5 secrets of better branding for government contractors

Branding can help deliver better results, enthuse employees and earn customer loyalty. Here's how.

There’s a good reason Vangent was named government contractor of the year at the 9th Annual Greater Washington Government Contractor Award gala.

Vangent delivered great results and had a strong brand. Over its fifty plus year history, the Vangent brand grew from a small business unit of NCS, to a $90 million operating division of Pearson PLC, to a $700+ million stand-alone company owned by Veritas Capital that was ultimately acquired by General Dynamics for $960 million on Sept. 30, 2011.

My paramount focus for Vangent’s brand over the past four and a half years was to grow awareness and recognition as a powerful, effective and reliable partner for federal government agencies seeking a services provider to support and answer questions about broad-reaching government programs. These programs included Medicare, military health care, disease control and prevention, student loans and Cash for Clunkers, to name a few.

In today’s government services market, where lowest price and technically acceptable often trumps best value and best solution, and where companies big and small, old and new, are jockeying for a slice of dwindling federal dollars amid an austere budget environment, an effective branding strategy is critical to a company’s success.

Vangent’s growth and market strength were the result of great customer service but also a strong focus on brand value, both internally and externally. Without a strong brand, many government services providers look exactly alike. With a solid and recognizable brand, a government services provider can come to stand for something valuable and important for its employees, customers, investors and the citizenry it serves.

Here are five rules of branding I practiced at Vangent which are essential for any company looking to enter the government services market, expand their market share or to re-position for new growth opportunities:

1) Focus on outcomes, not offerings. You can put a marketing brochure or a website of Company A next to Company B and cover up the names and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Many companies feel compelled to list every capability or skill they offer in a ‘laundry list’ fashion without any context as to what problem or challenge they help their customers overcome. A much more compelling way to communicate what a company does differently is to promote the outcomes or results it accomplishes for its customers – in plain English. Vangent built a successful branding campaign on the fact that “four out of ten Americans connect with Vangent, but never know it.” We combined this powerful and memorable factoid with a unique result it helped its customers accomplish. One example was how Vangent helped a customer enable better information sharing among multiple agencies which saved time and money – reducing processing time from eight months to just one day and shaving 30 percent in operating costs. Using that kind of differentiator will make your company stick out from the rest of the pack and allow you to stake claim to a result which you can build your brand around.

2) Equip your employees with the tools they need to be effective brand communicators. In the government contracting world, employees are your most valuable brand ambassadors. But the reality is that most employees who work for government services providers can barely recite their company’s mission or vision statements, let alone their menu of service offerings. The reason is simple: Mission statements too often are too long and full of over-used industry jargon. Make it easy for your employees by giving them the tools they need to not only memorize the meaning or essence of your company’s brand, but to internalize the brand so that they can effectively explain what your company’s brand represents. When Pearson Government Solutions was rebranded as Vangent in 2007, it created a "brand playbook" given to every employee and helped them understand the importance of branding, the words to describe Vangent’s brand and examples or "proof points" that helped them explain what Vangent’s brand represents. The brand playbook was an essential part of Vangent’s on-boarding program for new employees and was reinforced with a short and impactful video shown to all employees.

3) Create an emotional feeling about your brand. It’s OK, really! Companies marketing products we buy and use every day are masters at creating an emotional connection with consumers. They want you to feel good about buying and using their product. That’s why today’s consumer marketing focuses on how you feel versus how much the product costs or whether you need it. Why can’t we apply that same rule to the government services market? Vangent showcased its experts and thought leaders on video in a series of conversations about some of the most pressing challenges facing its customers. What’s the point in keeping their faces and thoughts hiding behind nondescript bios or ho-hum descriptions of your company’s services? Bring your company to life and create an emotional connection with your target audiences by storytelling. Showcase your company’s talent in rich content, quality photos and compelling videos. You’ll offer your customers, teaming partners and new recruits a glimpse into your company before they‘ve had the chance to meet you in person.

4) Your brand is your culture and culture trumps strategy any day. The first question asked by any new employee is about the company’s culture, not about the company’s strategy. They’ll want to know what it’s like to work at your company, what the environment is like and the opportunities to advance their careers. Many companies in the government services industry struggle in communicating their company culture and instead give employees lists of customers, names of contract vehicles and a list of company locations. Does that really answer an employee’s need to understand the company culture? Hardly. Vangent focused on its six core values and one in particular: We do meaningful work. Employees understood the impact they had on the lives of millions of people every day. This powerful value permeated throughout the company in employee communications, external communications in the forms of media relations, investor relations and marketing and recruiting campaigns.

5) Invest in your company’s brand no matter how much and don’t be ashamed about it. The old saying "don’t be penny wise and pound foolish" certainly rings true today in the government services industry where pressure on top and bottom line growth has squeezed out marketing, communications, advertising and branding budgets. During an era of dwindling resources in the federal government where blatant promotion is frowned upon, how do you distinguish your company and justify precious resources? In a down economy like the one we’re experiencing today, it’s more important than ever to up your game and take advantage of new and inexpensive ways to showcase your company. At Vangent, I implemented an integrated marketing program which focused on valuable content and compelling videos. I also used social media tools including Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn to drive Vangent’s brand directly to the audiences it aimed to reach. Vangent’s powerful messaging platform was on display at industry events, conferences and trade shows.

Yes, employees, customers and investors do notice which companies have got it going on and which companies are stuck in the past.