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Branding for the Fire Service

All firefighters are touch points for the fire service and have direct responsibility for being the personal face of the brand.

If I say "white dog with a red spot on his eye," do you think Target? If I say "golden arches," do you think McDonald's? If I say "Maltese cross," do you think fire service? Most likely, the answer to these questions is yes. This is an example of identity branding, where a simple symbol gets one to think about a specific product or company.

Branding is important to the fire service. In his Firehouse.com article Fire Department Brand Equity: You are Us!, author Ben May states that the public is always watching the fire service and talks about managing the brand and brand equity.

But what is a brand? Is it a logo? Is it a symbol? Is it a marketing slogan? In his article Building Your Brand for Wealth, author Harish Chauhan affirms: "Your Brand is not your company name, logo, website, or advertisements. A brand is what your customers, suppliers, investors, employees, business members and the public think, say, believe and champion about your company. It is your 'corporate reputation'. And because it is reputation, there are things that you can and cannot control."

Let us break this definition down. Every department has customers, and everyone that a fire department comes in contact with is a customer. Fire departments have external and internal customers. It is important to identify the external and internal customers. Some external customers are obvious: those that call the fire department for help in an emergency. Others are not as obvious, or become obvious as a department identifies and expands services. Examples of these customers include the public education audience and those who receive special services, such as CPR students. External customers include suppliers, business members (fellow firefighters from other departments), the business community, and the public.

Internal customers include your employees and others directly connected with the department. I like to think of internal customers as investors. Who are your investors? If you are tax supported, then the elected officials are internal investors in that they approve your budget. The city administration or governing body is an internal investor as well by delegating to the department the power and authority to protect life and property in the community. The public is an investor through taxes paid for most municipal departments and fund raising campaigns or subscriptions for some departments. The point is, there is a wide range of internal and external people that have a stake in the fire department, and each group has a different viewpoint and different needs and expectations. To have a successful brand, a department must identify its customers and comprehend the different needs and expectations of each customer group.

Next, think about things that you cannot control and how that can affect branding. Let us use trans fats as an example of an external influence that one cannot control and the effect this may have on two groups. In August 2007, the Indiana State Fair banned the use of trans fat oils in the deep fryers used by food vendors. Think for a moment about this event. This is a state fair, the home of fried everything, from pickles to Oreos, a bastion of bad (for you) food (like funnel cakes and my favorite, fried Snickers bars), yet the fair leadership banned trans fat cooking oils. In addition, the Indiana State Fair officials gave a workshop on trans fats in the fall of 2007 at the national convention of state fair administrators. Think about how this decision will affect other state fairs and the manufacturers of cooking oils, what they might do in response to this action by the Indianan State Fair, and how this will affect their brand.

Finally, think about your corporate reputation. What is your department known for in the community? How well do you provide your services? Are you the "Ghostbusters" of your community? Remember the lyrics from the song from the movie Ghostbusters: "When there's something weird in the neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!" When the community calls you because everyone else has turned them down, do you put on the Ghostbusters hat and help them, or do you say "that's not my job?" Or, is your department always in the news for some problem with its leadership, a botched response, poor quality service, or shenanigans by the firefighters? Your corporate reputation is not your corporate brand. Corporate reputation is the image that others see when they look at the fire department, but your corporate reputation will be a major factor in developing and maintaining a positive corporate brand.

Next is brand equity, which is an intangible asset for a fire department. The reason a company wants a brand is to help establish a corporate identity and to develop value and trust in the company's customer base. This perceived value and trust is brand equity. Companies and corporations that manufacture products use brand equity to help sell products, maintain customer loyalty, and increase profits. Brand equity is very important to a fire department, but its importance may be missed or overlooked by fire officers. For years, the fire service had virtually no competition for tax dollars or community support. In today's environment, fire departments compete with other city departments for limited resources and some face the possibility of privatization and/or outsourcing of certain functions, or drastic budget cuts. A fire department can use brand equity in the community to develop trust in the community and develop a support base so that when times get tough, the community remains loyal to the brand and steps forward to support the fire department.

Care and Feeding of the Brand
Now that the fire department has a successful brand, the work is just beginning. Brands evolve. Many external and internal factors can influence, shape, and change the brand. Think about adverse publicity in the press, a careless action by a crew, displayed insensitivity to the needs of your customers, etc. Think too, about positive publicity in the press, a customer who experiences service that exceeds the customer's expectations, care and compassion shown at the appropriate time, etc. These factors influence the brand. This begs the question, who has responsibility for the brand? The answer: everybody! The officers, the firefighter, and the customers share in the responsibility to keep the brand fresh, alive, dynamic and out in front.

