The Fire Department: The Brand Is Us, the Brand Is You

Dec. 1, 2003
Ben May explains how fire departments can brand themselves to have citizens take notice and listen.

In educational seminars conducted for the fire service around the country, it is becoming more common to see presentations about marketing the fire service or the importance of customer service for your department. You can usually find at least one these seminars at any of the numerous professional venues - from the annual Firehouse Expo to the Executive Fire Officer development course at the National Fire Academy to meetings of the National Volunteer Fire Council and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to name a few.

What is the necessity for applying what appear to be business formulas and techniques to a respected and effective public service that has been a part of the fabric of the American community since Ben Franklin founded the first volunteer fire department?

This is a great question and one that we should always be able to answer, especially among ourselves. Hal Bruno noted in his August Fire Politics column, "At a time when they should be hiring firefighters and spending more on training and equipment, many jurisdictions are cutting fire department budgets." He was referring to the consistent need for the fire service to have the monetary and political support for every local department to be best prepared for a catastrophic attack on American soil. For Hal Bruno and those of us who know how essential this support is, it is a critical need and one that puts our nation at potential risk without the needed support. Remember the afterglow of our reputation after 9/11? Where did that go? Into thin air, of course. Any marketing person could have predicted that one.

The marketing challenge is no different than one on the fireground

For a marketing person this is simply one more challenge among the many that are leading to the growth in effectiveness and influence of the American fire and emergency services. This is not just unrealistic optimism. It is simply one viewpoint. It is submitting the problem to the filter of marketing. Seen in that way, these problems are not insurmountable, but they are significantly challenging, just like a major incident. It is just that our main function is to mitigate against fires and other emergencies instead of being a marketing company. So many things just depend on your perspective, don't they?

Here's an example we can all understand. I have been reading former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen's book, Strong of Heart. Incidentally, the book is a great read. I really like Tom. He's bright and has a big heart, and he has always wanted the best for his department and the fire service. At any rate, when confronted by the unfolding tragedy of 9/11 as it mutated out of control, Tom notes that, "Even at the worst fires or disasters, firefighters are accustomed to taking control of a scene, sometimes after a fierce battle, to be sure, but setting its boundaries, containing the damages and injuries, finding a way to corner our enemy."

For firefighters and fire officers this is the normal situation we face daily. We have a whole set of disciplines in our toolbox we use that are second nature to us so that we can deal with about any contingency, or at the very least learn from it so we can strengthen the tactics of our responses - even after 9/11. But to any citizen who has ever been in an emergency situation, it can be one of chaos and fear.

So what does this have to do with marketing? Quite a bit. It's a matter of sizing up the situation, creating a plan, determining what tools you need, attacking the problem, and learning from your mistakes when you analyze and measure the results. When a marketer sees a fire department's or the entire fire service's "problems," they really do not carry the concern or fear that one might have if unaccustomed to such difficulties. These include budget constraints, potential manpower cutbacks or major competition such as law enforcement. They also include union and management issues, department scandals, and the number of services we should offer and how our performance is measured. A marketer sees these issues in the form of significant, but normal marketing challenges, just as we see normal challenges in a major fire or disaster situation.

Remember, genius is nothing more than observation coupled with a fixed purpose. I am no genius, but I do have a fixed purpose. For me, personally, it's a chance to be creative and effective on behalf of a profession and people I love. And it is well worth the effort. Better than marketing wines or widgets, in my opinion.

Branding 101

What has all of this got to do with the term "brand"? Everything. What does that mean? Listen up, I am going to give you a few pointers called Branding 101.

The fire service is a national brand, whether we want to admit it or not. Just like Disney, the image of a firefighter, fire apparatus, the Maltese cross or the Star of Life conjures up certain feelings and thoughts among our citizens. We call these brand associations.

As an example, the brand of my company, Disney, is the seventh-most-popular brand in the world, according to measurements from the marketing and advertising world. When our guests see Mickey Mouse or the Disney logo, it brings to mind the great experiences they associate with the image. There are squads of very intelligent people whose job it is every day to create and perpetuate brands so that the public always has a top-of-mind awareness of the brand's name and meaning. In the end, however, a brand is nothing more than a promise of performance.

