When times are tough branding might not seem a priority, but well thought out branding has the power to save an organisation money.

Branding is probably the last word you would expect to see in HSJ during these austere times. Surely, I hear, branding means spending money, not saving it. Isn’t it a ‘nice thing to do’ rather than a ‘must have’?

Yes, I suppose you’re right if you think branding is putting logos on things and making stuff look good. In which case, it is probably the last thing in your communications and facilities managers’ in-tray. But brand, on the other hand, is definitely something which should be front of mind for all board members, especially for any organisation facing change, however dramatic it may be.

Brand is well described by Hilary Thomas in her article last April. A brand is a blend of the experiential – the sum of all points of contact – and the psychological – what I call ‘renting spaces in people’s minds’. Some brands manage these two constructs perfectly, while others, indeed most, abandon them to hope. The problem with this is that other people are in control and not you.

When people talk about rebranding exercises, they often restrict their comprehension to new logos, or different pictures and colours. But rebranding exercises (an unfortunate terminology, but there’s only so much we can change) are more than this, as Hilary deftly points out.

The heart of a brand is trust and reputation. A brand is nothing without its people, nowhere more so than in the NHS. Brands must therefore tell stories and provide experiences which are believable in the minds of citizens, patients and carers and, because they have to be exemplars of them, in the minds of staff, as well.

Of course, the NHS Constitution provides values that are universally understood as a starting point with which to build a brand. However, each trust, each service, will have unique characteristics. Understanding these is vital to crystallising a brand which rings true.

Why does this matter? A well-articulated brand, with clearly defined vision (where you want to go), purpose or mission (how you’re going to get there) and values (what’s it going to feel like) can do much more than be words at the front of your business strategy. They can unite your people, attract customers and save you money.

So, here are the top five tips for using brand to help save money, whatever NHS organisation you are part of:

1.       All change, please

Organisations, and therefore people, going through change will benefit from a clear steer. Whether little daily changes, or big merger change, organisational leaders need to tell stories about the future that are believable and, although challenging sometimes, achievable. If these stories are based on a set of universally understood values and vision setting, then the people listening to them will respond more positively. Time will be better spent and less waste will happen.

2.       People leave their manager, not their job

Managers have a key responsibility in recruiting, and retaining the people in an organisation. If the organisation is making a promise externally, a manager has a responsibility in the contract with that employee, as part of the employee value proposition, which will be born of the brand. Failing the employee on that may cause them to leave and hand you all the costs associated with replacement.

3.       Flyers, Twitter, photo ops

At a recent event organised by new public sector recruitment specialists, Public Select, speakers concurred that communicators are going to have to be more frugal in their communication spending. Budgets may mean much more inventive use of leaflets, social media and local press. Making sure that messages and brand expression are consistent in these limiting environments means even more clarity around the brand. Room for mistakes, or waywardness, are out of the question.

4.       Getting on

Integrated care organisations (ICOs) and other provider organisations, however they may appear, will need to address how they are going to work together. Our experience has been that brand workshops help to bring people across an organisation to share good practice and ideas, and making sure there is a shared aspiration. But more than this, the process helps people understand the whole offer, enabling an improved impact on the patient pathway.

5.       Social return

The value of social marketing is increasingly being proven. Metrics must be clearly defined and the benefits clearly articulated. The heart of brands is trust. The credibility of the information provided is vital in helping people change their behaviour. Local NHS-branded campaigns will get better returns if they are created to support a brand which means something to local people.