The Public Face of Marketing

Article excerpt

In January next year a new committee is born. Twenty marketers meet to discuss public sector marketing skills under the banner of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

No danger of hyperventilating with excitement about that, you may think, but there is a mounting buzz in the world of local authorities -- a positive sense of excitement about marketing for the public sector. At a time when most parts of the private sector are cutting back, public sector marketing is a growth industry. Not just in terms of size but in sophistication too. Skills developed in the private sector to meet the profit motive are being transferred to the public sector for non-profit services.

One local council to take marketing by the throat is Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council. Last year it set up a marketing department as an in-house agency, with 11 staff, including three marketing managers. Head of marketing David McElhinney, says his team markets Knowsley's "product mix" -- 30 product categories from a plant nursery to refuse collection and a legal department -- using the same techniques as private sector marketers. Research, graphic design, mailshots and advertising are all done in-house on a 5m pounds marketing budget.

As you might expect, there is the odd gripe from other departments about marketing spend. But, says McElhinney, there's less complaining at Knowsley than he experienced in the private sector. Increasingly the complainers are reaping the benefits.

Classic retail marketing skills helped launch Knowsley's new leisure centre, for example. McElhinney drew on and adapted skills he learned as a store manager and later marketing manager at Littlewoods. It starts with research. He has developed a customer profile identification where local residents are mailed and then asked to complete an indepth questionnaire about the new centre. Raising awareness among consumers is top priority.

Trafford Metropolitan Greater Council too claims marketing sills are helping it to serve its 215,000 residents more effectively. "The sleepy old council idea is quickly vanishing," says marketing manager, Ian Ratcliffe. "Marketing strategy is essential to help us survive in this more demanding climate, since it is all about setting priorities and avoiding being a victim by failing to give the public what they want."

Providing residents with what they want -- a full range of leisure, education, recreation, economic and social services -- and making them aware that their local authority does that efficiently and quickly, is the goal of marketing. McElhinney believes that "people expect you to speak on their behalf and sometimes act as their voice of protest," particularly when there may be a threat such as plans to build a new motorway in the borough. It's often a case of no news being good news: "When people don't complain, we know that we're doing well."

Brent conducted borough-wide market research on library usage which has led to a closer understanding of the nature of its customers and their experience. As a result, Brent has reincorporated its library service within a marketing framwork, so that the residents actually receive the services they want.

Trafford wanted similar gains from its in-depth market research to investigate the views of both its residents and those in over 400 local authorities towards environmental issues last August. It found that 83% of Trafford's residents wanted the council to establish a formal policy explaining its position and aims on Green issues. As a result of its findings, Trafford is to introduce an environmental audit by its environment and leisure department and a range of other initiatives on recycling and pollution. Only a few years ago, such activities would have received little attention, or none at all.

Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. Some councils have to concentrate the marketing resources they have on highly specific activities. …