Science brand equity: what it is, how to get it, how to communicate it
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By: Lauren Ward, EarthSky Communications
Steve Thommes, Google
Noah Zandan, EarthSky Communications
Ryan Britton, EarthSky Communications
Companies and organizations invest heavily in the science behind their products. That science represents value – a lot of value – in the eyes of the public. Yet companies sometimes fail to communicate the nature and extent of their scientific efforts. The public may never hear about the important work behind sustainability programs, for instance, or the years of research required for new technologies and innovations.
EarthSky has coined a term to represent the value of science as a component of organizational brand value: science brand equity. Scientific work should be considered a tangible piece of equity rather than simply a component or cost. After all, if you don’t communicate your science, it might as well not exist for your target audience.
This paper explores the definition of science brand equity, why it is important, how it relates to the communication of sustainability practices, and how companies can assess as well as communicate their own science brand equity. We end by suggesting that companies and their marketing firms should explore this topic more fully with the goal of building public trust and benefiting both themselves and society.
Defining Science Brand Equity
Science is the systematic knowledge or exploration of the physical, material world gained through observation and experimentation.
Brand equity refers to the marketing effects or outcomes a product gains when associated with its brand name, in contrast to the marketing effects or outcomes for the same product but without the brand name.1 The link between brand and marketing effects is consumer knowledge. In other words, consumers’ knowledge about a brand makes manufacturers and advertisers respond differently and use carefully adapted methods for marketing the brand.2
Brand equity as an entity has been described and defined over the years and is now understood to be a significant, tangible component of an organization’s worth.
Science brand equity, therefore, represents the value of science and technology related to a product or company. It is that component of the brand equity specifically related to science, sustainability, research, technology, and innovation. What do consumers know about the science of your organization? What can they learn that will make them change a purchase decision or have more loyalty to your brand? What portion of your brand’s total equity is related to its scientific, engineering, and technological efforts – and how can you capitalize on that portion?
Why is Science Brand Equity Important?
Companies that invest in clearly communicating their science brand equity message will reap benefits for both themselves and society. Public trust is the key reason why, but other factors also come into play.
• The public trusts and believes in science and scientists. In a recent study by Virginia Commonwealth University, 85% of people surveyed believe “scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives.”3 And, 80% of people surveyed perceive scientists and researchers to have the best understanding of issues such as global warming, stem cell research, and genetically modified foods.4
• Furthermore, science serves as a core source for competitive and cultural differentiation, especially with research- and technology-based companies. For example, early in its history Google chose to sponsor PBS public television. In fact, part of the Google ethos internally, and mystique externally, is the belief and the perception that “smarts” and academic achievement are core to Google’s success.
• Companies, executives, and organizations clearly care about sustainability and science issues. According to a survey by McKinsey & Company, science and sustainability are “very” or “extremely” important for companies in a wide range of areas, including new-product development, reputation-building, consumer education and corporate strategy.5
• On a much broader scale, that of civilization itself, the pace of innovation in technology, healthcare, finance, and engineering is a step-function where research and science are the driving accelerants. Science is not just a corporate and competitive differentiator. Science is an activity that drives human civilization forward.
When it comes to science and sustainability, building reputation and educating consumers are higher priorities than more immediate fiscal reasons such as alignment with the company’s business goals or improving operational efficiency.6 Indeed, 72 percent of respondents to a McKinsey survey said that sustainability is “extremely” or “very important” for managing corporate reputation and brands. In addition, 55 percent agreed that investment in sustainability helps their companies build reputation, and 36 percent saw building reputation as a top reason for addressing sustainability issues. Yet only around 30% of executives say their companies actively seek opportunities to invest in science and sustainability, or embed it in their business practices.
Companies need to take a proactive approach to managing and communicating their science. Without a fundamental understanding of the science behind a brand or an initiative, it is very difficult for consumers to tell the difference between what is true and what is false.
Chris Mooney, author of the 2009 book Unscientific America, believes it is the job of scientists to lead the conversation. He wrote: “If scientists don’t take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them. The precise ways in which scientists should change their communication strategies vary from issue to issue, but there are some common themes. Reticence is never a good thing.”7
Many scientists don’t have the research, training, or mindset to communicate about science. Most have not spent time developing their communication and persuasive abilities. In the future, changes to scientific education and within science institutions might give scientists a better background in communication. But right now, organizations with vested science brand equity can take charge, step into the gap, and use their resources to fill the communications void.
Sustainability as a Component of Science Brand Equity
What links communication about sustainability with science brand equity? Sustainability is the management of environmental, social, and governance issues with an eye toward the future. It is quickly becoming a priority for corporate leaders in America. Sustainability efforts are nearly always science-based. When a company communicates about sustainability, it automatically and naturally builds science brand equity.
Whether you consider ExxonMobil working on new energy production techniques, or Disney Imagineering contemplating the existence of a lifeless Earth, or GE developing remote medical diagnostic equipment, science and technology are integral to the sustainability conversation. In fact, the best way for a company to highlight its sustainability efforts is to underscore the scientific research inherent in their development. A campaign that makes this connection clear informs and educates the public about the scientific, material, and real investment needed for projects aimed at creating a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, specific and pertinent communication will move the conversation away from greenwashing (faked sustainability) to real solutions-based sustainability. According to a recent report by OgilvyEarth, greenwashing has “the power to destroy brand reputation, undermine a movement, alienate
customers and estrange a loyal workforce. As far as sustainability marketing has come in the last decade, the Greenwash Monster is still lurking, and it’s time we got rid of it once and for all.”8 One report found 98% of all green claims made in 2009 guilty of one or more of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” and reported that 64% of Americans no longer trust sustainability-related marketing.9
A focus on the science behind sustainability efforts can enable companies to avoid both greenwashing and the appearance of greenwashing. Consumers will learn about research-based solutions put in place by forward-thinking companies in a way that highlights innovations in products, packaging, and efficiency, as well as organization and people.
