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February 2, 2022

Why do government agencies need strong brands?

Charlotte Levitt

How do government agencies use communications to connect with the public? Listen as Ally Dommu, director of strategy, and Charlotte Levitt, director of marketing and communications at the NYC Campaign Finance Board (CFB), reflect on CFB’s rebrand journey and shed some light on the factors that go into branding for government agencies.


Ally Dommu: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Ally Dommu, Big Duck’s Director of Strategy, and I am happy to be here with you today hosting this podcast. It’s the first time I am hosting, and I am absolutely delighted to be here, joined by Charlotte Levitt. She is the Director of Marketing and Digital Communications at the Campaign Finance Board. I’m going to talk a little bit about that agency and her role there in just a minute, but we’re going to dig into talk about branding for government agencies. We do a lot of talking here on the podcast about nonprofit-specific communications. Big Duck has increasingly been working with government agencies, focused on some of these same questions. How do you communicate? How do you build a strong brand? How do you get your voice heard by your key audiences? So we’re going to be talking about, is it important for government agencies to be thinking about branding? How is it different from nonprofits? Lessons learned from managing a government brand that literally reaches millions of New Yorkers.

Ally Dommu: Charlotte Levitt leads the team responsible for New York City’s public voter education and engagement at the Campaign Finance Board and its voter-facing brand, NYC Votes. Her team oversees websites, email and text message campaigns, social media, advertising in the citywide voter guide that reaches more than 5 million New Yorkers promoting civic engagement and helping to make the electorate more representative of the city’s population. So prior to joining city government in 2020, Charlotte was Director of Audience Development and Marketing for BAM, Brooklyn’s home for adventurous artists, audiences, and ideas. She has more than a decade of experience in marketing and communications, including roles at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, Oberlin College and Conservatory, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Immediately before joining the team at BAM, she was a consultant with strategy in the strategy consulting division of PwC, where she advised clients in education and consumer products. She earned her BM in vocal performance from New England Conservatory Music and her MBA from Columbia Business School and is an alumni of Coro Leadership New York.

Ally Dommu: And just a bit about the agency where Charlotte works, a little bit more about the Campaign Finance Board, it’s a nonpartisan independent city agency that empowers New Yorkers to make a greater impact on their elections. The CFB reduces barriers to run for city office, diminishes the corrupting influence of money and city elections, and enhances the role of small contributors in funding campaigns. They also do a lot of work related to voter engagement and participation by informing the public about candidates in elections. And that’s where the NYC Votes initiative comes in. It’s all about boosting participation among voters and candidates alike so that our elected officials address the needs of our diverse communities and the issues voters care about. They do this by empowering New Yorkers who are less likely to vote, reducing barriers to running for office, and offering solutions to improve our election system. So, I had the pleasure of working with Charlotte and her team as part of a brand research project they took on with Big Duck in the last couple years. It is so great to be with you here today, Charlotte. Thank you so much for taking the time. Welcome.

Charlotte Levitt: Thanks. It’s good to be here.

Ally Dommu: So, just to begin, can you share a little bit about your role as Director of Marketing and Digital Communications at CFB? What does that entail?

Charlotte Levitt: As you mentioned, and our team oversees, really, what marketing people would probably call owned and paid channels. So we’re part of the public affairs division, and we oversee all of those digital channels – social media websites, email, mass text campaigns – as well as the pretty significant direct mail footprint we have through the voter guide. And then also all of our paid outreach to voters. And that’s actually a little unusual in government, which is something I was kind of interested to discover when I started this role. The focus in government is often on using the press as the primary conduit to reach the public, or kind of assuming that the public’s going to come to you. There’s often not that much thought about distribution, and we’re going to create this information, how are we actually going to get it to people? And so my team really focuses on those direct-to-voter communications.

Charlotte Levitt: And we try to, not necessarily assume that folks are going to come to us looking for the information, but that we also need to go to them. Particularly because we have this mandate of engaging those who’ve been historically underrepresented. So, it’s a role that’s a little bit unique in government. There aren’t a ton of comparables that I’ve been able to find, but it’s interesting to get to chat with people because this idea of not only how do we create the information people need, but how do we actually get it to them? Feels like a very important one at the moment in the public sector.

Ally Dommu: Really interesting. This totally relates to the next question, which is why do government agencies need to think about branding and communications? Why do they need a Director of, you know, Marketing and Digital Programs? Is it important for government agencies to be focused on this kind of work?

