Three decades after the stock transfer process began, housing associations need new ways of delivering on their social purpose. There are new challenges afoot: new and different audiences to connect with and the enforced rent reduction. Our Abel monitor considers if the sector is meeting these challenges by strengthening their communications and brand.
This website captures a review of the brands and publicly available communications of 50 different housing associations, and how well they perform across a range of criteria. As far as we are aware, no other similar brand monitor exists.
For housing associations, for some time now the only constant has been change. This state of flux has meant becoming relevant to new and different audiences and supporting a wider range of services to deliver on social purpose. Since this places a demand on the brand, this should mean the sector has some great examples and yet this has never universally been the case. The Government’s rent reduction will undoubtedly prompt consolidation in the sector and during the period of this monitor alone, the ripples are already being felt. So today it’s more important than ever to ensure the brands of the sector powerfully reflect each association’s heritage, purpose, relevance and strength.
We defined a group of 50 organisations, drawn from some of the largest and most established housing associations in the country. Despite the all-important need to deliver on social purpose, in theory, it is these organisations that will have the greater need and the greater capacity to develop strong, professional communications.
We defined our measurement criteria as follows:
Messaging – is there a clear articulation of ‘who we are and what we’re for’? Is there more emotive messaging encompassing ‘how we do things and why we exist’? Is the organisation’s differentiation apparent? Is it all well written and easy to find?
Visual brand – are there discernible and coherent visual basic elements? Is there sufficient breadth in those defined visual basic elements? Are they appropriate to the stature of the organisation and true to message?
Consistency – is the visual system consistently applied? Does it translate effectively across different applications? If applied consistently does this play out flexibly or relentlessly?
Quality – is the overall brand and communications execution of a high standard and quality?
Saliency – is the overall impression appropriate for the organisation’s key audiences and core purpose?
Each organisation was scored between 0-20 on their perceived success against these criteria. The scores were decided upon by a panel encompassing our own strategy and design teams, together with a respected professional from the housing association sector. To arrive at the scores we reviewed each organisation’s website, as well as at least one printed document or key downloadable PDF. This focus was driven not only by what was available to us, but also took account of the disproportionate importance that websites have today in terms of making the right impact.
Shape of the landscape
The landscape for housing associations is defined by shifting sands and new challenges. In fact, the picture has been evolving since the mass stock transfer began almost three decades ago. Today, for many housing associations there are challenges on all fronts.
More and different audiences – there is a wider and eclectic range of audiences to communicate effectively with. The financial community, social housing customers, local and central Government, other housing associations, house buyers, developers: the usual suspects and some new ones besides. However, the dearth of affordable housing and the need to find new ways to finance social purpose, means that the profile and demographic of customers is changing, as well as becoming more varied. Shared ownership and market rent is on the rise, and the profile of those accessing it is changing, with an increase in the number of young (and not so young) professionals amongst them. For those housing associations offering homes for sale, the gap between customer types is closing and becoming more of a spectrum.
Demanding new and varied services – social housing has been joined by market rent, shared ownership and even homes for sale. Whilst housing associations’ core purpose has remained constant, how this purpose is funded has changed. Some associations are broadening their skill base and capability, and expanding into maintenance services, meeting the needs of other housing associations as well as their own customers’. For those entering the homes for sale market, it means communicating and competing in a whole new space, with an array of very different brands to a group of people with a very different mindset.
In a sector preparing for consolidation – the ripples from George Osborne’s rent reforms are likely to be felt for some time to come. Whatever the possible impact on house building, it will inevitably lead to consolidation in the sector as brands, as well as organisations merge. It’s also likely to lead to greater diversification by those organisations remaining, as they seek new and ever more effective ways to help those in need.
State of the nation
All of this means a lot for the shape and operational effectiveness of housing associations, but does it have any relevance to their brands and communications?
In short, it matters more than ever before.
Appealing to more and different audiences demands having considered all of those audiences in the development of your brand. It means ensuring your overarching messaging takes them into account. It means you need audience messaging to talk directly to them. It means ensuring your brand sounds, looks and feels part of their world. And if it doesn’t, then it requires consideration of whether you need to update your brand or create another one.
Supporting new and varied services requires having a cohesive way of messaging them and explaining why they deliver on your core purpose. If they include maintenance services, you’ll need to consider whether you want to sell them to other housing associations and if you do, they may not be prepared to buy such services branded by you. And if they include homes for sale you’ll need to consider whether the tone of a housing association is appropriate, or whether the tone should be more aligned to the sophistication of the property developer world (which in turn is unlikely to be appropriate for your social housing customers).
Finally, operating in a sector preparing for consolidation changes everything. Mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures raise big questions about whose brand dominates, how brand equity can be retained and whether a hybrid is appropriate. The advice for branding in such circumstances is often to maintain a monolithic (or single) brand. If this isn’t possible, then a way needs to be found to explain the relationships between your brands and ensuring you benefit from the lustre of any sub brands that are developed. Reviewing your brand architecture will be a necessity.
Above all, the changes and challenges in the housing association sector demand a fundamental rethink about brand and communications. For many housing associations, brand has equated to logo. So first, the sector must develop a more sophisticated and strategic view of brand, one that appreciates that it encompasses your message, your organisational architecture, your visual expression and your interaction with all of your audiences. Secondly, there must be a significant increase in quality of brands and communications. Of course, given your core purpose, quality can’t appear profligate, but there has to be a discernible professional investment. Finally, rather than blending in, there’s a real need to stand out. Those housing associations that remain after the ramifications of the rent reforms are felt, will not be shrinking violets.