Tuesday, April 17, 2012

NHS Branding and Twitter twibbons

 In August 2009 an ongoing debate on US healthcare reform jumped across to our side of the Atlantic. Club for Growth, a network which believes in prosperity and opportunity through economic freedom published the following advert.

It attacked the NHS and plans for 'government-run healthcare' in the US, and provoked a backlash in support of the NHS in the UK. Graham Linehan, the writer of Father Ted, started using the hashtag #welovetheNHS and spoke on Channel 4 about why he thought it was important to defend the NHS- and the power of Twitter to do this.

Many people- over 10,000 also added a 'twibbon' banner to their Twitter profile pic to demonstrate their support for the NHS. I was one of them.

I didn't remove the twibbon from my profile because there never seemed to be a right time to do that. I haven't stopped loving the NHS, or the principles which founded it.

Fast forward a few years and I was a surprised when today I received an email from the DH (English Department of Health) Branding and Identity Department, informing me that the use of the NHS logo on my twitter profile picture had been brought to their attention. As the NHS letters and logo should only be used by NHS organisations, or where NHS services are being provided (and my twitter account is certainly not providing an NHS service) they therefore asked that I removed the NHS logo from my Twitter profile picture. They asked me to confirm that I was able to do this, and thanked me for my cooperation.

In part I was surprised because I received this email to my university email address. Recently I started using about.me as a landing page from my Twitter profile, and this enables people to email me without making my email address public. But I use a personal email address for this service. It is how I would have expected someone to contact me with regards to my twitter account. But of course with a little googling my university address is quite easy to come by.

I tweeted about the request of course. And this provoked quite a lot of discussion. My original tweet above has been Rt'd more than 50 times. The response (storified by @evidencematters) was a mixture of amusement that the DH had time to monitor the use of their logo in this way, and anger that the NHS seemed to be no more than a corporate brand.

I replied to the email explaining why I had added the Twibbon to my twitter profile and why I had not removed it. I asked :
"Do you think that having 'I love NHS' on my profile picture suggests that
I am a provider of NHS services or an NHS organisation? Do you think that
my use of the logo in my profile pic is damaging the NHS brand?

If you think that I am in some way demeaning or harming the NHS through
the use of this Twibbon, I shall of course remove it."

The reply suggested that we have a quick chat about this by phone. Stephen Hale, head of digital at the Department of Health had also kindly sent me a tweet offering to organise a call from the branding team. So I managed to get speaking to someone who had time to look into what had happened. He explained that the person who had sent the original email was not familiar with the #welovethenhs campaign. He agreed that it was clear that I was not trying to impersonate an NHS service or organisation. The branding team were very heartened by the support shown for the NHS. But it was also important to protect the logo which is trademarked so that when it was used the public and patients could be assured of the service that they would receive.

So this episode is resolved. I have not removed the twibbon from my account. A few hundred other people have added it to their own twitter profile pictures.

Many organisations and companies are considering how they should use social media to protect and promote their brand. And it seems that the Department of Health and the NHS are learning just like everyone else.

Edit 18/4/2012
This morning I received the following tweet:
Alex is one of the co-founders of the #nhssm (NHS and social media) chats which happen on Wednesday evenings. I would like to reply to Alex's comment. I am not an expert in brand management, and will be very surprised if I ever am as it in not one of my aims or objectives, I therefore would never comment on how good or bad the DH are at it. I have told this story because yesterday it caused quite a commotion on Twitter and I wanted to share how it had come about and how it had resolved. But I'd like to make clear that I do not think that this episode is about just one person. I don't think that the person who sent me the email is at fault. They were clearly following guidance which stated that if the NHS logo was being used by someone who was not an NHS organisation or providing an NHS service (in England) then they should ask for it to be removed as this was trademark infringement.

It is my impression that even if this Twibbon had not been part of a larger campaign, and I had in fact designed it myself to show my support of the idea of the NHS, then it is unlikely that I would have been infringing. I think this because I am not using the logo to identify a trade or service. This is unless someone would think that 'I heart NHS' indicates that I am speaking on behalf of the NHS. I don't think that the history of the 'I heart X' meme tends to suggest that someone using it is speaking on behalf of X, instead it says that they like/love/appreciate X. In fact, the city of New York has trademarked ' I heart NY' so they might have a bigger call over trademark infringement!

My use of the NHS logo on my avatar is non-commercial. I presume that the DH branding and identity department  will be reviewing their policies on the non-commercial use of the NHS logo.

I should also note that Twitter has a policy on trademark violation. In the case of fan accounts it states that logos should not be used in avatars or background images without permission as a way of reducing confusion that the account is speaking on behalf of the organisation. They do not mention the meme of Twibbons which are about showing support for causes/ideas rather than for companies.

Professor Trish Greenhalgh has suggested that it might be better just starting from scratch:

What do you think? Is it time for a new twibbon?

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