The COVID-19 pandemic changed consumers. 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, Wharton marketing and Whitney M. Young Jr. Professor Americus Reed said in an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM.

“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.”

Brands as Co-Creators

One of the most significant changes in branding has come from the ubiquity of social media, which has weakened brands’ ability to dictate a narrative to consumers. Instead of trying to wrest back control, smart brands are learning how to share control.

“We’re seeing a lot of brands really lean into the notion of a meaning system,” says professor Americus Reed.

“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 ultimately be successful in the future,” Reed said. He also encouraged brands to determine which platforms their audiences are most active on and invest in reaching them there.

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.

Recovering From Brand Failure

All companies make mistakes from time to time. Reed said whether consumers accept those failures often depends on how much social goodwill the company has been “depositing in the bank” in terms of the relationships they’ve built with their audience.

“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,” he said. 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.”


Published as “Brand-Building in a Brave New World” in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Wharton Magazine.