Fire officers have direct responsibility for monitoring and guiding the brand. Brands evolve, and the officers have the ability to influence how the brand evolves by monitoring and evaluating feedback on the brand. This feedback comes from the press, the public, and the firefighter. A fire department brand is a service brand, which is a non-traditional area of branding, so a fire department is free to explore new techniques for managing, growing, and promoting the brand. The department must develop a brand strategy and then support and identify with the strategy. The goals, objectives, and mission of any organization should be in line with the branding strategy employed. Here is an example of how a department might approach one aspect of growing and promoting the brand.

Working to develop a strategic plan, the command staff considers what services to improve or provide to further promote and evolve the brand. Some of these services may be community services rather than emergency response services. These services may include teaching Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) courses, holding citizen fire academies, establishing or expanding a free smoke detector program, providing or expanding active public education programs, providing blood pressure checks, providing access to flu shots for the public, conducting blood sugar screening for diabetes, operating firehouse-based medical clinics, teaching CPR classes in schools, providing automatic defibrillator training to the public, managing a Public Access Defibrillator (PAD) program, providing AEDs in police vehicles, conducting CPR training specifically targeting senior citizens, sponsoring physical fitness activities targeting seniors citizens, presenting tobacco use prevention and cessation programs in the schools, sponsoring an obesity screening program for children in schools, teaching baby sitting classes, visiting senior centers to provide health information, providing physical fitness information to elementary school children, etc. These are not traditional "fight fire and save lives" programs, but they provide value added services to the community. They are mostly behavior-based services (translation: we are the good guys who care about the community). Such actions and services build good will and build community equity with the brand.

The Personal Face of the Brand
The marketing term "touch points" refers to all the ways that consumers contact or experience a brand. Marketing professionals work to make certain that every touch point, such as product quality, packaging, customer service, and advertising, conveys a consistent and positive message. A consistent, positive message creates a stronger brand.

All firefighters are touch points for the fire service and have direct responsibility for being the personal face of the brand. This happens by default and the responsibility is tremendous. Consider the latest Harris Interactive poll for most prestigious occupation (in no way do I mean to imply that volunteers are not part of the fire service profession, but Harris uses the term occupation in the poll). Harris Interactive conducts market research to help companies make decisions and strengthen corporate equity. In 2003, Harris began using the occupation "firefighter." In 2003 and 2004, firefighter were in second place. firefighter tied for first in 2005, and then were in first place in 2006 and 2007. In fact, firefighter was the only profession to score above 60 percent both years, and in 2007 led the second place profession by 7 points.

There is tremendous responsibility and excellent possibilities associated with this prestige. Unlike apples in a bunch, one bad firefighter can spoil the whole bunch in the eyes of some. A firefighter who tarnishes the badge can create bias in the eyes of the public, and this bias can affect the way the public perceives all firefighters. The public may view the group of firefighters as having undesirable traits or behaviors. Once set, such bias is very difficult to overcome, even if other firefighters do good things. That is why all firefighters must be constantly aware that firefighters, as individuals, are perceived by the public to represent all firefighters.

What should firefighters do? Remember the cliche "You never get a second chance to make a first impression?" A basic rule is, be aware of your appearance at all times and always make a good impression. Look like firefighters. Be neat and well groomed. Be professional. This applies to all ranks. Fire chiefs, as the policy authority, must set a fair policy concerning dress, appearance, and conduct. The policy must be understood and all ranks must be aware of the policy. Company officers must enforce the policy and make sure personnel are well groomed and wear clean, neat uniforms. According to Ben May, fire stations provide the highest visibility and are a focal point in the community for the fire department. Keep your station and apparatus clean. Keep the tools and equipment clean and in good working order. These simple items and behaviors are 90 percent of the public's image of firefighter.

Next, know your job. This applies to all ranks. Rookie firefighters need to learn the basics and gain experience. Experienced firefighters need to hone their skills and pass on tips to the rookies. Firefighters aspiring to higher ranks must prepare through advanced training and education courses. Consider college degree programs, your state fire academy, and the National Fire Academy. The fire service is a business, and a good business needs skilled leaders and managers. Start working your way to the top. Company officers need to improve their supervisory and management skills and be mentors to their personnel. Company officers need to keep the crew sharp by constant training. Training does not have to be expensive or dull, and there are some excellent resources, such as the U.S Fire Administration web site Coffee Break Training at http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/nfa/coffee-break, to provide quick and useful training ideas that serve as a springboard for further discussion.

Chief Officers have a vital role in promoting the brand. They do this by monitoring corporate culture, and living and leading by polices and values that promote the desired positive image. In other words, they know the path and they walk the walk. Chief officers must maintain an open communication network that promotes the free flow of information and ideas. Open communication improves teamwork and propagates the positive values of the organization. Most importantly, chief officers have a responsibility to stay current on leadership, management, strategic planning, and human resources skills to promote growth in the organization. Chief officers are mentors by default. For example, a department has but one fire chief, so all firefighters will look to the fire chief to see how the chief acts. All chief officers must assume active roles as positive mentors, promoting behaviors and skills in their personnel, so that the personnel keep the brand fresh and positive.

