When you think of the word “brand,” you may think of large corporations like Amazon, Nike, or Microsoft. You might think “brand” and “branding” don’t have much to do with the fire service or fire departments. But even though we’re not selling sneakers or other goods, the fire service is very much a brand. “The fire service is a national brand, whether we want to admit it or not,” wrote Ben May, a former Disney executive and current board member of the Center for Public Safety Excellence, in a Firehouse.com article. “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.” In fact, May dubbed the fire service as the “Most Trusted Brand in America.”
May gave a presentation of the same title at Emergency Reporting’s inaugural ADAPT 2020 virtual summit. Here’s what May says makes up a “brand” (whether it be Disney, the fire service as a whole, or your individual fire department):
- A symbol – The Maltese cross has become synonymous with the fire service.
- A promise – A brand is a promise; in the fire service, we promise to protect and serve to the best of our abilities, and people have come to recognize this in our brand.
- A story – A brand tells a story, a story that continues and evolves. The fire service story dates back to the days of Ben Franklin and the first fire station dedicated to fire suppression. Then it evolved and changed over time (as all good brands do). Community Risk Reduction was a continuation of our story. EMS was also a continuation of our story.
- A mission – Protecting our citizens 24/7 is a mission of the fire service.
The fire service brand is ubiquitous, popular, and well respected. Our brand equity is priceless, May says. He referenced Rich Lasky’s book, “Pride and Ownership,” to make the point that a CEO of a Fortune 500 company would give anything to have the equity of the fire service brand. Why? Because people inherently trust the fire service. “They trust us to do what we say we’re going to do,” May said. However, he warns that if we don’t maintain the brand and we don’t grow, we won’t keep that covetable equity.
“Brand development and brand maintenance is so important,” May said. “The public owns the brand. But we (fire departments) control the message. We can control the message in how we do what we do every single day – how we portray ourselves, how we look to the public, etc.” He adds that, from the time that we take the oath in the fire service, we’re responsible for upholding the brand.
What are some ways that we can work to maintain the fire service and your fire department’s brand?
- Develop a public affairs marketing plan and have a public affairs director at your agency who can communicate consistent messaging to the public. May suggests that this person should be at the officer level (battalion chief at minimum).
- Ensure that the public understands what it is that you do. The message that you get out should be communicated in a way that the general public understands and doesn’t leave them wondering what exactly firefighters do when they are not putting out fires and prevents the “Why are we paying for all of this?” attitude. Having the ability to pull robust data and analytics from a records management system and using that data on your website, in social media posts, newsletters, your annual report, etc., can help convey this information to the community.
- Focus public service messaging in terms of public education and community risk reduction on how that keeps the entire community safe.
- Make sure that every individual within your agency understands that they represent the brand. They should look and act professionally and be aware of how their actions reflect upon the fire department brand. “Each of us is responsible for the brand,” May said. “Every day that we get up, we are a leader in the service. When you take that oath, you’ve made a decision to be a leader. It doesn’t matter if you’re a chief officer or a rookie, if you have the honor to be a part of this group of men and women, you are a leader & [representing] the entire service, not just your department. When the public sees something amiss, it reflects on the entire fire service.”
- Maintain a good “corporate reputation.” Dennis Wolf wrote in a Firehouse.com article, “Branding for the Fire Service”: “What is your department known for in the community? How well do you provide your services? Is your department always in the news for some problem with its leadership, a botched response, poor quality service, or shenanigans by the firefighters? Corporate reputation is the image that others see when they look at the fire department…corporate reputation will be a major factor in developing and maintaining a positive corporate brand.”
Whether we want to or not, it’s important that we recognize and treat the fire service as a brand, and that we are the ones who control that brand. Lastly, May says we should all keep in mind: “If you don’t focus on the glory, but on taking care of citizens 24/7 – if you do that and remember who you are and what you represent, the brand will do just fine.”