What Is Brand Responsibility?

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One common question I get is whether you can work in advertising and focus on social good brands. And in today's world, this question seems more important than ever. I sat down with Kim Sheehan, Director of a new Masters in Advertising and Brand Responsibility at the University of Oregon to talk about what Brand Responsibility is, why we should be studying it, and how it'll make us more valuable hires—no matter where we choose to work.

N: First, what is Brand Responsibility?
K: Responsible brands all exhibit some type of social mission or purpose—this responsibility isn’t an "add on," but rather a value or set of values that live deep in the very DNA of the brand.

Brand Responsibility is built on three pillars—authenticity, courage and commitment to social good. Authenticity encompasses continuity (a brand’s history), credibility (a brand that shows they’ve accomplished what they set out to do), integrity (a brand’s moral principles), and symbolism (a brand that adds meaning to people’s lives). We think of courage as something in the brand—or in its business practices—that disrupts the traditional system.

How did the idea for the Masters in Advertising and Brand Responsibility come about?
We worked with Kevin Tuerff on something called the Greenwashing Index, and since then we’ve been involved in looking at how brands connect to sustainability, which led to looking more broadly at how brands connect to larger social issues. 

We started noticing all the studies coming out about Millennials wanting brands to be involved in social issues. And we looked at how it relates to Corporate Social Responsibility, something brands have been doing for a long time. The more we studied it, the more we saw that many Millennials view CSR as an add-on. So we started wondering, what exactly is Brand Responsibility? It's something that affects all roles within the industry, so we knew we could build a program around it.

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Can you give us some examples of Brand Responsibility you see today?
JetBlue reduced their airfares in the Florida area in order to give people the opportunity to leave before the hurricanes hit, while other airlines raised their prices to $1,000+. There’s no way JetBlue was going to make money off of it, but they did it because it was the right thing to do. 

Patagonia is a heritage outdoors brand, and is well known for their environmental production processes, their contributions to environmental causes, and their commitment to encouraging people to buy less. In December, its website featured the headline, “The President Stole Your Land,” in reference to the administration’s decision to reduce the size of the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This effort makes us think about our responsibility to the outdoors to ensure that we keep these places safe so we can continue to have meaningful experiences in nature. And one way to do that is to buy from Patagonia, because the brand's actually doing things to protect the natural environment. At the same time, the website provides links for visitors to email Congress with their concerns, helping to create social action around the issue.

What types of courses will be part of the Masters?
The core classes include Curiosity for Strategists, Advertising and Culture, and a Research class. In addition, there’s a three-term Brand Responsibility seminar: Defining Brand Responsibility, Identifying Brand Responsibility, and Creating Brand Responsibility. Along with that, students are able to take 3-4 electives. That’s where they can take classes in Copywriting, Art Directing, User Experience, Media Planning, etc.— classes that are more professional skills oriented.

Why is something like a Masters in Advertising and Brand Responsibility necessary in today’s world?
It’s more important in the current political climate, where there are so many efforts of resistance to various activities that don’t seem to promote social good. Brands stepping up to be part of that resistance is so important for people to believe that they have a voice. I think a lot of people are frustrated that they can’t do anything.

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What are the possible career routes people can pursue with this Masters?
Students will have spent a year deeply analyzing the natures of brands, and understanding how to bring forth the really powerful parts of them, which can be translated into any advertising and marketing career. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go work for an agency or brand that focuses on social responsibility.

N: It’s powerful to think about people who come out of the program and join marketing teams that have more say over not only how a brand communicates, but what the company stands for, and how that manifests in what products and services they put out. Being able to affect change on that deeper level.

What would you say to someone who’s wondering whether investing the extra year and money is worth it? 
We don’t usually talk about Brand Responsibility in a traditional undergraduate program. And when it’s taught, it’s surface level. But Brand Responsibility requires spending time thinking deeply about a brand and the culture in which that brand is living, and how those come together. You have to immerse yourself into Brand Responsibility thinking—like an archeologist of a brand. And you just can’t do that in a semester. Our program gives students the added confidence to go in and shake things up for the betterment of the world. They'll be hired because they think about things differently. 

How can people apply?
It’s an online application that includes a brief essay about the importance of Brand Responsibility, and why the program resonates with you. We also ask for transcripts, and the names of three people who can recommend you. Plus some professional writing samples done at in an undergraduate program or at a job. 

Go change the world!
You got this,
Natalie & Kim