Charlotte Levitt: I mean, obviously, I think the work is important, but I think what I always feel about this is, like, you have a brand. The question is whether you want to do something to manage it. So, I think that the government has always had a brand. You think about, we all know, like, sort of iconic public service announcement campaigns from throughout the 20th century. We can envision, you know, Rosie the Riveter, and we can envision all of these things, and the question is, how are you thinking about it strategically, and do you have someone who’s kind of managing it?

Charlotte Levitt: My favorite example of, like, a public sector or government brand is, like, The National Park Service, which I think has an amazing brand that’s maybe not like a traditional corporate brand. I don’t know that I could draw The National Park Service logo. Like, I kind of have a vague sense of what it looks like, but mostly what the brand is about is like, I can envision what those signs look like at the entrance to a national park.
I can kind of envision what the map should look like, and I know what a ranger should look like, right? I know what their hat looks like, I know what they wear, I know how they act, and I have this really deeply kind of felt sense of the brand of The National Park Service. Whenever I go to a national park, there’s something that feels like it’s the same organization, regardless of what state I’m in. Like, that’s a brand.

Charlotte Levitt: So some places are, maybe, kind of organized about it. I was in Barcelona recently and it was very clear to me they had a very intentional, like, graphic identity. Like a conventional brand. They had a B. It was on everything. It was like all of the markets in Barcelona, which are a very popular thing to go visit when you’re there, are actually owned by the city, the physical space, and then vendors come operate within them. And so all the markets have the Barcelona B, and all of the, you know, public vehicles you see around the city. There’s lots of stuff that’s publicly owned, and you get this sense that it’s all connected through the visual identity. That’s like a conventional way of having a brand. So some cities have that, but even like, I think the NYPD here in New York has a very recognizable and specific brand. People have strong associations with the NYPD. They know what that abbreviation means, and that’s a brand. And the question is whether you want to do something to actually manage it.

Ally Dommu: Yeah. So how do you think about branding as it relates to CFB and the New York City Votes, like, initiative? What does a brand mean for you internally at your organization?

Charlotte Levitt: The reason it’s useful for us to have a brand is because, fundamentally, it’s about building trust in the information we have to offer. We live in the time where I think we’ve all experienced this declining trust and skepticism and fear, honestly, about what information can I trust about elections. And so I think the brand is about creating and communicating clearly who you are and understanding what it is that you can speak about with authority. So that when I see that brand associated with information, I know, “Okay, well, they’re actually the official source for this kind of information and so I can trust them when they give it to me.” And so when you have inconsistency around the brand, right, when you use different names, you use different logos, you use different colors all the time, everything looks totally different – that can breed confusion and ultimately distrust.

Charlotte Levitt: And so we’ve seen that, I think, really visibly during the pandemic about, like, “Hang on. Which agency, which spokesperson am I supposed to trust? Who’s providing the right information? What happens when they provide different information?” And so the brand becomes like a shorthand for all of this. Once you know what you can trust us for then when you see the brand, “Okay, now I know who you are.” It’s like a friend. You recognize their face, you know their name. If the information comes from them you know what they can speak with authority about. So I think that’s why it matters for us.

Ally Dommu: I think there’s a lot of similarities and then some nuances between thinking about branding in the context of nonprofits versus government agencies versus businesses, small businesses, corporations. And you’ve uniquely had this experience of working in marketing communications across all these different sectors, which gives you, I think, an interesting way of thinking about branding. And I’m curious how managing the brand now for CFB, this government agency, is different. What are some of the unique factors that have to be considered when doing this work specifically in the public realm?

Charlotte Levitt: Prior to working for the City of New York, I worked with a number of, like, cultural nonprofits and even those that I would think are pretty big. Like, I think Columbia University is a pretty big brand. In Brooklyn, BAM is a pretty well-recognized brand. Certainly a very well-recognized visual identity. Still, there’s like a huge scale difference. Like the City of New York versus BAM, even when we were doing the largest possible campaign for BAM, we still had an opera house of a few thousand seats. When we have an election in New York City, we have, you know, more than a million people coming out and voting. So there’s a huge scale difference, and I think that’s important and matters. And because of that, with government, people generally already have strong associations with their local, state, federal government that are built through their actual experience. Sometimes that experience, there’s even confusion about who you interacted with, right, in government.