In summary, the fire service enjoys great prestige, and individual firefighters are the face of the fire service. The public has perceptions and biases about the fire service based upon many touch points. Some of these touch points are superficial, such as a person who drives by a fire station every day, and some are deep, such as a person who has experienced a fire or had a firefighter respond to some other emergency in their life. Maintaining a constant, positive face is vital to the well being of individual departments and the collective fire service. Being the face of the fire service is an awesome responsibility, and offers many opportunities for the fire service to advance. All firefighters have common roles to promote the face of the fire service, and other roles are conferred by rank or position.

Publicizing the Brand
The public, and this includes the press, has responsibility talking about the brand to others. But what they say is up to you, the firefighter. Are they going to have good things to say, or are they going to have bad things to say. And which type of news lasts longer in the public consciousness, the good news, or the bad news? Think about how a newspaper handles an error. The error may be on the front page, but the correction is buried in some small corner of page 12. It seems to be human nature to remember the bad stuff and forget the good stuff. So what does this mean for a fire department and its brand? It means that the fire department must constantly reinforce the brand in the community with excellent service and a professional image. To a consumer, a brand suggests the best of class, the best choice, a quality product, so it is important that the fire department actively publicize the brand and increase the perceived value of the brand and the fire department.

There are many ways to publicize the brand, and these include the value added services discussed earlier and maintaining a polished and positive image. Another way to publicize the brand is telling the public what we do and why. As an example, my department provides non-transport ALS first responder service using fire engines. I speak to many local groups, such as Kiwanis and Rotary, and at these and other meetings I am always asked, "Why do you send the fire truck when I called 911 and asked for an ambulance?" This gives me the opportunity to explain how our first responder service works and to talk about the personnel, training, equipment, and method my department uses to have a paramedic at the patient's side in five minutes or less 90 percent of the time and compare this to the response time of the ambulance service. A fire department should actively seek opportunities to talk to the public and the business community about the services it provides with emphasis on quality of the service and being prepared to serve.

A fire department should develop a good working relationship with the press. If a fire department has a public information officer, the PIO should seek opportunities to promote the department in the press. An example of a proactive media relation effort includes a media day where the media gets to don turnouts and SCBA and fight fire and perform other firefighting tasks. Other examples include inviting the media for a ride-along and, depending upon call volume and community demographics, issuing daily or weekly press releases about fire department activities.

A department should develop community advocates who then go out in the community and talk about and promote the fire department. Methods of doing this include citizen fire academies and holding open houses at the fire stations. Fire Corps, part of the Department of Homeland Security Citizen Corp, is a great way to involve the community in the fire department and recruit volunteer members who are willing to assist the department in non-fire suppression activities such as public education, developing the fire department web site, assisting with incident reporting, providing canteen/rehab services at incidents, or helping to write grants. A department may be lucky enough to find a marketing/advertising person who can help develop and promote the department and the brand. The Harris poll shows that the public holds firefighters in high regard, so invite them into the department to meet the people that protect them, to become department promoters, and possibly become part of the department.

Finally, a fire department should develop a marketing plan. Formal marketing plans provide a roadmap for a department to develop and implement programs that offer value added services to the community and promote the department in the community. Lawrence Nisbet, in his Executive Fire Officer research project, discovered that over 89 percent of fire departments surveyed did not have a marketing plan, and that 75 percent of the departments that did not have a marketing plan did not plan to address the department's marketing needs. A department without a marketing plan is missing the opportunity to promote the brand and develop community advocates.

In closing, a fire department will have some type of brand, whether it creates one or not. Therefore, every department should be proactive in creating and maintaining its brand. The process of creating a brand begins with an understanding of what a brand is, identifying the stakeholders, understanding the unique needs of each stakeholder group, and identifying and anticipating internal and external factors that affect the department. Finally, branding is a dynamic process. The brand a department had last year may not be the same brand it needs this year. Generally, major changes are not required, only a tune-up, but constant monitoring, communicating, and promoting are required.

References


Dennis Wolf is the chief of the Germantown, TN, Fire Department. He joined the Germantown Fire Department in March 1977 and rose through the ranks to become fire chief in November 1995. He also serves as Germantown's Emergency Management Director.

Dennis holds a bachelor's degree in Fire Administration from the University of Memphis and a master's degree in Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a charter graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program. An active 22-year member of the IAFC, he is a Past-President of the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association and a member and past officer of the Mid South Fire Chiefs Association. He is a Chief Fire Officer Designee (CFO) and holds the grade of Member (MIFireE) in the Institution of Fire Engineers.

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