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Developing Brands in a Hyperconnected World

Vanitha Swaminathan, Alina Sorescu, Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp, Thomas Clayton Gibson O'Guinn and Bernd Schmitt

Nike’s valuation increased by approximately $30 billion between the launch of the Colin Kaepernick ad and the end of 2019 in large part due to the viral publicity generated by this action and the way consumers responded to it. This story captured the attention of marketers everywhere and reshaped Nike’s brand associations. It also seems to defy one of the traditional principles of branding where brands were encouraged to remain “above the fray” and not be involved in controversial issues that may potentially turn away certain customer segments.

A new article in the Journal of Marketing begins with the premise that a hyperconnected environment is changing the role and management of brands. We therefore need new theories and models to account for these changes. The article sets the stage for new branding research in a hyperconnected world in which the boundaries of branding have been blurred and broadened. To encourage future research, a research agenda on branding from the perspectives of consumers, firms, and society is presented.

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Considering both the broadening and blurring of brand boundaries, we pose three questions for consideration:

  1. What are the roles and functions of brands?
  2. How is brand value (co)created?
  3. How should brands be managed?

We re-examine traditional roles of brands (e.g., brands as signals of quality or as mental cues) and note how those roles are changing in a hyperconnected environment. We also describe how hyperconnectivity contributes to several new roles in which brands are containers of socially constructed meaning, architects of value in networks, catalysts of communities, arbiters of controversy, and stewards of data privacy among others. Many of these new roles can be the focus of research from multiple disciplinary perspectives and we highlight a variety of research questions that can draw from different theoretical perspectives. As brand boundaries are blurring, we also discuss the shift towards cocreated brand meanings and experiences, enacted via digital platforms which facilitate such cocreation.

Given the complex nature of brands today and in the future, we encourage researchers to engage in future boundary-breaking research on topics like those outlined in our paper. One implication of hyperconnectivity for branding research is that brands will need to be conceptualized more broadly within each of the theoretical perspectives in the extant brand literature. The consumer and the firm perspectives should focus more on consumers and firms as part of networks rather than on their roles as individual buyers or managers of brands. The society perspective should go beyond the role of brands as cultural symbols and examine them as agents of social change. Moreover, we propose that brands are more than symbols attached to products that are owned by individual firms. Brands can also be ideas, persons, and places. 

There is also an opportunity to examine topics that cut across these theoretical perspectives. Brands need to fulfill a broader mission and purpose. For example, the firm perspective will need to embrace societal questions as organizations or corporate brands will be asked to address broader issues including social responsibility, sustainability, and human-resource practices that go beyond profit maximization. The consumer perspective will also have to be more rooted in the society perspective as consumers form networks that are becoming distinct and occasionally vociferous entities that can shape both managerial practice and societal trends. The impact of networks on brands, like that of communities, requires additional sociological, psychological, and cultural insight. Given our experience, we believe that such work would benefit from increased collaboration among branding researchers of different backgrounds, including teams of marketing strategists, economists, modelers, psychologists, sociologists, and consumer culture researchers.  

Read the full article

From: Vanitha Swaminathan, Alina Sorescu, Jan-Benedict Steenkamp, Thomas O’Guinn, and Bernd Schmitt, “Branding in a Hyperconnected World: Refocusing Theories and Rethinking Boundaries,” Journal of Marketing, 84 (March).

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Vanitha Swaminathan is professor and Robert W. Murphy Faculty Fellow in Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business.

Alina Sorescu is Professor of Marketing and Paula and Steve Letbetter ’70 Chair in Business, Texas A&M University.

Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp is C. Knox Massey Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thomas Clayton Gibson O’Guinn is Professor and Irwin Maier Distinguished Chair in Business, Chair, Marketing Department, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Bernd Schmitt is Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business, Columbia Business School, Columbia University.