Charlotte Levitt: I think most average people don’t really know the difference between what the state government does and what the city government does. So, like, the fact that the state actually runs the MTA and the subways in New York City is a great example. Like, no one thinks of that. No one cares that it’s the state rather than the city. So there’s also this kind of, like, umbrella brand which is just, like, all of government, my associations with all of government – doesn’t matter which kind of level of government. And so that’s really different, and these associations can be good or they can be bad. I had a great interaction with one elected official who works in my community and now I think, like, I know how to connect to government, I know how to access services, and I feel, like, really positive, and they are basically the brand for me. Or I had a really disappointing and frustrating experience trying to make an appointment to get a COVID vaccine, and now that is the brand for me.

Charlotte Levitt: And so that’s a little different, I think, from most nonprofits where, for the most – but, like, we would sometimes have confusion even at some of those organizations I worked with about, you know, maybe someone interacted with a rental client or someone interacted with a ticket broker. Like, occasionally you have stuff like that, but not on nearly the same kind of scale you have it in government. You also just have a much wider set of stakeholders for that reason. And so it’s a much more heterogeneous audience of people who tend to have really different needs more so than most nonprofits who can identify, like, one or two target audiences who are, like, fairly specific. You can kind of have a couple of personas that cover who you’re trying to talk to. In government that’s also very, very difficult to do.

Charlotte Levitt: It becomes less of an exercise of thinking you’re going to identify every kind of person who might interact with you to thinking more about like, well, if we have to, like, center and prioritize certain audiences, who would that be? And the question of how you make that determination is probably different for every agency. For us, because it’s in the city charter, it has to be like, okay, we’re going to prioritize those people who’ve, historically, been underrepresented in voting in New York because that’s who we’re charged with, like, especially serving. So it’s interesting. It’ll sometimes come up of, like, people who are really regular, like prime – what, in the political world, are called prime voters. We don’t really try to talk to them. So sometimes they know who we are because they’re very plugged in, but we’ll get, sometimes, feedback of, like, “I don’t see any of your advertising campaigns on the Upper East Side,” and we’re like, great, we’re not trying to do that. But I think that’s the really big difference I’ve noticed, it’s just a massively different thing in terms of scale, in terms of confusion and transferring associations from one entity to another.

Ally Dommu: Yeah. There’s a lot there. With the New York City Votes initiative, you kind of did a pretty comprehensive rebrand in the past year. NYC Votes, while the name stayed the same, you adopted a whole new visual identity, visual system. Started kind of messaging about yourselves in a different way, produced, kind of, new materials and had an overall different, like, look and feel, launched a new website. So, with that in mind, you were just talking about, you know, making sure that you were reaching the specific audiences that your charter mandated, thinking about, you know, underrepresented voters, but still that is such a huge scale of an audience. How did you ensure you were building a brand that was inclusive of all these audiences reaching New Yorkers from all different backgrounds who are eligible to vote, who had maybe been underrepresented in terms of voting in the past, but still, like, specific and clear with your message? How did you think about balancing those two things?

Charlotte Levitt: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of the core challenge. I do think it’s useful to think about, like, there are corporate brands that do this. I think probably the best example I think of is like Coke. I mean, people have feelings about Coke, maybe, as a product in terms of health or other things, but as brand, Coca-Cola is like a pretty universal, aspiring brand, right? And they’ve built it on this personality and association of, like, happiness and, kind of, family.

Charlotte Levitt: So I think that it does start with like, what’s the personality and the association you want to go with, and you do have to try to be a little bit universal in that. And so I think that was kind of in our minds, right, and you helped with doing the research, and so, of course, it always starts there, with conversations, so we talked to voters, we talked to non-voters, we talked to staff, we talked to peers, we talked to candidates. So we did talk to a lot of people, and we had done some really deep qualitative research prior to this. We had looked at third party research. We were especially interested in research that spoke to infrequent voters or people who were not voting but were eligible to do so, and we have really continued that. So every time we do a campaign, we’re trying to get feedback on it. You’re never going to talk to absolutely everyone, but you do try to get like a fairly broad kind of cross section of feedback and then look for where’s the common ground, which I think that you guys really helped us with, and so the personality we ended up building on was fairly broadly applicable to most of those audiences.

Charlotte Levitt: So, it was about being approachable, which included being kind of friendly and welcoming, being helpful, which was about being really informative and useful to people, being independent, which was about being nonpartisan and really unbiased in the information we’re presenting. This word I love but which I think is not so much for public consumption, of activating, which is helpful for us internally. It’s about being energizing and empowering in that sense of vitality. It’s not maybe such, like, a publicly used word, and then being open, which for us was about both being transparent in what we provide and also responsive to the needs of people. So, that’s a pretty universal personality to be building on. Like, we really did want to stay away from things that could be more divisive, like being really clever or making a lot of jokes, you know. I do think there are some things that are a little more specific that we just, we’re not going there.

