey the same technical facts to lawyers and building support staff, to be effective, the messaging needs custom tailoring.

Fashion companies segment their markets all the time by studying their customers and dividing them into territories. Profiles are created for each territory illustrating what type of customer is represented.

Banana Republic segmented its market into customers willing to pay a lot for its brand and those who are not. The company accommodate these markets by having two types of stores, high-end and outlet. Each store has its own line of clothing but both use the same brand name. Banana Republic is able to sell to both markets using the same brand, increasing its customer base instead of ostracizing the cheaper group with price.

Know what groups are being engaged and flush out what motivates them. Each territory can be defined by understanding the simple truths that drive that demographic. Once the values of the territory are gathered, the brand must demonstrate worth to that territory and develop a targeting strategy.

4. Choose Wisely

The saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ is true for brands. The actions of an organization are the strongest influence on its brand. Discord between words and actions can cause tremendous issues.

Historically, Coach marketed its brand as luxury. In the 1990s, the brand experienced a surge of popularity and once again became a “must-have” item. Looking to take advantage of the popularity, Coach opened many outlet stores and branded its logo on a large portfolio of products outside its core product, handbags.

This strategy created an excess of Coach-branded products in the hands of consumers. The quantity and ease of availability conflicted with the exclusivity luxury brands require. Coach’s brand was diluted and weakened. The company recognized its mistake and made an effort to pull back stores and products to maintain its core associations.

A strong government brand should be built on successes surrounding the brand’s core competencies. Taking on projects that fall far from the core expertise to achieve an easy win will dilute the brand, especially when the project doesn’t align with the unit’s core mission.

This should not to discourage risk taking or branching into different areas. A new, innovative project might be the best direction. This decision does, however, warrant a full understanding and analysis of the unit’s brand.

5. Brand Internally Until the Culture Fits

The majority of failures in government can arguably be traced to a disconnect between culture and communication.

Branding is a force multiplier when it comes to communications and is effective with culture change. A Vogue employee is not only perceived differently for where she works, but acts differently because of her employment. Brands influence an organization internally as much as they do externally.  Through this embodiment, a brand can drive cultural change to align with the organization’s vision.

Fashion brand Heatherette debuted in 2001 at New York Fashion Week with huge shows, celebrities galore, and the support of fashion media. While making a name for the brand in the couture space, internally, the team struggled to shift its design vision to support the needs of its ready-wear business.

Because the internal culture could not evolve from couture-only to a couture/ready-wear business model, the company and brand ultimately died. If Heatherette had extended its brand’s focus to ready-wear, it could have used the outward representation of who it was to drive its inward progress. The team members branded brilliantly to the outside world but, when they needed change internally, proved unable to use their brand to push their necessary cultural change.

If the culture that exists in an organization conflicts with the leadership’s vision, many tools exist to help create change.

Reorganization, optimization, new team members, training, details, etc. are all standard tools in a government leader’s kit. Internal branding creates an ideal personification of the unit and communicates that vision back to the team. It gives the team a standard to rally behind instead of a theoretical end state. Branding can and should be used in conjunction with best practices from change management.

Branding is a natural product of our humanity. It helps us to develop and take advantage of relationships with inanimate things.

In fashion, the brand delivers feelings and passion through a worn physical product. In government, a maximized brand opens fast lanes for work to be accomplished within organizations.

You really don’t have a choice whether a brand exists; the choice is whether the brand is identified, cultivated and leveraged. Government continually learns best practices from the private sector.

Branding is seen today as an integral component across all private industry, and the industry known for brand innovation and execution is fashion.

Isn’t it time to look beyond the glitz and glamor of fashion and adapt its strategies for success in tomorrow’s world?