Inside Politics

Research agency faced existential confusion before rebrand, data reveals

During the lead-up to the recent rebranding of the venerable National Research Council from bastion of pure science to pro-business economic engine, the government commissioned a market research firm to test possible new taglines and logos to roll out as part of the 'refocusing' of the agency's mandate.

The resulting report, however, ended up revealing what the authors diplomatically describe as "larger communications challenges" that the NRC would almost certainly face during the transformation process.

Last June, Patterson Langlois Consultants recruited people working for current or recent NRC program participants, as well as those employed in sectors that would qualify them as potential future clients, for a series of four focus groups in Toronto and Montreal.  

Among their findings:

  • "Although current clients obviously know and understand at least some aspects of NRC," potential clients "are not so clear on what NRC is, or does," with many "prone to confusing it with organizations such as the Canadian Standards Council, among others."
  • Both current and putative research partners "were apparently preoccupied with the nature of the relationship that NRC would strike with its clients," including the possibility of 'entanglement' over the eventual ownership of intellectual property that could result from collaborative efforts. "Many presume that if an organization comes to NRC with an idea, the NRC's contribution to the successful commercialization of that idea will come at a price they may not want to pay."
  • There were also "presumptions of bureaucracy and red tape" -- a concern, it pointed out, that is also shared by the agency itself, and strong resistance to the prospect of a "hierarchical relationship" between the NRC and its clients, many of whom are "keen to avoid" any foray that would make them "subservient" to the agency.

Those potentially problematic preconceptions were reflected in the responses to the test slogans prepared by NRC.

According to the report:

  • Participants didn't appreciate the reference to "solutions" in one proposal because it "conjured up" the image of a "company 'in trouble,' with intractable problems," with a "technically superior NRC in a hierarchical, dominant position in the relationship"
  • "A new economy based on innovation" was deemed by some to be "grandiose" or "political," while others questioned the implication "that there are problems with the 'current' economy"
  • More quietly damning still was the response to "CNRC: Innovate Together", which, according to the report, "presents neither anything particularly objectionable nor particularly compelling to participants."
  • The eventual favourite:"Your innovation fuelled by research," which, despite doing "relatively little to clarify NRC or crystalize its identity," at least "clearly separates" it from agencies like the Canadian Standards Association, resulting in "the most positive impact on the disposition of both clients and prospective clients for working with NRC"

A similar trend was present in the commentary on the accompanying logos:

  • a "decidedly mathematical" wave form evoked comparisons to the classic Spyrograph toy, but "eventually fell victim to secondary associations in every group" -- not just the "outdated imagery," but the "very literal interpretation" suggesting"an organization going in circles"
  • a exploding pie was simply too similar to the CBC logo, which would "clearly be to the detriment of building the organization's identity"
  • a "colourful, energetic and free-wheeling shape" in orange and blue that went over reasonably well with the audience, but was determined to be just a bit too far outside the traditional expectation for government graphics, which are should "underscore sobriety and seriousness"

The winner: A silver blue orb emblazoned with a stylized starburst, which, despite its apparent similarity to both a Christmas ornament and "1950's pinball graphics," was judged the most successful of the bunch by eliciting "hints ... of notions and ideas somewhat compatible with the mission of the NRC" -- faint praise indeed from a product identity standpoint.

Meanwhile, a separate survey conducted by user interface experts Phase5 over the same time period determined that the agency's website was also garnering less than glowing reviews from its target audience.

After conducting "usability interviews" with 25 entrepreneurs, engineers, business development and marketing representatives and other potential visitors in key sectors like the automotive industry, health care, and information technology, the company concluded that the site was simply "not effective at responding to the user context."

The report notes that "several respondents" singled out the homepage for particular criticism, noting that it failed to respond to "key questions that business representatives would ask" when visiting such a site.

"After reviewing the homepage, participants struggled to describe the specific services/opportunities that NRC could offer to small/medium sized companies," it concluded.

The Tories' penchant for plastering self-promotional material across any available bit of government-run online real estate also got a thumbs down from some participants.

In a section entitled 'Key Findings: Reflecting The Brand,' the report notes that the "inclusion of generic Government of Canada advertising content (e.g. War of1812, Government spending priorities) added further confusion with respect to NRC's purpose and relevance to their business."

The government has apparently chosen to ignore that particular recommendation.

As of this morning, the NRC homepage includes ads for the (now concluded) National Victims of Crime Awareness Week, the latest iteration of Canada's Economic Action! Plan and links to product recall and safety alerts from Health Canada.

As yet, none of the logos or taglines put before the focus groups have appeared on the NRC website.

Read the PhaseX report here (PDF)

Read the Patterson Langlois report here (PDF)

Comments are closed.