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Letting go of the reins: the challenges of the NHS brand

By Marcus Watson

In a recent article, we discussed the challenges facing NHS Trusts as they grapple with a new government and challenging environments, and how a brand built co-productively can help.  Here, we’re going to have a look at the NHS brand itself, and whether it’s up to scratch.

First off, when we’re chatting about the NHS brand we need to think beyond the iconic logo, as difficult as that may be! The challenge facing organisations using the NHS brand is in how it’s controlled and operated. The NHS prefers a tight leash on creativity with its property. This is spot on when looking at private or external organisations borrowing the NHS brand, but it seems a bit excessive when applied internally. Such a limiting approach stifles and staggers innovation, leaving Trusts unable to move on.

The key indicator of the failing of the NHS brand and its rigid guidelines is how widely they are flouted. Time and again we see Trusts using alternative typefaces, imagery, and icons because the main brand is simply too restrictive. ‘Choose and book’ and the greater use of private healthcare providers has created a competitive marketplace for Trusts. Critically though, the NHS brand and its iconic blue lozenge doesn’t give them an opportunity to look and feel any different from one another. This has led to what you might term ‘brand anarchy’, with NHS bodies increasingly veering in new directions to help themselves stand out. 

This is a problem for the NHS, and may partly explain why they recently appointed their first ‘Head of Brand’. The tough-talking, no-nonsense, ‘do as you’re told’ approach is pushing individual members away, and creating an even more diluted brand. The solution? Let go of the reins, and encourage the committed, passionate people who work for the NHS to feel that they can have a part of the brand they love. 

In clichéd charity brand fashion, Macmillan offer a perfect study in how to do this, give people the freedom to experiment and play, whilst remaining coherent. As pretty much the most loved organisation and brand in the UK, the NHS is perfectly poised to inject some of this heart into how they come across, adding clarity, flexibility and warmth at a time when it’s needed most.