The Value of Science Brand Equity
Brand equity in itself is a huge component of an organization’s worth. Interbrand conducts a yearly assessment of brand equity across many organizations and sectors. Their methodology (found on page 10 of this paper) assigns a specific dollar value to a corporation’s brand equity. It is considered one of the most trusted benchmarks in the business world because of its financial grounding. Of the top 10 brand values (ranging from $28B-$68B)10, we would argue there is a huge portion of that value attributable to science brand equity.
Notice that the companies on this list all have a strong relationship to scientific research, even though not all are traditional technology companies. IBM, with over 100 years of technology and business computing behind it and more patents than any other company in the world, clearly has large science brand equity. Many consumer-facing brands also have large science brand equity, although they may fail to take full advantage of its value. One example is Coca-Cola, which spends millions of dollars on R&D and sustainability efforts. When Coca-Cola creates a better water purification system, or develops more efficient packaging, it is increasing its science brand equity.
We assert that, although all the companies on Interbrand’s 2009 Best Global Brands top ten list have high science brand equity, none of them are taking full advantage of it. Several are taking steps in this direction, including IBM with its Smarter Planet Campaign, GE with Eco-magination and Intel’s “Scientists as Rock Stars.” However, we need more conversation about science, more conversation about technology, and more conversation about the science and technology behind sustainability.
Science in U.S. Business
The business sector continues to account for the great majority of U.S. research and development performance and funding.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) estimates that despite the severe economic downturn, overall spending on R&D conducted in the United States was $398 billion in 2008, up from $373 billion in 2007. In fact, national R&D spending has increased mostly uninterrupted since 1953. Over the past 20 years, growth in R&D spending has averaged 5.6% in current dollars and 3.1% in constant dollars – somewhat ahead of the average pace of GDP growth over the same period.11
Particularly in light of the current role of sustainability in reputation-building among U.S. businesses, it is surprising that more companies do not take an active approach in communicating their science initiatives externally. They often do not report sustainability metrics to investors. Communications departments may be unaware of sustainability-reporting practices – even though more than 50% of companies keep track of the value created by sustainability in terms of reputation-building and cost savings.13
Public Trust is Key to Brand Equity
One of the most critical components of all brand equity is public trust. In recent years, trust has declined significantly across the board at corporations as scandals, greed, and outright felony have racked WorldCom, Enron, JP Morgan, and many others.
Edelman, a PR firm with over 100 years of experience, has been measuring the public trust in corporations over the past three decades. For the first time, this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer shows that “transparent and honest practices” and “a company I can trust” are more important to corporate reputation than “quality products and services.” In the U.S. and in much of Western Europe, these two attributes outrank product quality and far out¬rank “financial returns,” which sits at or near the bottom of 10 criteria in all regions. This milestone is in stark contrast to 2006, before the financial crisis hit, when financial performance was in third place.14
Thus it is important in today’s world for corporations to be truthful and accurate, and use communications channels and messaging that are trustworthy in the eyes of consumers.
Consumers Trust Science and Scientists
In the same 2010 Edelman report, researchers also found that “academics and experts” are the most credible sources of information about a company, in the eyes of an informed public (see figure below). Financial or industry analysts are also among the most trusted spokespeople for a company,15 but they run a full 12 percentage points behind “academics and experts,” according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.
A logical next step, therefore, is that corporations should use their researchers and scientists (plus academic experts who are versed in the relevant type of R&D) to communicate their brand messaging. In other words, they should build and communicate their science brand equity as a component of their overall brand equity.
In the years ahead, companies will continue to push the boundaries in scientific research and development. We submit they should also be pushing the boundaries in scientific communication, as they have resources and capabilities beyond the academic spectrum.
Companies can combine their focus on brand equity and brand development with their applied scientific research, innovation, and technology development. Organizations and marketers should explore the notion of building and communicating science brand equity. Those companies that invest in this area will reap benefits through increased brand equity, stronger relationships with their constituencies, and the rebuilding of public trust.
Interbrand Brand Value Methodology
1 Aaker, David A. (1991), Managing Brand Equity. New York: The Free Press
2 Keller, Kevin Lane (1993). “Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Managing Customer-Based Brand Equity,” Journal of Marketing (January) 1-22
3 Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center for Public Policy Survey, 2001, 2006
4 University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey, 2006
5 Bonini, Sheila, Stephen Gorner and Alissa Jones. (2010), McKinsey Global Survey: How Companies Manage Sustainability.
7 Unscientific America, Chris Mooney, 2009
8 From Greenwash to Great, OgilvyEarth, 2010, https://ogilvyearth.com/greenwash
9 TerraChoice. “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing,” 2009. Web.
10 Interbrand Bet Global Brands Report (2009), https://www.interbrand.com/best_global_brands.aspx
12 For both charts: https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf10312/
13 McKinsey study, ibid.
14 Edelman, Trust Barometer (2010), https://www.edelman.com/trust/2010/docs/2010_Trust_Barometer_Executive_Summary.pdf