In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Changing the Conversation about Engineering
June 27, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 2

Rebranding Engineering: Challenges and Opportunities

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Author: Mitch Baranowski

The engineering profession hopes to reshape public perceptions by emphasizing its creative aspects and its world-improving impact.

I grew up in Texas, the grandson of a cattle rancher. So I was raised with a notion of branding in its purest form—a mark of ownership. The scar of a brand makes clear for all to see that this cow belongs to The Pitchfork Ranch, or that stallion to The King Ranch.

An important feature of a brand is its uniqueness. The Circle-J brand can be easily distinguished from the Lazy-5, and woe to the rustler who gets caught using a “running iron” to change one brand into another.

Today, outside of the cattle industry, branding is mostly associated with the marketing of products. In this context, a brand is less about ownership than it is about a promise—what a company stands for in the mind of the customer. The promise of a brand is conveyed not only by visual images and messages but also by experience: in the store, on a test drive, during actual usage. Strong brands deliver on their promises.

Contemporary marketing practice and theory support branding that goes beyond the traditional idea of a product. Entire industries—such as the dairy industry with its very successful Got Milk? campaign (Manning, 2006)—have adopted the branding concept to remake their public image. Public health causes have also used marketing to create brand awareness. First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move initiative (www.letsmove.gov), which encourages physical activity among children, is an example of this.

Branding has also been applied to professions. Nursing, the actuarial field, and accounting have all tried to remake their images with branding campaigns. The engineering profession, through the Changing the Conversation Initiative, has embarked on a campaign to reposition itself using messages that emphasize its creative side and world-improving impact.

In this article, I describe the conceptual underpinnings of branding and branding-related challenges and opportunities that may arise as the engineering community attempts to reshape public perceptions.

Five Laws of Branding

Various rules of effective branding have been proposed by marketing experts. I suggest these can be boiled down to five simple “laws.”

  • Law of the Word. Great brands own one word in the minds of their customers or stakeholders. They have a little piece of our mental real estate. If I suggest the category cars and the quality of safety, most of us will think of Volvo. That is the power of branding working its insidious magic. Which word does engineering own? Which word does it want to own?
  • Law of Focus. The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope. Most of us have never heard of a store called Children’s Supermart. Established in the late 1940s, Children’s Supermart sold apparel, toys and games, and diapers, but the company was not very profitable. In 1957, rebranded as Toys “R” Us, the company quickly captured 20 percent market share. Today, Toys “R” Us is the largest toy retailer in the United States. For engineering, the question is: What one thing sets engineering apart from other professions? We have a clue to the answer in the positioning statement from the Changing the Conversation report (NAE, 2008):

No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. From research to real-world applications, engineers constantly discover how to improve our lives by creating bold new solutions that connect science to life in unexpected, forward-thinking ways. Few professions turn so many ideas into so many realities. Few have such a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives. We are counting on engineers and their imaginations to help us meet the needs of the 21st century.

  • Law of Leadership. Companies know that leadership is an important motivator of consumer behavior. People like to associate with leading brands. Budweiser is called the “king of beers” for a reason. If the marketplace is crowded, as it is for alcoholic beverages, advertisers create a category in which they can claim leadership. Thus Heineken is the leading imported brew. Sam Adams is the leading microbrew. And Corona is the leading Mexican beer. Does engineering have a leadership position among professions? Does it need one?
  • Law of Authenticity. Consumers tend to disbelieve generic claims, and they are quick to note a claim that does not match reality. Authenticity is the proof behind a brand’s promise. Does your brand truly reflect who you are and what you do? Take Google, which markets itself largely as an innovation company. Employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time creating new products or enhancements for existing ones. That is how we got Gmail. The law of authenticity may be the most important law in this age of social media, and it presents special challenges for engineering.
  • Law of Consistency. A brand must stand for something clear and consistent over time. Trends come and go, but brands should stay the same. A brand only achieves the equity level of a Nike or Apple or BP if the same message, image, and experience are ascribed consistently to the brand over time. Engineering has been remarkably consistent over many years in conveying the message that interest and achievement in mathematics and science are essential to success. The Changing the Conversation project suggests a shift to a new paradigm.

Extending the Five Laws

I now want to consider some extensions of these five laws that are particularly relevant to engineering.

Brands as Strategic Drivers

Brands should be strategic drivers. That is why organizations invest in building a brand. A brand is not about a pretty logo and a tagline. An example in the commercial sector is GE’s ecoimagination™ initiative (http://www.ecomagination.com/). Revenues from this brand have dramatically outpaced expectations and helped drive an increase in R&D at the company (GE, 2011).

Audiences as Co-owners

It may seem counterintuitive, but your brand is not really what you say it is. Today, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, brands are co-owned with their audiences. A good illustration of this was the advertising campaign for the painkiller Motrin, which targeted “baby-wearing moms.” With the tagline, “We feel your pain,” it caused a firestorm online with women who took offense at this portrayal of the primary caregiver and the implication that child care is painful.1 Essentially, the company made the mistake of defining the benefit of the brand in terms that were not relevant to the target audience. Taking down the campaign and addressing the crisis cost the company millions of dollars.

Closing the Strategic–Creative Gap

The messaging research conducted by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and published in Changing the Conversation provides a factual basis for efforts to re-brand engineering. But humans are emotional creatures who don’t necessarily respond to facts. We respond to stories. We respond to seeing people like us in situations we want to be in. We are aspirational, and this must be taken into account in creative communications.

