Brand Equity, Marketing & the Fire Service: It's All About the Story

Chief Nyle Zikmund is probably one of the better marketers I have seen in the fire service. He has a high ROI based on years of promoting prevention and public education and telling the story to every segment of his market.


Many of us in the fire service have two jobs. My "day job" involves working for this big mouse and I have learned a few things along the way allowing me to blend that job with a passion for the fire service. It's a nice gig and I enjoy it immensely. At the risk of repeating myself, here are a few things to think about. Some of this I have learned from the mouse, and some I learned from loving the fire service so much.

First the mouse: it is all about the story. What stories are you telling your firefighters, your community, and the people who support you financially and politically?

The stories are part of the brand. Brand equity is who we say we are, and all of the symbols and actions that achieve that goal. Reputation equity is who they say we are, especially when they see us doing what we say we will do. Reputation equity is delivering on our promises.

Branding today only goes so far and every day that distance becomes a shorter walk. Recently I had the honor of working with a dynamic fire chief from the suburbs of Minneapolis. Spring Lake Park - Blaine - Mounds View Fire Chief Nyle Zikmund. He asked me how any fire department could possibly differentiate its "brand" enough to stand out in an over saturated market in which approximately 6,000 messages a day travel through every kind of communication instrument from the web to TV to Blackberries to iPhones. My answer was, "are you kidding?!"

"It is simple, but it's not easy."

Here is the foundation. Allow me to quote a marketing genius: Alan Brunacini, from his timeless work: Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service: "The characteristics that cause people to notice us and get out of our way (hopefully) set the stage for widespread interest in us...This socialization starts early with kids playing with toy fire trucks…Most parents (not counting my mom, who said "Jewish boys aren't firemen!") don't have their kid checked when he/she says at four years old that they want to become a firefighter when they grow up..."

You don't have to wonder very long about what any other service business would give for our market position. Ask "Pizza R' Us" if they would like to have pre-paid pizzas, a highly advertised three-digit phone number, legal permission to make deliveries code red with all warning devices blaring, blinking and blasting, and to have every kid in town playing with a toy pizza delivery truck from the time they can gurgle. "Pepperoni and extra cheese, Mommy...they want it, and we've got it!"

Now, Chief Zikmund is probably one of the better marketers I have seen in the fire service and there are more than a few out there. Why? A high return on investment (ROI) based on years of promoting prevention and public education and telling the story to every segment of his market. The problem is we are not sharing enough of our successes to help the rest of the brothers and sisters. But, not to worry, I will be sharing his story right here in the near future.

My point is this. Each department determines how to convey its brand equity and its reputation equity. And that creates both for the entire fire service. And that positions us to blow away the competition - all of it! It doesn't happen by accident anymore than running an incident. It is a process; and it delivers the desired result, among them, perpetuation of the department and the U.S. Fire Service. It is called a marketing plan. If a mouse can do it, so can we.

There is more emotional loyalty for a local fire department and its firefighters, than for a mouse. It is all about the story. For the people who rely on us, it's a real one. But we have to tell it.