Online Exclusive

Fire Service Marketing 3.0 – The Next Steps

The accelerated speed of change is no secret. We see its effects in the fire service: the way we do business and the issues we face.  The recent IAFC paper, Taking Responsibility for a Positive Perception, highlighted the marketing challenges coming at us like on-coming traffic at rush hour on a Los Angeles freeway.  Public scrutiny is not going to diminish.  The IAFC paper highlighted the “spiral effect” of public scrutiny: financial security, budget cuts, antagonistic debate, defensive posture and behavior scrutiny. This public observation is going to keep us under the microscope. The good news is that who we are and what we do – the nobility of our calling – is there for all to see.  Now, this could be our worst nightmare if we approach it from a defensive position, with excuses – especially when it comes to firefighter behavior and fire officer leadership. If we approach this reality with a strategy and strong, supportive leadership at all levels, these challenges become major opportunities. It can grow into a dynamic force for all public services, but especially those that are literally in every neighborhood in the country and close proximity to our citizens: the fire service.


Marketing 3.0

Three years ago, one of the great American marketing academics, Philip Kotler in collaboration with Hermawan Kartajaya and Iwan Setiawan, wrote a thin, but seminal book Marketing 3.0.1 While the essence of the book has broad application to the private sector, the real opportunity lies in how public services can use this shifting marketing paradigm to achieve some of the goals outlined in the IAFC paper. Here is the basis of my comparison. If we take a quick look at the progression of the fire service, we can see how it has matched the progression of marketing in the private sector. The origins of fire protection were based on the delivery of one product: fire suppression.  The result of this transaction was that we rescued those in danger; confined and extinguished the fire so it would not spread into a city-wide conflagration, thereby saving the good citizens’ property.  Simply stated: citizens called us and we came to do the job.

As time progressed we learned from what has been called, “the catastrophic theory of enhanced protection.” We dealt with enough horrific fires and loss of life that we began to progress from one transaction – fire suppression and life safety – to an expansion of the service: comprehensive prevention.

This expanded the service to include the key areas of prevention: engineering, code enforcement, inspection and public education.

One of the next major progressions in the extension of our service was aggressive emergency medical intervention and support. This brought us to a new level of service, but with the same mission and vision: safe citizens and secure property. Over the last few years, with the apparent frequency and severity of natural disasters, we have seen the growth of emergency management. This is yet another extension of our service: another chance to work with the public, demonstrating professional behavior to our citizens in a real time of need and concern – both pre- and post-incident.  This is especially true in the urban/wildland interface. It gives us the opportunity to broaden our working relationships with other agencies, further demonstrating our value. Of course, all of this, again, is dependent on our behavior: our integrity in the eyes of these agencies and our citizens. It is the “Blue Ocean Strategy” of a 21stcentury fire service marketer’s dream!


The Progression of Our Services to Fire Service Marketing 3.0

Marketing 3.0 notes the progression of marketing from “products to customers to the ‘human spirit.’”

The book notes that Marketing 1.0 was transactional, the key concept being product development and sales in a one-to-many transaction. This is product-centric marketing.  “We make it and you buy it.”  The similarity to the fire service would be: “you call us and we put out the fire and save your life.”  This was a purely functional approach to our business. One might think of the purchase of a house or car. 

Marketing 2.0 dealt with different ion of services and products to satisfy and retain customers. Here we see a smarter consumer.  There is the need to position the product or service, as well as the corporation, speaking to the mind and heart of the individual. Think of IBM or GE in this context. Information technology and knowledge create a smarter consumer. This was the high-water mark of marketing. Here we see one-to-one marketing and the attempt to understand what the consumer needs. This is consumer-oriented marketing. We see the growth of brand development and the many ways to create a dialogue with the consumer. The similarity in the fire service would be a focus on citizen care at the incident (especially care for valuables and integrity of the building after the fire), public fire education, emergency medical services and disaster preparedness.  We begin to see a desire from the fire service to understand that marketing might be helpful to the fire service beyond visibility at an incident and a good public information officer (PIO).  We are probably at this phase now. But we are being forced very quickly into the next phase of fire service marketing.


Social Media: A Platform That Must Have a Defined Strategy: Cocreation, Communitization, And Character Building

Let’s look at Marketing 3.0 and the opportunity for the fire service.  Let’s examine it in light of the critical need for a national strategic marketing/public affairs plan, coupled with local strategies and tactics.  The purpose of both is to grow the perception of the fire service to an unassailable position. The IAFC paper is a great initial platform. New wave technology is the driver for Marketing 3.0.  And it is not going away.  As social media becomes increasingly expressive, the citizen is better able to influence other citizens – locally in your own jurisdiction, nationally and globally – with opinions and experiences.