The best brands close the gap between the strategic and the creative, between the rational and irrational. A good illustration of this idea is Sloan Kettering’s campaign touting the quality of its cancer care with the tagline: “Where you are treated first can make all the difference.” In print ads, the story is told visually with a mother holding a handwritten note that peeks out from behind a young girl sitting in her lap. The note says, “Cancer, you said I’d never bear children. My daughter says you are wrong.”

Brand Unity

Brands need to work across all media types. From a design perspective, this means brand unity, consistency, developing and following brand guidelines, and internally monitoring how well the guidelines are followed. The Product Red campaign, which raises money for the global HIV/AIDS crisis by selling numerous licensed, co-branded products, illustrates how this can be done effectively without compromising creativity (http://www.joinred.com/aboutred).

Building from the Inside Out

The best brands are built from the inside out. In other words, the brand must be sold internally before it can be effectively sold externally. A key component relevant to engineering is the cultivation of brand ambassadors, individuals who will represent a brand to the target audiences. An example is Intel’s “Sponsors of Tomorrow” campaign (http://www.intel.com/pressroom/archive/releases/2009/ 20090506corp.htm), which visually contrasts the company’s scientists and engineers with leather-clad musicians using the tagline, “Our rock stars are not like your rock stars.”

Challenges for Engineering

Creating a successful brand is difficult and expensive, and it takes time. Branding for engineering faces some special challenges that must be taken into account.

The Legacy Issue

I have already mentioned the issue of mathematics and science, which is thoroughly discussed in Changing the Conversation (NAE, 2008). Past messaging has emphasized academic skill requirements and largely ignored messages associating engineering with social benefits. Because of this legacy, we can expect a slow shift away from the “old” brand, but only with a consistent and unified spread of new messaging.

Achieving Coordination and Consistency

In many respects, engineering is like a decentralized “industry.” Engineering schools, engineering professional societies, technology-focused companies, certain museums and science centers, and even some K–12 schools and programs all have a stake in the public perception of the field. But each of these also has unique goals, capabilities, and parochial interests. This poses obvious challenges to the coordinated, consistent delivery of messages.

About 10 years ago, NAE conducted a survey of a large number of engineering-focused organizations. 
In a report summarizing the survey results, NAE estimated that the engineering community was spending about $400 million annually on outreach to the public (NAE, 2002). The actual total is almost certainly higher, but the larger issue is that these funds were nearly all expended in small amounts on diffuse efforts by many different types of institutions. Until the Changing the Conversation initiative, no effort was made to move the needle of public perception in a more coordinated way.

The Language Issue

Language itself can undermine brand effectiveness. The word “engineering”—how it is used and understood—presents challenges to branding. Many people, for example, do not distinguish engineering from science or technology. In addition, engineers themselves do not always agree on what engineering is let alone how to explain it to the public. Messaging can be further muddied by attempts to draw attention to a specific sub-discipline of engineering, such as mechanical, electrical, or civil engineering.

The Promise Gap

The promise gap is a challenge for all brands. For engineering, this might mean that the new messages suggested by the Changing the Conversation project may not always align well with the experiences of young people who decide to pursue engineering studies. The messages stress creativity, solving meaningful problems, and making a difference in people’s lives.

But many undergraduate engineering programs, I am told, do not deliver on these messages, focusing instead solely on high-level mathematics and science. It does little good to create messages and creative communications materials if engineering cannot deliver authentically on the promise.

Opportunities for Engineering

Imagery

In the realm of imagery, I see two distinct possibilities. One might be called geek chic, exemplified by the Intel example (cited above) or the Geek Squad, Best Buy’s computer repair group. In both cases, the image cleverly makes an asset out of a potential handicap and, in the process, creates pride and an identity for employees.

The second possibility, exemplified by websites such as NAE’s Engineer Your Life (engineeryourlife.org), cultivates an image that high school girls will be attracted to, in this case by featuring slightly older professional women engineers as role models, interactive games, and so on.

Changing the Experience

Industry, engineering schools, engineering professional societies, and others in the engineering community can also change the experience of engineering. This is true both for organizations in which recruitment and retention are at issue and for organizations that engage external audiences.

Organizations can take some immediate steps to support the development of a new brand for engineering. An internal assessment of communications efforts should begin by asking the following questions:

  • Revisit stakeholders: Who is most critical to your success? How do they learn about engineering? What will engage this audience?
  • Audit engineering outreach materials: How might you embed or integrate the Changing the Conversation messages?
  • Review the new positioning statement: How might you pick out key words or themes and build additional messages or stories around them?
  • Develop talking points: How might executives and colleagues make effective use of the new messages and materials based on them?
  • Focus on storytelling: Who are your messengers or ambassadors? What images are you using?

Conclusion

Despite the difficulties of developing an effective brand and the particular challenges facing engineering, I remain optimistic. The engineering community can now take advantage of new, tested messages and taglines. Combined with appropriate imagery and experience, they offer the engineering community an opportunity to change the frame of reference—to create a brand for engineering that is at once relevant, appealing, and authentic.

References

GE. 2011. Ecoimagination Fact Sheet. Available online at http://www.ecomagination.com/about/fact-sheet/.

Manning, J. 2006. Got milk? marketing by association. Associations Now (July). Available online at http://www.asaecenter.
org/Resources/ANowDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=18644
.

NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2002. Raising Public Awareness of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

NAE. 2008. Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

  

FOOTNOTES

1 See http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/motrin_bows_to_social_ media_pr.php.

 

About the Author:Mitch Baranowski is founding partner and chief creative officer of BBMG in New York.