SOURCE: Whitehorn Group

Whitehorn Group

October 25, 2013 08:45 ET

Rebranding America's Security: Christopher Johnson, CEO of Whitehorn Group on the Importance of Long-Term Brand Management

The Importance of Branding for Our Security Agencies

NEW YORK, NY--(Marketwired - October 25, 2013) - The image most of us expect and wish for the American security apparatus is best portrayed by fictional soldiers like those in "Saving Private Ryan" and CIA agents like Jack in "24." These fictional characters embody sacrifice, sense of duty and commitment to our country and its citizens, which we hope our security forces embody across the board. Christopher Johnson states, "While many talented and dedicated people work tirelessly in our security forces, such as the U.S. Army and the CIA, doing what's right, the right way -- the actions of a few have affected public perception and unfortunately, have tarnished these brands."

After CIA officials procured the services of prostitutes in Colombia, including eleven who were also married at the time, we now know that discipline is not always a brand characteristic that everyone in the American security force truly supports. The President hadn't yet landed and this small group of CIA employees who were supposed to ensure his security were busy abusing protocol.

In addition, the Abu Ghraib torture incidences show that the American security force sometimes also lacks the characteristic of leadership. Johnson states, "This impression has yet to be addressed directly and persists as a brand challenge." It has continued, as the very image of U.S. Army leadership, General Patreaus, failed the institution by having an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. The list continues, and will most likely increase in the future. The obvious perception gap in the American security brand has become apparent not only to Americans, but the world in general. Johnson asks, "Why are the most respected, superior, and powerful national security brands in the world not in pristine shape at such a crucial time in our history?"

Here at home, there was the issue of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military. This represented decades of maintaining homophobia within the American security force itself, in part by emphasizing the traditional trappings of male masculinity. Historically, this same characteristic was the brand essence of numerous other armies, such as the ancient Spartan army that was eventually annihilated by the Thebans. Johnson says, "Great armies in history triumphed in war because they had great leaders not because their soldiers were inherently masculine." Great military and political leaders both from the past and present are true visionaries and masters of strategy. So why did we focus on masculinity over leadership to the point where "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" became an ongoing national debate? Johnson says, "Now that it has been repealed successfully integrated into our military, it may be time to consider a new set of brand attributes for our national security brands to rebalance public perception, such as brains over brawn, leadership, strategy and integrity."

So what can be done to polish and then protect these vital brands for all American citizens? Johnson suggests, "For the U.S. Army and the CIA to continuously maintain their brand equity in the face of a few isolated but well publicized events, these government agencies need to employ strategic brand management practices, just like major corporations use so effectively around the world." Johnson continues, "There are many reasons why a business may initiate brand management, brand polishing or a complete rebranding. These reasons can be categorized as proactive or reactive. In proactive brand management and rebranding a company may act to seize an opportunity or take measures against threats in the future." On the other hand in reactive brand management and rebranding a company responds to an event that is so significant that the existing brand must be forever changed. For instance, negative publicity may force a corporation to carry out reactive brand management to protect its image and regain the trust of customers. Similarly, we can look at the CIA and the U.S. Army as government agencies that should strongly consider employing similar strategies to polish and maintain their images for the long-term.

So far, the only move the U.S. Army has made to manage its brand was to change its regulations on the personal appearance and general behavior of its personnel. The soldiers are no longer allowed to get their combat uniforms commercially pressed; instead they have to hand iron their garments. Fine. On the other hand the CIA chose to address their issue by firing the officers who misbehaved in Colombia. Also fine, but is that enough to address the underlying branding issues?

With these very minor steps to save their brands, it's clear that these two security agencies have failed to identify the real problem -- trust. Like a big corporation that addresses a product recall or quality problem with an isolated ad campaign but doesn't change its manufacturing practices, the public always sees the truth. Johnson states, "From my perspective, this is what branding is truly about -- expressing the inherent truth of a business or an organization clearly. If done so in a manner that expresses management's vision and that clearly articulates the promises and benefits -- the brand then resonates with everyone." Johnson remembers, "This is what happened in my own branding work in the beginning with JetBlue Airways -- the powerful results are still apparent over a decade later." The Army and the CIA have the opportunity to do the same if they would employ actual strategic branding methodologies that focus on the long-term health of their brands.

This surface treatment of negative brand issues never works. Like expecting employees with pressed suits would revitalize the failed Enron brand, or that Wall Street can regain public support by firing only a few rogue traders -- the root of the cause has not been examined deeply and honestly, then addressed and allowed to inform the revitalization of these brands.

The fact is, that our national security is crucial for America to survive during a crisis and thrive in peace. But when events like these few become too common, the public can easily loose trust. Johnson states, "These security agencies appear to not have fully embraced the significance of having a good brand."

So what can be done? Johnson advises, "As a branding expert that has helped numerous multinationals confront these types of issues for more than two decades, I suggest that the U.S. Army and the CIA ponder their overall purpose and examine any misconceptions that hinder public understanding. Then create a long-term brand strategy that will reflect the inherent value of these agencies -- thinking two decades ahead or more. Even better would be to prepare for the next crisis so it can be clearly addressed without damaging the brands." This will take time for such large, complex and important agencies to accomplish, but with the right branding approach and strategic guidance they can certainly polish and manage their brands for the long-term and communicate clearly to the world the importance of their roles. In fact, regardless of single events, we may want to consider that as Americans, we have a duty to all the brave men and women who have sacrificed immeasurably for our nation's security to ensure these brands shine clearly and bright for many generations to come.

About Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is CEO of branding firm Whitehorn Group. Mr. Johnson is a highly regarded authority on creating brands that change entire markets like Infiniti Automobiles and JetBlue Airways. He attended Carnegie Mellon University where he won the Tholenheimer Award and McCurdy Prize.

About Whitehorn Group

Whitehorn is a premier brand strategy firm. They create what's NEW and NEXT through global branding, design, product innovation, celebrity brands, business strategy, global marketing and distribution.

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