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Even as Covid-19 became a global crisis, dramatic shifts in our culture were redefining how people viewed the world, their place in society, their sense of identity and the way they think about and interact with brands. Research signaled that people were no longer looking up to brands as symbols of social aspiration and image. Rather, they were reaching out to brands to help them express their individual values, beliefs and identities. By all accounts, the global pandemic is accelerating this shift: wise branders and strategists are taking notice and acting. 

A New Measure of Value: Meaning

Meaning is at the center of this shift. People don’t connect with brands based on the quality, performance or value of products and services delivered. Instead, they connect with and reward brands based on what they mean to them and how well the brand represents and understands their individual values, feelings, desires and emotions. 

Evidence of this shift is found in Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands Study of 134,000 consumers in 23 countries. The research reported that brands that are making a meaningful and positive impact on people’s well-being are outperforming other brands by over 120 percent. More shockingly the study found that consumers would not care if 77% of the brands they interact with disappeared, chiefly because they believed these brands were not making meaningful connections with them. According to Havas, Google landed the top spot on the list of meaningful brands by delivering on the personal and collective benefits people expect such as “helps me connect with others” and “teaches me new skills,” and squarely delivering on its brand promise to be the world’s number one source of information.

This shift in brand expectation is especially relevant to higher education during the current pandemic and will be well into the future. As planning cycles begin across campuses nationwide, the focus on creating meaningful brand connections on all levels should become a priority. The more meaning a brand creates, the more valuable it becomes. 

Pillars of Meaning: Empathy, Compassion, and Authenticity

Increasing brand meaning means turning up the dial on three key traits: Empathy, compassion and authenticity.

Empathy. This trait is about stepping into another person’s shoes and experiencing on a human level what the world feels like from their point of view. We all have the innate ability to be empathetic. For instance, we don’t have to be in a wheelchair to understand what life might be like without the ability to walk. Empathy is the beginning of human connection and foundational to establishing a meaningful brand.

For higher education marketers, empathy might look like understanding how a 17 or 18-year old must feel at this time as they are sheltering in place, disconnecting from social gatherings, graduating virtually and thinking about a future that is unknown. 

Compassion. This trait involves putting the knowledge and insights gained through empathy into action. Compassion focuses on offering solutions, not selling. Compassion focuses on how your brand is helping people overcome challenges and navigate the uncertainty around them. Compassion should be at the center of how your brand reaches out and creates positive brand experiences.

Compassion on campus requires understanding -- and really feeling -- students’ fears, concerns and desires. Then, crafting solutions that address their individual needs. It is important in this process to know the difference between selling and providing solutions. Selling is transactional and often focuses on functional benefits and attributes of the institution. Solutions live in the realm of emotion and are focused externally on individual needs.

Authenticity. This trait is about honesty, transparency and building trust. Authenticity is at the heart of human relationships and should be the backbone of your brand communications efforts. Being authentic requires a clear understanding of your brand’s promise, then communicating it consistently, creatively and clearly.

Authenticity will require an institution-wide understanding of what your brand stands for and the personal and collective benefits it delivers.  It will move the conversation beyond programs, rankings and outcomes and toward delivering emotional benefits that elevate brand meaning. Authenticity may mean revisiting and reanimating your existing brand platform or creating and crafting one anew. Either way, this foundational process will bring focus and clarity to your strategies and help you create meaningful brand connections and value.

Making Your Brand Matter More in Good Times and Bad

As the Google example illustrates, brands that deliver on personal and collective benefits, impact people’s lives in personal ways and make contributions to societal well-being are the brands that rise above the clutter and stand out in more meaningful ways. The traits that define meaningfulness are already in the DNA of colleges and universities. The work now is to move beyond functional and transactional benefits and to put meaning at the center of your brand strategies to create the connections that will attract, engage and hold on to the people that matter most to your institutional success.


Patrick Weas is a brand strategist and marketing consultant who has guided dozens of higher education clients through strategic brand definition and development initiatives. He is currently consulting with The Thorburn Group in Minneapolis.

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