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Branding and the social housing sector – my take on it

We’ve worked in the social housing sector for 18 years and in that time we’ve got to know the sector pretty well, having worked with quite a few housing associations; Bromford, Orbit Group, Halton Housing, Stafford and Rural Homes, Trent and Dove, The Wrekin Housing Trust and Pierhead.

It goes without saying that we pick up on both the social housing big picture and their branding and how they communicate with their audiences.

Housing associations are always conscious of their need to deliver large on social purpose, but these are the organisations that have the greatest need to develop strong communications.

The social housing sector has changed, and this was impacted even more with the introduction of George Osborne’s rent reforms in 2015. There are challenges all ways round for social housing organisations;

Their audience has changed

Social housing organisations now need to be more refined in the way they communicate with a wider-than-ever-before range of audiences. Customers, local and central Government, the financial sector, other housing associations, home buyers and developers are all audiences that now need to be considered. But not only that, shared ownership and market rent has joined the mix and the demographic of their customers has changed because of the need of younger people, including professionals, to get their foot on the first rung of the property ladder.

Needing new and varied services

Funding the original social purpose of the social housing sector has meant that market rent, shared ownership and homes for sale have entered the mix. Some housing associations are utilising their maintenance division by offering their service to other associations. Some associations are moving into the homes for sale sector which means they have a totally different audience and therefore need to communicate very differently. This can be challenging for them.

The rent reforms in 2015 have created an impact. It started a wave of mergers and acquisitions which still continue and this means that those organisations are looking for new and more effective ways of being able to stick to their core principle of social purpose.

So what do we advise?

We see that the social housing sector acknowledges the need to consider brand and communications from the flurry of mergers and acquisitions and the subsequent brand evolution. But in some cases, strategic consideration is not given to the brand and of those who do look at it strategically, money is not spent as wisely as it could be.

If you look at other sectors as a comparison, the quality of communications could be higher. Where money is spent it is not always spent well with some poor quality design, writing and production.

One of the challenges for housing associations is to produce professional and good quality brand communications at a reasonable price, since the core purpose of housing associations is to help those in need. It is almost as important to not give the impression that things have cost money but the cost of poor quality design or failing to invest at all, may be greater than investing carefully in quality.

Housing associations like Bromford demonstrate it is possible to look professional without seeming like they’ve spent too much money on the communications piece.

As a Communications Manager ask yourself these questions:

Can you afford not to invest in your brand and communications?

Remember the cost of poor quality design or failing to invest at all, may be greater than investing carefully in quality.

Why do you exist?

We’d like to see more on the rich earthy stories about why housing associations exist that really connect with their many and varied audiences. There seems to be a lot of statements of core purpose but not many that are really emotive. How did you come about? Where are you going? Who do you help and what difference do you make to customers’ lives? In the hierarchy of messaging this needs to be right up there, not buried deep within your site. Your core purpose matters more than anything – give us emotion not just facts; good branding is all about you communicating how you do it not just what you do.

How do you differentiate yourself?

Many in the social housing sector are swimming in the same direction in the same river; using happy people images, bright colours and iconography, so achieving no differentiation from each other. This is a real opportunity to achieve stand out. How could you differentiate yourself?

Break out of the housing association design ‘straight jacket’ – now more than ever you need to stand out, so swim against the tide and create something more sophisticated away from the bright colours and iconography.

Does your brand identity have visual flexibility?

With the additional new audiences and services, the ‘straight jacket’ visual language doesn’t extend well across other applications so there is a fall-back default position to create sub brands which end up being managed awkwardly and lead to confusion for the user on their websites.

Build more flexibility into your visual language and messaging – don’t default to automatically creating new sub brands. Flexibility in your visual language and messaging may be all you need to create.

If you do develop sub brands, create a ‘family’ – ensure the relationship between your various brands is clear and that your master brand benefits from the shine of everything you are doing.

If you’re interested in finding out how Be Smart can help with your brand give Philippa Smart a call on 01902 797970 or email us.