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Higher Ed Brands We Can Believe In

Are colleges and universities ready to take a stand among belief-driven brands who take a stand on political issues -- and live with the consequences?

November 1, 2018
 
 

Are you the sort of person who has stopped buying one brand and started buying another because you liked the politics of the new brand better? Or have you recently bought a brand for the first time because you appreciated its political stance?

If so, you’re what Edelman calls a “belief-driven buyer,” one of an increasing number of consumers who are putting their dollars where their politics are when they’re making their purchase decisions. Edelman released a report this week in which it shared data this worldwide shift in buyer behavior.

As far as the US is concerned, Edelman’s data captures an interesting change in consumer perspective. Now, Edelman observes that 48 percent of respondents trust business as a source of news and information from business, as opposed to 33 percent who trust government. That’s a 15-point gap in trust

“People believe that brands can drive societal change.” Edelman says. This appears to be more than “cause marketing”, which has been with us for some time.

In 2017, Edelman began observing “belief-driven buyers” and now, they say, half of us act this way in our purchasing decisions:

  • 67 percent of belief-driven buyers bought a brand for the first time because of its position on a controversial issue.
  • 65 percent avoided a brand because it stayed silent on an issue that consumers believed it had an obligation to address.

Edelman observed double-digit growth in the number of belief-driven buyers in eight of the largest markets around the world. And, while we often think of Gen Z developing a brand attachment because of how woke a brand is, Edelman says that the belief-driven mindset is now a majority at all ages, including 56 percent of those older than 55 and 69 percent of those in the top 25 percent of income earners.

So, how does a brand take a stand? Edelman observes a spectrum beginning with clearly articulating your brand purpose and making a proactive effort to address that purpose; “authentically connecting your brand to a relevant moment in culture; and engaging in activism: confronting a controversial issue that has a direct impact on your stakeholders and/or your brand.”

To communicate their message around their beliefs, brands need to tell a compelling and engaging story. Now, the data show, consumers want to be engaged — rather than forced to pay attention to marketing messages. Successful marketers will use paid, owned, social and mainstream media channels to communicate with consumers and activate that engagement.

There are a number of implications of belief-driven marketing for a brand.

  • Its stand will cause people to buy a brand. Or avoid it.
  • People will talk about the brand.
  • Brands will benefit from activating a spectrum of brand ambassadors. Not surprisingly, perhaps, “customers or regular persons” were the most effective brand advocates (with an index of 166); actors were the least effective (with an index of 20).

The major difference here between belief-driven branding and more traditional approaches is the willing embrace of controversy that comes with it. Brands will gain fervent advocates who are invested in the issues the brand espouses. But those stances will turn others off, even those who have a strong relationship with the brand already. Brands must be able to stomach pushback and trolling.

It’s not at all clear to me how belief-driven marketing will play out in higher ed. But this year we’ve seen examples of colleges and universities taking a public stand on issues they could avoid.

In September, for example, College of the Ozarks made headlines when it announced it was cutting ties with Nike after the athletics apparel brand debuted an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the football player famous for taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against black people. Liberty University was considering following suit.

But the more compelling approach to belief-driven marketing lies in not simply taking a stand on a controversial issue. Building a belief-driven higher ed brand requires linking an institution’s historic mission and its aspirations with a vision and commitment to connecting deeply to the needs of contemporary society.

That’s going to be difficult for an institution whose brand is focused on tradition or athletic prowess, however significant and valuable they are to many stakeholders. On the other hand, it could be more simple for faith-based institutions or an HBCU to meet this challenge.

The real question is whether most colleges and universities have the courage to embrace public stances that will gain new admirers but turn others into fervent trolls.

Michael Stoner is a co-founder and president of mStoner, Inc., a digital marketing firm serving higher education.

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