Housing association brands: 30 years and counting

Housing association brands have come a long way since England’s first whole council housing stock transfer in 1988. Senior Consultant Ian Hembrow looks at how business brands have changed since then, and shares some tips on what to think about and do if you’re considering a rebrand.

Housing association brands: concepts match geography

When the first transfer organisation (Chiltern Hundreds Housing Association) became Paradigm Housing in 1999, it signalled a trend away from geographical labels towards conceptual names that still continues.

An analysis of the Top 50 housing association builders list published earlier this year shows that fewer than half (23) now have any sort of reference to location in their name. Some (like Yorkshire Housing, Nottingham Community and The Wrekin Housing Trust) still proudly display their roots, while others (for example, bpha, L&Q and whg) use initials to partly cover their geographical origins.*

But the big boom in recent years has been the growth of conceptual names. Often linked to group and merger activity, the housing association brands landscape now has an equal number of more abstract labels (23 in the top 50). Many of these (think Together, Catalyst, Sanctuary, Fortis, Radian or Network) strike an aspirational tone; celebrating synergy, strength and collaboration. And others have stepped into euphonics – words that don’t strictly exist or mean anything, but hopefully look, sound and feel good (Ongo, Optivo or Karbon).

The trends dropping down the charts include old-school eponyms (calling a business after a particular person – say, Guinness, Peabody or Wheatley) and what-it-says-on-the-tin literal tags like Home or Places for People. Such names now only account for ten per cent of the top 50. So if you’re hoping to get a housing association named after you, it’s going to require something very special indeed!

Right now, geography and concepts make up 90 per cent of the top 50 names. And as the industry continues to rationalise and commercialise, it’s probably safe to assume that place-based monikers will continue to fade among the larger players.

So you think you want to rebrand?

When it comes to housing association brands, you need to start – and stick – with the WHY. Why is a rebrand needed, and precisely what do you hope to achieve from a new name or look? If you don’t yet have clear, agreed answers to these questions, go no further.

Branding is a classic example of the maxim that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. When projects go wrong, it’s usually because organisations haven’t identified:

  • What problem they want to solve
  • What the risks are of getting it wrong
  • Who they need to get on board and take with them.

A botched approach can leave you worse off in all sorts of ways – from legal challenges, to forced name changes and potential loss of reputation. So rebranding is not something to undertake on a whim.

If you’re convinced there are solid reasons to rebrand your business, and you’re sure you’ll gain more than you stand to lose (for example, customer and staff loyalty to your existing marque), then you must pinpoint what else needs to change. New housing association brands are not just a fresh coat of paint on the surface; they signal a completely different story, promise and set of behaviours for everyone involved in your business.

Sometimes, executives and boards think that once they’ve consulted on, developed, tested and signed off a new name, vision, values and visual identity, the job is done. Wrong. If you’ve done things well, you might be about 49 per cent of the way there, and it’s now that the important 51 per cent starts. The second half of the process is about helping people to a position where they genuinely believe, support and promote the new brand.

Brands and behavioural change: why words really matter

Language is critical. If you can change how staff, customers and others talk about what you do, there’s a far greater chance they’ll also change their behaviour. This avoids the silent sabotage of pockets of people carrying on doing things the old way, because they’re simply not convinced by the new narrative. And it’s why clear guidance and training on tone of voice are such vital parts of a proper housing rebrand.

Housing is just about the longest term business there is, so any brand is as much about tomorrow as it is today. You need to future-proof your choices as far as possible, and remember that (like a certain famous, luxury watch) you never actually own your brand, you just look after it for the next generation.

While most failed brands go wrong at the start, it’s also possible to trip up at the almost-final, roll-out stage – when you’re letting the world know about your new identity and building it into every aspect of your work. This is where costs can begin to rack up, or attract negative attention if people feel money is going to the wrong things.

The last part of a brand process is to stand back and check whether it really worked. Did the new name or logo achieve the objectives you set out at the start? What return can you demonstrate on your investment?

Ready to rebrand?

To successfully rebrand a business, you need a rock-solid rationale, extensive stakeholder engagement and a sound strategy to take you through the whole process. Do your homework thoroughly, test ideas before you commit to them, avoid short-term fads and make sure your new story rings true.

Do all these things right and you’ll have a housing association brand that gets you noticed, creates opportunities and stands the test of time.

We’ve helped dozens of #ukhousing associations and other companies to change and refresh their brands. If you feel your business needs an update, please contact our team for advice.

Further reading

Housing association branding: the story so far (blog)

Branding services from Creative Bridge

*Note – totals add up to more than 100 per cent as some organisations have combined approaches – for example, geography and alphanumeric references in one brand.

Ian Hembrow

About Ian Hembrow

Our housing and engagement consultancy lead. Ian is a former housing association director, and board member. He is also a qualified features journalist and works as an associate with Plain Language Commission.
Ian’s passion: dreams.