According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the American consumer receives at least 3,000 advertising messages daily. This means that those brands that have a large consumer franchise (consumer franchise is a term that means the consumer knows and believes in what the brand represents by actually using the branded product) are constantly under pressure to keep their brand in front of the American consumer because of the growing competition through brand proliferation (too many brands in your face).

A public service is different. We aren't selling luxury products or services. We are demonstrating our value when someone calls us, when we perform our duties and when the public learns an important safety lesson either before (hopefully) or after an incident. We do this when we educate our customers or enforce fire codes to keep the public safe. Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini probably said it best in his book, Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, when he noted: "You don't have to wonder very long what any other customer service business wouldn't give for our market position (besides us being a monopoly). 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 three with all warning devices blinking, and blasting so your pistachio and tutti-frutti pie is always hot, 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! This is a very real way of saying that the brand Fire Department is one of the best positioned in the minds of 'market USA.' "

The brand Fire Department means just as much in non-emergencies

This means that it is just as important to remember who we are and what we represent whether we are at an incident or not - and to make sure our customers know it all of the time. Quite frankly, at an incident, the focus is on getting the job done. The public expects us to do that.

Quick story: I remember my very first call in 1976. I was on Engine 121 from Hillandale, MD. The call was a high-rise, but I didn't know it yet. We went screaming down the street. I was hanging onto the backstep and feeling pretty cool about my first call. Suddenly, I asked the guy next to me where we were going. He didn't respond, but looked at me seriously as he pulled his boots up to his hips. "I said, where is the call?" He answered, "El Dorado Towers, high-rise!"

High-rise? I'm thinking. Wait a minute, wait a minute. Now what am I supposed to do? Here I am, my first call, and I'm scared and I'm not sure what to do. What was I thinking when I signed on for this? Then I remember, oh yeah, I am wearing this uniform, I am supposed to know what to do. I just got out of rookie school. I think I'm ready.

As we pull up to the scene I remember that all of the people streaming outside of the building and all of the onlookers noticing my uniform are now at ease because they are probably thinking, he's one of the people who knows what to do. We will be OK now. After all, you really can't say, "This is my first day on the job, so I might not save your life completely right, but I'll try."

Bottom line: They see the apparatus, they see the uniform, they see us and they trust the brand implicitly. We are all familiar now with the USA Today poll some years ago noting that our citizens trust us second only to their immediate families. Trust in the brand Fire Department is called brand equity. This represents the measurable and intangible qualities of a brand our customers hold in trust.

According to the IEG, a sponsorship and alliance information clearing house for marketing professionals, "The challenge for marketers in building a strong brand is ensuring that customers have the right types of experiences with products and services and their accompanying marketing programs so that the desired thoughts, feelings, images, beliefs perceptions, opinions, etc., become linked to the brand."

Now we come to the brand: us - Fire Department. How we look, act and present ourselves at any level, local, state or national, will determine the perpetuation of our brand and our profession. This is equally as important on Capitol Hill as it is in a non emergency incident in the smallest town in America. Hundreds of thousands of opportunities are presented to us hourly in this country to build a strong and unchallengeable brand equity. But we are not there yet.

Fire and life safety: Fire Department. One brand, many services. Many years ago, the railroads had the strongest brand equity in the United States. Entire cities grew because of the presence of the burgeoning railroads and the various goods and services they affected. Unfortunately, we all know what happened to that mighty industry. It is a shadow of its former self. The railroads did not bother to consider the importance of their brand equity and how it could affect their future. The railroads forgot that they were in the transportation business, not just the railroad business. Had they planned for their future we might be flying on Santa Fe Airlines or renting Rock Island Rent-A-Car the next time we attend a seminar or convention out of town.

In the end, the brand is really you. Each of us represents the brand Fire Department. How we look and act off and on the scene. Who each of us is, what we believe in and how we are known to other firefighters as well as the public. How well we do our homework to present our case on Capitol Hill strengthens our brand. How effective we are in gaining local public support for our brand strengthens us.

We simply cannot control our own future and maintain our "business" without a marketing plan that speaks to this issue of branding. We have a real opportunity because of public cynicism with business and the incessant intrusion of commercial advertising. I, for one, do not want to tell my grandchildren what the fire department used to do before it became something else and disappeared - like the railroads.

Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business at Walt Disney World's Epcot. May was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree in international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter's Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at [email protected].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!