The COVID-19 pandemic changed consumers.
After nearly three years of disruption, anxiety, and worry, shoppers are no longer content to buy products and services based just on price, style, or convenience. They want a deeper connection with companies that align with their values, said Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed. That’s why brands need to articulate their purpose and vision.
“Consumers are in this state of heightened self-awareness about what’s really important to them, so we’re seeing a lot of brands really lean into the notion of a meaning system — Why do I exist? How am I making the planet better?” he said. “Broader kinds of questions that are built into the brand’s DNA are rising to the surface because consumers care about that.”
Reed joined Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM to talk about branding in the post-pandemic marketplace, and why it’s important for companies to shift their approach to meet consumers in this new stop along their journey. (Listen to the podcast.)
He said marketers must understand the sociological implications of their work and forge connections based on what matters to their target audience. It is social justice? Diversity, equity, and inclusion? The environment? Fair business practices?
“If you want to survive in a marketplace where competition is getting fierce, and you want to avoid a race to the bottom in terms of just matching features, you have to be able to come out and say something else,” he said.
“If a person sees the brand as part of who they are, they will forgive that brand much more easily than if they don’t.”— Americus Reed
Brands as Co-creators
One of the most significant changes in branding has come from the ubiquity of social media. Reed said everyone with a cell phone and internet access is now an “instant journalist, instant creator, instant documenter,” which has weakened brands’ ability to dictate a narrative to consumers. Instead of trying to wrestle back control, smart brands are learning how to share control, he said.
“The brands that realize this are making it easier to co-create with their consumers, because they understand that they have to give up a little bit of that control to be ultimately successful in the future,” Reed said.
He also encouraged brands to determine which platforms their audiences are most active on — LinkedIn, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), etc. — and invest resources into reaching them on those platforms.
Advancements in AI and machine learning can also help marketers get better in this brave new world of branding. By leaving more of the communication tasks to machines, marketers can spend more time on other brand-building tasks that require their expertise, Reed said.
“The biggest message is to not make the mistake of thinking the brand is just simply the tagline, the logo, the colors on the website.”— Americus Reed
Recovering From Brand Failure
Companies make mistakes from time to time, and recovering from them is always difficult. Reed said whether consumers accept the failure often depends on how much social goodwill the company has been “depositing in the bank” in terms of the relationship they’ve built with their audience.
“If you have a strong brand who knows who it is, who articulates their why, who has a deep, self-expressive, almost identity-loyal connection with their consumers, they’re going to get more degrees of freedom when they make mistakes,” he said. “If a person sees the brand as part of who they are, they will forgive that brand much more easily than if they don’t.”
The possibility of brand failure is yet another reason to focus on purpose-driven marketing, according to the professor. Consumers need to be able to rationalize their loyalty and are more likely to “stay as a member of that tribe” if they feel like the mistake was unintentional or swiftly corrected.
Branding Is More Than a Logo
The professor urged marketers to craft their messages carefully and to consider the full sociological and financial implications of their work. What they do — and how they do it — matters to the company’s bottom line.
“I think the biggest message is to not make the mistake of thinking the brand is just simply the tagline, the logo, the colors on the website,” he said. “The brand is a true asset, and if you invest in the brand, and if you create a very deep, well-articulated, clear, and richly understood meaning system, in addition to the external markers — you’re on the right path. Simply just changing something doesn’t make it a rebrand.”