What! More Peace Corps? Branding the Peace Corps

With all this talk about rallying the RPCVs to call congressmen and congresswomen, I dug up an interview I had done a year or so ago with John Bidwell (Mali 1989-91). John is married to Kris Holloway (Mali 1989-91). They met in the Peace Corps and later married, and a few years ago Kris wrote a wonderful book about her work with an African woman who was her mentor in Mali. The book is entitled Monique and the Mango Rains.

When I interviewed Kris for PeaceCorpsWriters about her memoir, I came to know John, and the work he has done to market and promote the book.

John has his own firm–Bidwell ID–that he started  in 1999 and he works with clients nationwise to improve their brand. Many of these firms are cause-driven organizations, much like what the Peace Corps is, besides being a government agency.

Branding–for those new to the term– is the process of consciously creating in others’ minds an authentic and relevant image of your identity. Everybody–and every organization–has a default brand. It is your character, and how that character comes across to others. Thus, the question is never whether you need a brand, because you have one. The question is how you foster the part of your character that works best for you, that communicates what your mission and values are.

In my email exchanges with John, I realized he had a lot of smart things to say about how to market one’s own book, or “brand” one’s name, and I asked him what he had to say about getting the word out about the Peace Corps. How do you sell the agency that it will once again become a household word? How do we create enough value in the Peace Corps that congressmen and congresswomen will support it and increase its budget and double the size of the Volunteer force? This is what John had to say:

“The Peace Corps agency is continually reinventing itself. For a long while they used the line “toughest job you’ll ever love,” more recently they talked about “not your father’s Peace Corps” (which seemed to be a veiled dig at early Volunteers). Now they are pushing for retirees to volunteer. Looking at their website and promotional materials, what do you think they are doing right, or wrong to sell themselves to this generation of new Volunteers? 

“The Peace Corps might be continually reinventing itself internally, but that is not visible to outsiders. In fact, most people know too little about Peace Corps. I run into people who are surprised Peace Corps still exists. That’s a shame since I believe the Peace Corps is a miracle. There is not a single government agency that does so much with so little.

“In terms of messaging, I prefer when the Peace Corps presents itself as a challenge – because it is true – but it is a challenge with unparalleled rewards. That is why “The toughest job you’ll ever love” works so well. It is also why I like the new “Life is Calling. How far will you go?” campaign. There have been messaging flops, such as the unoriginal and ambiguous “Not your father’s Peace Corp” campaign, but that seems the exception. 

“More and more, the Peace Corps must consider competition. The Peace Corps’ biggest advantage, though, is that it is the original. The fact that a lot of competition bills itself as the “Peace Corps alternative” underscores Peace Corps strong position.

“Most of their messaging is successful because there is so much to work with: they are first in their field, they offer an incredible growth experience, they help others, and they polish our country’s reputation.

“Again, it is increasing awareness of Peace Corps that is most important. Peace Corps has no shortage of interesting stories; they just have to get them circulating. I want to see more of a Peace Corps presence on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and in blogs. I want to see bigger events at schools. I don’t just mean events geared towards students, but taking advantage of programs geared towards alums, such as the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth (ILIAD). Peace Corps needs advertising to remind people they are still around, but it is the personal stories that will bring in candidates.”

And that bring us back to what Marian Beil and I have been doing since the late eighties: promoting the writings of Peace Corps stories first in our newsletter, then on the web, and now with this site:wwwpeacecorpsworldwide. We want RPCVs to tell their stories of their Peace Corps years, and we want them to tell other stories as well, so get busy!

Who knows,  the tale you tell might be the one that finally moves Congress to act in behalf of the Peace Corps.

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