Kotler notes that trust exists more in horizontal relationships rather than in vertical relationships. Citizens believe more in one another than they believe in companies or organizations.  The rise of social media is a reflection of the move from consumers’ trust in other citizens rather than companies or organizations. According to a 2009 Nielsen Global Survey, fewer consumers rely on company-generated advertising.  Increasingly they turn to word-of-mouth as a form of advertising they can trust. Around 90 percent trust recommendations from people they know, while 70 percent believe opinions posted online.  Kotler notes that Trendstream/Lightspeed research shows that consumers trust strangers in their social network more than they trust experts! 

This could be an opportunity for the fire service, especially in establishing credibility and safety messages. Why? It is non-threatening and we are not selling anything but our citizens’ safety.  We can be the experts in this non-threatening way. The influence of corporate advertising, and what we say about ourselves in the fire service, will continually diminish.  Social media is low cost and can appear to be bias-free compared to what we say. That is why behavior and integrity become even more important if that is possible.  Imagine if a citizen perceives a firefighter engaging in unprofessional behavior, and then writes about it on a blog.  What if it isn’t true?! How do we deal with that?  The best way is to have a values-based department with strong supportive leadership, endorsing the true image of the firefighter as a leading force in all areas of public safety. Kotler notes that citizens are seeking admirable characters outside their communities.  They are skeptical because they know good characters are scarce.  Once they find them, they will instantly become loyal evangelists.


Who Owns the Brand FD?

The basis of Marketing 3.0 confirms the fact that we no longer own the brand: FD. The citizens own it. We might admit since we are a public service that they have always owned the brand. What I mean here is that social media has literally lifted the brand into the hands of the citizens who we want to support us. Marketing 3.0 is based on actual value, certainly financial, but especially human. This value equation is the key to our sustainably; our ability to understand and join the social media conversation.  This still needs to be coupled with the local and national media to craft our story and tell it well.

We are entering the values-driven era of marketing.  That is why we are in such a great position to “move the ball forward” for the fire service. Every member of the fire service should memorize that IAFC paper! We can now couple the emotional loyalty and branding of the fire service with value-based human spirit marketing.  Instead of dealing with the citizens as consumers and “the public,” we need to see them as individual human beings with minds, hearts and spirits.  Who else sees this everyday but the firefighter? Why? When we arrive at an incident, especially with families and children in harm’s way, we think of our own families. We are in a special position to understand marketing that involves the human spirit. As Rick Lasky noted in his book, Pride and Ownership: “There are Fortune 500 companies that would kill for the marketing advantage the American fire service has.”2 As the IAFC paper notes: We need to deal now with the deterioration in our reputation so that we can strengthen the latent advantage we have for the future.

Kotler notes that the [citizens] and consumers are searching for organizations and companies that address their deepest needs for social, economic and environmental justice in their mission, vision and values. Our citizens and consumers are searching for us! The mission, vision and values of the fire service have always reflected “Marketing 3.0.” The question now is what our strategy should be as we move forward. There is no question that the foundation of our marketing is the meaning of our profession and the value proposition we provide.  This is the very essence of the fire service: the values that motivated each of us to become firefighters. Our personal mission and our brand mission must be inseparable and the same. Many fire service organizations are waking up to the very needs outlined in the IAFC paper. The Vision 20/20 Project is pointing the way to our future.


Actions We Can Take Now: How Vision 20/20 Contributes to Fire Service Marketing 3.0

The Vision 20/20 Project has been at the forefront of progressive change in the fire service. In fact, Vision 20/20’s tagline is “bridging the gap from yesterday to tomorrow.” Five key strategies have been developed through gap analysis over the last five years. The strategies are: fire prevention advocacy; marketing; culture; technology; and codes and standards. The platform of Vision 20/20 defines fire service Marketing 3.0.  Specifically, Community Risk Reduction (CRR), adopted from an initial model in the United Kingdom, has begun to blossom in jurisdictions around the country through specific training modules (contact Vision 20/20 for details if you wish to establish a program in your community).


Community Risk Reduction

In a nut shell, Community Risk Reduction is a program that establishes in-home inspections with the ability to determine other potential hazards, as well as the well-being of the family and the integrity of the home. Most important, it establishes collaboration with the community and the citizens.  The result is one of the most effective values for our marketing. The citizen can become a partner in his/her own safety. The Vision 20/20 initiatives, coupled with the IAFC reputation management paper provide an amazing road to ensure the long-term safety of our citizens as well as their financial and political support.  The key, of course, is execution. All the resources and tools are now available. Let’s use them to create and sustain our own future as we protect the future of our citizens.



  • 1Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit, Kotler, Kartajaya, Setiawan, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2010
  • 2Pride and Ownership: A Firefighter’s Love of the Job, Rick Lasky, Pennwell, 2006


See Ben Live! Ben May will be presenting "Strategic Brand Development for Fire and Rescue Services" at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, July 23 - 27.

BEN MAY, a contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of marketing management for the fire and emergency services for more than 25 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Rescue.