Branding the struggle

When I was at uni twenty years ago, I had a choice of majors in my Bachelor of Commerce. I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do, or would do, but there were a few subjects I knew I’d never do. The biggest one on my no-go list was marketing. To my twenty year old leftie-leaning mind marketing was about manipulating people to buy things they didn’t want. I know we spent a lot of time back them talking about ‘the man’, and ‘the system’. We also spent a little time marching along George Street to let ‘him’ know our opinions.

It’s bizarre now when I think about my ideas from twenty years ago given that I now spend hours of my working day thinking about how my clients can ‘market’ their product to their customers. As it turns out though, most of my clients are government departments, their products are health messages and their customers for the most part are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities around South-East Queensland, Queensland and Australia.

I enjoy what I do. I am fulfilled by creating the best way to promote health services*. The idea that we’re ‘helping** the cause’ when we work with clients (government departments) to get the messages like ‘deadly ears is deadly futures’ across to young Murri mums and dads feels good. Our messages are positive, are based on our lived experiences and we honestly believe that what we create is worthwhile.

Occasionally though, the 20 year-old in me gets together with my 42 year old over-thinking brain, and I just get overwhelmed and get an attack of the what-the-f&ck-am-I-doing-?

We are essentially delivering out-sourced government programmes. Is this what ‘the struggle’ has come down to? Creating branded health messages to put on water bottles and tattoos to sell health to communities? Of course, our designs look deadly, but is it worth it? Is that what it’s all about? Is it meaningful? Is this it?

Marketing today
Twenty years on, I have decided that marketing doesn’t have to be the evil I imaged it to be. To me, modern day marketing, influenced by the advent of social media technology, talks about a circular processes of  –

  • listening to customers;
  • engaging with customers; and
  • responding to customer’s needs, leading you to create a better product or service for you customer

I know plenty of organisations out there that do community work, not ‘business’, who could sure do with a dose of modern day marketing. Imagine community organisations that created strategies to ensure that they listened to their members (their customers/clients) and engaged with them in such a way, so that they could improve their services? Now that’s a community service I’d like to experience.

You can only work with what’s in front of you
I’ve also learned over the few years of our small operation, that in the end, you have a contract. The contract binds you (and it don’t matter if you’re white or black), to a set of terms and conditions. The end product we come up with will be based on a whole range of issues including –

  • the client’s budget
  • the client’s time frame
  • the nature of the product
  • the type of message that’s being sent
  • and if it’s a government organisation, a whole range of invisible, I’m-not-sure-my-supervisor-will-approve-of-that concerns. [if you look far enough up the line you know that the end ‘supervisor’ is the Minister]

And in the end, all you deliver is the design, on the water-bottle, the tattoo, the hat, the sticker, or the poster. People don’t see the heated discussions, the thought processes, the different versions, the too-ing and fro-ing between you, your creative team, your client and the idea.

When someone wins a contract, those of us unconnected to the key players, have only what we see to go by. And many of us, me included, have one hell of a healthy dose of cynicism to stir into that big dorrie moment.

There are a growing number of Indigenous-owned communication, branding and design agencies. I think this is a good thing. Plenty of Whitefellas have made plenty of money from all areas of Indigenous funding, time for Blackfullas to get a piece of the pie. There’s a twist though –

  • When a non-Indigenous business runs a consulting project, and the process is dodgy, everyone just thinks ‘well, see, it was Whitefullas messed it up again’.
  • If an Indigenous agency wins the contract, and the process is … well needless to say, you’ve got an even sharper eye on your work.

Indigenous consulting and communication agencies that go for the big high-profile jobs, especially the ‘hot topic’ jobs, have everyone watching and judging. This is a good thing – we should be judged, we should be made accountable for how we undertook a project. Contractually we’re accountable to our clients, but ultimately we’re accountable to our families and our communities as people, and the work that we do is an extension of that.

The future
We have only just started to see the emergence of an Indigenous-owned communication sector/industry – and we don’t know how it will look. In my opinion, eventually, as more and more Indigenous agencies emerge and possibly merge, as competition gets stronger, and client budgets get tighter, we will need to be increasingly sophisticated about how we communicate who we are, what we do and why we do it.***

Strategies we should consider:

  • Stay in communication with people. There are easy ways to keep in touch with the broader community (eg. blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, YouTube and old fashioned face-to-face). These can be personable and professional at the same time. Social media tools allow you not just to inform people of what you’re doing but lets people ask questions and make comments. Most people want to be heard and social media let’s you listen and yarn. But only if you’re using it.
  • Work out ways to explain your consultation process, within the parameters of your contract, to those outside your project. This should be something that we budget and allocate time when bidding for projects.
  • Work out how not to become too aligned with the message that you’re delivering for your client – particularly if that message runs against the beliefs of many people in the community (easier said than done I image)
  • Think about the multiple audiences of your public face – you need to create a brand with both potential clients and community in mind (and with national projects, it’s communities across the the nation). Remember different audiences have different ideas of what is valuable.

Many Indigenous agencies rely on government jobs to pay the bills and get ahead. It doesn’t mean we’re sell outs either. We’re no different than a nurse working at the Royal Women’s Hospital (govt $), the old activist who’s been working for the local council for twenty years (govt $), a radical old university lecturer (govt $) and the school teacher in the local high school (govt $). In building a client list, govt $ are generally more reliable and they’re less likely to do a runner than some fly-by-night private industry client. And I have a family to feed too. But we need to be careful to keep the spin at bay and keep it real.

I imagine that I’ll always have what-the-f&ck-am-I-doing-? moments. Thank goodness too, cause it means I’m not a robot. I just need to keep applying the modern marketing tools that we use with our clients – listen, engage and respond.

* We don’t only do health services, it’s just that most of our clients have to date have been health promotion projects
** ‘helping’? urgh? there must be another word here!
*** Blacklines is NOT a communications agency, we currently focus only on graphic design. However we do occasionally work with communications agencies during the course of our business. Also we regularly apply branding and marketing principles to our client’s projects.

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