Faculty Program Spotlights

Consumer Brands Today: Q&A with Jill Avery

Brands are meaning-based relational assets that must be carefully designed, curated, and negotiated.

Consumer-focused companies must work harder than ever to stay ahead of the competition and connect with consumers who shop online and spend significant time on social media. HBS professor Jill Avery has developed an HBS Executive Education program, Creating Brand Value, to help companies maximize brand value, create brand meaning, and manage their brands.

What led you to create the program Creating Brand Value?

Branding is one of the most important ways consumer-focused companies create value. Brand is often the only source of sustainable competitive advantage in product categories that have little to no underlying product differentiation. That's true of a lot of sectors in the consumer and retail space; companies are competing based on the meaning that is created through their brands and the value that meaning brings into the lives of consumers.

Branding is one of my passions. I spent time earlier in my career managing consumer brands as a marketing executive and as an account executive at an advertising agency, grappling with core questions like: What exactly is a brand? How do we build brands and manage them over time? How do we create value for consumers and then extract value for the company? This is the foundation of what executives will learn in Creating Brand Value.

For the last couple of years, in the MBA program, I've taught a second-year elective course on brand value that has been very well received. I've written many cases focused on branding—but practically every case I write has some branding aspect, even if the focus is another area of marketing. Having explored branding over the past three decades and seen how the challenges and the principles of branding have evolved, I thought it was a good time to bring this learning to an executive audience.

How have principles of branding changed—and what's different about the branding challenges facing companies today?

The world of consumer brands has been transformed in the last 20 years as a result of digital transformation of marketing channels and marketing media. In particular, buyers' behavior and customer journeys have changed. Consumers are more skeptical of marketing than ever before, and have more ways of obtaining information about products and sharing their own impressions of a brand—for example, through social media, blogs, review sites, and more. As a result, companies have less control over what consumers learn about their brands, and consumers are much more engaged in co-creating the meaning of brands.

While shopping was moving online before the COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdowns and work-from-home trend have accelerated the growth of e-commerce. People visit brick-and-mortar stores less than they used to, which means a company’s approach to online ordering, delivery, and returns has become a bigger part of the brand experience. As consumers shop across offline and online channels, omnichannel marketing and sales programs have become essential.

As digital transformation continues, marketers are grappling with how to engage with new media opportunities such as AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) experiences, metaverse worlds, and emerging social media platforms—while at the same time assessing the value of virtual products via NFTs, virtual marketing content creation, and chatbot marketing and sales support via artificial intelligence and machine learning engines.

On the meaning-making front, social issues continue to divide people; younger generations are demanding that brands take a stand, making brand activism an increasingly difficult and risky strategy.

How have these market changes impacted the practice of branding?

As meaning makers, brand managers need to keep their finger on the pulse of cultural change and constantly adjust their storytelling strategies to connect with the human condition of today. New media channels and opportunities need to be explored, assessed, and optimized. As customer journeys become more social, marketers need to understand how to co-create brands alongside consumers and how to manage digital communities.

How are forward-thinking companies overcoming these challenges today?

Leaders in the consumer/retail space have been engaging in a lot of experimentation, but many have been slow to abandon traditional branding approaches. Others have realized that while these changes create challenges, they also create opportunities. For example, the rise of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands has disrupted legacy brands, but has also created new business model opportunities for all brands. Social media creates marketing challenges, but has also allowed a unique glimpse into the mind of the market, enabling today's marketers to observe consumers' lives 24/7 and deliver branding stories of value in real time.

In the program, we will examine some companies that are out in front with innovative solutions. These include companies like Glossier, which is leveraging digital communities to imagine new ways of co-creating brands with their customers; Skim's, which has harnessed the power of influencer marketing and combined it with the aesthetic and social platforms of celebrities; and Supreme, which breaks every rule of marketing in its quest to remain the coolest streetwear brand out there.

Who will benefit most from attending this program?

Creating Brand Value is designed for executives from companies with strong consumer/retail brands. Participants might be marketing specialists—from brand managers to chief marketing officers or other marketing heads—who want to update their understanding of contemporary brand challenges and solutions. They might also be other senior leaders including CEOs, division heads, or other general managers, or perhaps other members of a company's senior leadership team. Their concerns might be anything from valuing brands in a merger situation to evaluating their own brands as assets or determining the ROI of their brand investments. Experienced entrepreneurs who are building consumer/retail brands or investing in consumer/retail brands would also benefit from this program.

Would a company benefit from sending multiple people to the program?

As in other HBS Executive Education programs, we invite companies to consider sending more than one executive. When more than one person attends, they can go back to work with the ability to support each other in implementing what they've learned. That ultimately boosts the impact the program can have on the organization.

The individuals who attend our program as part of a team could be in different roles, such as a marketing executive and a CEO, or it could be a group of people who currently work closely together on branding issues. During the program, we provide opportunities for members of a team to work together on a plan to address a current challenge they are facing. Alternatively, they can work on their own and in different groups to maximize exposure to different ideas.

What are some of the topics you cover in this program?

Fundamentally, we explore branding as a collective and collaborative process of meaning-making among businesses, consumers, and other cultural producers. Brands are meaning-based relational assets that must be carefully designed, curated, and negotiated to unlock their considerable value and ensure that value persists over time. We will unpack all of the different functions and value-creating activities that brands perform for consumers.

Other topics will include customer relationship marketing management, digital marketing, the impact of digital transformation on branding, brand storytelling, direct-to-consumer brands, influencer marketing, data-driven marketing, brand communities, global branding, valuing brand assets, evaluating branding ROI, and much more.

We will explore all of this through a blend of learning methods, from case studies that participants will study individually and in small groups, to lively discussions in the classroom, to presentations on the latest research on consumer branding.

The program also includes an interactive and engaging workshop on brand storytelling, as well as a self-reflective workshop on developing your personal brand.

Why is the notion of personal brand important?

All of us, but especially people in leadership roles, can benefit by being more strategic and intentional about the way we develop our own personal value proposition and communicate it—in the workplace but also in our families and our communities. It is important to be aware of people's perceptions of us and how those perceptions are created. Some people find this topic uncomfortable because they don't really want to see themselves as a brand—but by the end, they come to appreciate the value of a personal brand. It's about how we manage social interactions and make sure that we’re putting our brand forth in a way that helps others understand who we are and what value we want to bring to the world.

What do you hope executives will take away from this program?

Creating Brand Value blends research and practice in a way that we expect will be very useful to executives as they grapple with their company's branding challenges. They will leave with helpful frameworks for decision making, insight into the latest thought leadership, and also an action plan for what they will do when they go back to work. We hope that the concepts and tools they acquire in the program will help them to overcome current challenges, build compelling brands, and create more brand value—for consumers, for their companies, and for themselves.