Government branding not as effective as previously thought

March 18, 2021

The EU brand doesn't mean what it used to. (AP Image/Yves Logghe)

Researchers have failed to replicate a study demonstrating that the European Union brand significantly impacted people's evaluations of and trust in government policies, suggesting that government branding may not always impact how people perceive public policy and helping to fill the dearth of knowledge about public brands.

"There is very little scientific knowledge on the effects of public brands, even though quite a lot of money is being spent on them with huge budgets for marketing," Jasper Eshuis, a co-author of the study and a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, told The Academic Times.

Public brands — the brands of government entities, small or large — can help organizations use their identity to assert legitimacy and provide markers for evaluating their actions, according to a 2015 analysis. As a governance strategy, branding allows for strategic image building among target groups, according to a separate 2015 study

An entity that has built an effective public brand, however, cannot trust that their brand will always remain effective, Eshuis and his colleagues explain in their paper, published Feb. 26 in the Public Administration Review. 

Eshuis's study is a replication of a study originally published in 2015which found that the EU brand significantly and positively affected citizens' evaluation and trust of policies. The new study sought to ascertain whether the findings of the original study could be replicated. 

The experiments, both the original and the replications, show that public organizational brands do have the ability to influence citizens' perceptions of those organizations' policies, but the effectiveness of the brand may vary over time. 

Both studies tested whether the evaluation of two policies changed by pairing the policy with the EU brand, testing citizens' trust in those policies.

The 779 participants across the seven replications in the new study were randomly assigned to control and experimental groups, and both groups were presented with two policies — one that addressed digital skills for citizens and another that addressed improving air quality in cities. 

The experimental group received the policy alongside the EU flag and the name and logo of the European Commission. The control group only received the text of the policies.

Participants were asked to rate their level of agreement from one to 10 — with 10 being the highest level of agreement — on statements made based on the policies in front of them. The statements aimed to measure trust by testing three dimensions of trust: benevolence, honesty and competence.

Benevolence was measured by statements such as "This policy will be good for citizens," and, "This policy shows real interest in the wellbeing of citizens, not only the interest of the organization that created the policy." Honesty was measured by statements such as, "The organization that crafted the policy is honest," and, "The organization that crafted the policy keeps its commitments;" and competence was measured by statements such as, "This policy will be capable of reaching the desired goal," and, "I think this policy proposal is created by professionals with skill and expertise."

The republication experiments also improved on the original study by testing other dependent variables, including testing a fake brand in order to establish whether the effect of the EU brand would have been caused by any brand rather than only by the EU brand. 

Though the original study found strong, positive and statistically significant effects between the EU brand and people's evaluations, the replication studies — conducted seven times in three countries — found no statistically significant effects of the EU brand on citizens' policy trust. 

The fake brand group on average had a "slightly higher level of trust than the control group (no brand at all), but lower than the experimental group (with the EU brand)," according to the study, but researchers said none of the differences in trust between brands were statistically significant. 

In order to get a more robust understanding of these results, the researchers performed a meta-analysis of all the experiments, both original and replicated. The meta-analysis continued to show significant and positive effects of the EU brand on policy trust, but the researchers noted that it was "rather small in terms of power."

The particularly strong effects in the original study combined with small effects in the replications, though insignificant in themselves, are likely the cause of that result, according to Eshuis. 

Notwithstanding the meta-analysis, the seven replications still reveal that the EU brand had a less positive effect on citizens' policy trust in 2017 and 2018 than it did in 2013, the year the original experiment was conducted. 

Eshuis said that there are likely two explanations for this. One is a negative shift in citizen perception of the European Union.

"People may have other associations with the EU now," Eshuis said. "So, when you show them the brand of the EU it triggers other patterns in the mind, with different effects on trust in particular." 

For example, the researchers said, Great Britain's departure from the EU may have impacted how people perceive the political and economic union.

Another explanation, Eshuis said, is that, "People now know these policies far better than they did before, meaning their perception is more robust by now." 

"They are more familiar with air quality and digital skills policies than they were years ago," he added. "So, when you show a brand together with a policy, it doesn't change their mind anymore because their perception is so robust."

In terms of substance on public branding, the replication studies show that the effect of a public brand may vary over time and may even become non-significant at certain points in time, according to Eshuis. In other words, public brands do not remain effective solely because they were effective in the past. 

"This means that you cannot trust that a public brand will always be effective," he said. "I would recommend monitoring the effects and see whether you need to adapt; it becomes a bit more of an adaptive process."

Whether for large governmental entities like the EU, mid-sized metropolitan cities or smaller counties, communications departments need to be aware that their brands may not always stand the test of time, according to Eshuis. To ensure continued brand effectiveness, these departments need to, at a minimum, monitor the effects of the brand and adapt accordingly. 

For academics, Eshuis said this research shows that, "it's really important that we realize that the results of this kind of experiment are not constant either." 

"We cannot assume full replicability of experiments over time," he added. "This is a plea for replicating experiments."

The study, "The Effect of the EU-brand on Citizens' Trust in Policies: Replicating an Experiment," published Feb. 26 in the Public Administration Review, was authored by Jasper Eshuis, Erasmus University Rotterdam; Thijs van de Geest, Rabobank; Erik Hans Klijn, Erasmus University Rotterdam; Joris Voets, Ghent University; Magdalena Florek, Poznan University of Economics and Business; and Bert George, Ghent University.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the publication date of the research. The error has been corrected.

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