Alberta Brand, sort of

During Question Period in the Alberta Legislature yesterday afternoon, Wildrose Alliance MLA Heather Forsyth mocked the government’s propensity for pouring money into dubious projects. Among her examples, “your provincial branding … which no one can remember.”

She wasn’t kidding.

Do you remember that effort to re-brand Alberta as an environmentally friendly, happy and creative kind of place? You know, the one that got off to such a bumpy start in the spring of 2009 with outrage over its price tag and that goofy story about how the geniuses behind the advertising campaign used pictures of an English beach to boost Canada’s second most western province?

No? Well, as Ms. Forsyth pointed out, neither can anyone else!

In fact, according to the government of Alberta, 57 per cent of Albertans say they have “some level of recall of the brand.” Apparently the government thinks this is pretty good. They commissioned a public opinion survey, you see, and then they announced they were very pleased with this level of recall, thank you very much.

The trouble with this kind of analysis, of course, is that most Albertans likely also have “some level of recall” of the Battle of Queenston Heights. But they’d be hard pressed to tell you who was fighting there, over what, or why it ought to matter to them. But, like, they’ve heard the name…

In case you were wondering, the Alberta government came up with that 57 per cent this way after the Harris-Decima polling company surveyed 1,000 Albertans. The on-line poll indicated that about 31 per cent said of the survey’s respondents said they were familiar with the strategy when they were “presented with it on their computer screen.”

Another 26 per cent said they “vaguely recall seeing” the brand. Another 43 per cent said they’d never heard a thing about the darn thing. That gave the government’s Public Affairs Bureau its 57-per-cent figure, which it then declared to be an impressive result.

So, let’s just think about this for a moment.

Is this really a ringing endorsement of a logo and slogan for which the Alberta government says it paid $3.7 million of your tax dollars to a private-sector advertising agency with close ties to the provincial Conservatives, Calder Bateman Communications, plus an unknown sum to propagate?

After all that, only a third of all Albertans can say only that they’ve heard about the fact there is a strategy — after they’d been shown an example. Another quarter, approximately, say they vaguely recall it. The rest know absolutely nothing about it.

In other words, it sounds very much as if, just as Forsyth suggested, essentially no one could recall what the $3.7-million slogan says, or was aware any longer of any significant details about the branding campaign.

This is after the $3.7 million was spent on the brand and slogan alone, plus another significant sum — the total of which we do not really know, but is probably in excess of $5 million — to market the branding campaign. (Initially, the government said $25 million would be budgeted over three years for marketing the brand. They now say that three-year total has been reduced to $15 million. What’s been spent so far is only a guess.)

And for this expense we taxpayers get … vague recall?

Something is quite wrong with this picture. If this campaign was “meant to push back against negative images of the oilsands and portray the province as diverse, a good place to invest and an environmentally aware provider of energy,” as the Calgary Herald reported, we’re not getting good value for our tax dollars.

Ask yourself: Did Corporate Ethics International get good value for its Re-Think Alberta campaign that successfully branded this province as an international environmental villain when it paid about $50,000 US?

Then ask yourself, whose Alberta “brand” is the most widely believed? The government’s $15-million dollar campaign that folks vaguely recall, or the one that cost 300 times less that everyone remembers?

The Alberta government could have saved an enormous amount of money and been guaranteed better results simply by getting its own employees from the Public Affairs Bureau to develop a slogan and a logo and buy some advertising.

The Harris-Decima survey was conducted between March 18 and March 24 this year and, according to the polling company, involved 1,000 interviews “completed on-line among a broad sample of Alberta residents,” whatever that means.

Harris Decima’s report on this research is full of charts and graphs and clear explanations about most parts of its results, but is curiously unsatisfying when it comes to the question about recall. There is no chart, and the subject is handed off in a few lines without details.

This is very peculiar. It is almost as if someone in the Alberta government’s large and highly politicized Public Affairs Bureau demanded — with the political needs of the government firmly in mind — that the hard information be pulled from that part of the report, perhaps because the recall results looked so bad! What other explanation makes sense?

Indeed, we should also ask, with so much money to spend, why did the government use an unreliable on-line poll to test their brand when more reliable polling methods are available?

Alberta needs a new approach to branding, one that starts with meaningful action on the environment that will show the world we’re responsible planetary citizens, not just spending money and getting high-priced, well-connected ad agencies to make up slogans no one can remember.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...