Charlotte Levitt: And then I think that this was brought to life in a really beautiful way with the visual identity that the designer, Eddie Opara, who we worked with at Pentagram, created, and he presented a number of, like, really great, thought-provoking ideas. But the way we ended up going was really, the whole identity is built on this notion of a myriad of voices that are in dialogue with each other. It’s built on this speech bubble. The speech bubble can take on different shapes. So it could take on the shape of a borough. So we have ones for Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, but it could take on the shape, actually, of anything, and then it also can contain anything. Right? And so that’s where it’s like, the brand is actually the container for all New Yorkers, kind of, voices and perspectives, whether they’re candidates or voters, like, whoever they are in the system that we’re kind of basically creating a space and a container for that. And that works really well, too, I think, with trying to be broad and it also doesn’t limit it. It means that, like, it can change over time.

Charlotte Levitt: We did, like, intentionally try again on the topic of, like, sort of polarizing things. There’s no red, white, and blue, right? So it’s a mirror, it’s a rainbow of colors, but none of them are red, white, or blue because both red and blue are viewed as partisan and we’re still building it. I think like every time we have a new staff member who comes on, they add something. Every time we get feedback on social media, we’re listening to it. We’ve worked with a number of different vendors, and I think we’ll keep doing that because I think it’s a brand and identity that actually benefits from variety, and that was kind of built into the DNA of it.

Ally Dommu: Awesome. So, going into the last question. Going into year two of the NYC Votes rebrand, what are you keeping in mind related to balancing consistency and then also, you know, injecting some continued freshness in the brand? And is there anything in particular that you’re keeping in mind, uniquely, because of being a government agency that you have to, you know, bring in certain voices or, you know, manage the brand in a particular way?

Charlotte Levitt: Yeah. I mean, I really do think of it, like, people. Like, I really think of brands like people. So, probably, you’re not going to change everything about yourself overnight, right? So you might get a new haircut this month and then maybe in a few months you’ll get a new shirt, you know? Like, I really do think of it as this kind of iterative thing so everything shouldn’t change all the same time overnight. So we are exploring, kind of, new ways of visualizing and realizing the concept of voice. That’s such, like, a fertile DNA at the core of the brand. You can imagine so many things happening with that. Like, in terms of motion design, in terms of video, like, I think there’s so many multimedia ideas with that that are exciting. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of that, but I think we’re going to keep a lot of the fundamentals really consistent, cause it’s still early, right?

Charlotte Levitt: So we are not going to change the personality. Like, we are not going to change the color palette. Certainly not changing the mark. So I think if we can keep some things the same and play with other things, you know, I always say, like, we get bored of the brand way before the audience does, and I really learned that at BAM. It’s a great team that has a brand that’s been pretty strong for a long time, like, more than 25 years, which is pretty unique in the nonprofit cultural sector. People tend to, like, get new logos every couple of years, often in that sector. So it’s unusual. The creative team there – BAM has a large in-house creative team – does a great job of that, of keeping the core the same and adding little pieces of variety along the way. So I think that is, like, my training ground on that, and that’s kind of my philosophy of what we should be doing here. So, it should still look like the same person. It’s not like you see your friend in the street and you don’t recognize them anymore. But it can look a little bit new.

Ally Dommu: Nice. Well, thank you so much for sharing these ideas. It was super fun to talk to you today and reflect on the rebrand journey you went on and just shed some light on some of the factors that go into branding for government agencies. You could check out NYC Votes on their website. We’ll post the URL. We’ll post a case study of Big Duck’s work with CFB and NYC Votes in the show notes. Charlotte, anything you would want to share with our listeners today before we wrap up?

Charlotte Levitt: Well, obviously you should vote. So if you’re in New York City, we have some really important elections in 2022. At the risk of splitting hairs, they’re kind of state-level elections that we’re picking a new governor. That is always my parting word. Whatever is the next upcoming election, you’ll be able to find it on our website if it’s happening in New York City. They all matter. Like, there are no small elections that don’t matter.

Ally Dommu: Thank you so much, Charlotte. Thanks for being on the show. Thanks for lending your time and expertise with us today. Super fun to talk to you.

Charlotte Levitt: Thanks Ally.

Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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