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Thoughts from the Classroom: Communication and Global Brands

Overhauling course content to focus on Corporate Social Responsibility, Brand Purpose, Diversity and Rethinking Luxury

I just wrapped up a fantastic, if unusual, semester teaching Communication and Global Branding at Columbia SPS. Unusual not just because my class was a whopping 34 (fabulous) students in an entirely online format, but because the world has changed … so I found myself needing to change much of my content from when I taught the class last summer.

“Communications and Global Brands” covers global and local cultures, market differences, audience identification and targeting, consumer need states, the ability for global brands to adapt to local nuances while remaining culturally relevant and true to their brand DNA.

As a working communications professional for more than two decades and adjunct professor for 15 of those, I’m a passionate advocate for the power of strategic communication to affect business and culture – not just during a crisis, though I believe that the last few months have amplified the importance of experienced and knowledgeable communications counsel.

Our current reality often made staying on course challenging. An honest dialogue between an Asian student who shared her culture’s confusion as to how a skin lightening product could be offensive and why it is being taken off the market and a Black student’s confusion as to how it could be perceived as anything other than offensive would not have happened in my class last year. That it happened this semester is a very good thing and underscored the need to also teach awareness and empowerment. After presenting a theory, data set or exploring different opinions, I often said, “Here’s why this matters. Here’s how we can use this information. Here’s how we, as communication professionals, can make a difference.”

Many of the standard industry reports and “year ahead” predictions I review are released early Q1 and not reflective of the many challenges the pandemic has brought, nor the heightened awareness of and actions supporting the transformation of racial equality. However, Edelman’s Trust Barometer, HootSuite’s report on social and digital trends and usage around the world and IBM’s study on Corporate Social Responsibility with Morning Consult continued to be important resources. Interbrand’s Best Global Brands is required reading: it’s an insightful y/y comparison as to what is going on in the world of global communication, branding and corporate marketing. Who’s standing out, who has screwed up, who is making a difference and who is blazing new trails and making “iconic moves.”

Corporate Social Responsibility and Purpose as an important component of a company brand for as long as I’ve taught this course, and I typically review CSR “trends” from previous years. Transparency, data privacy, environmental consciousness and sustainability, and authentically “walking the talk” all continue to be essential topics. I created a new section on Diversity and Inclusion, inviting fellow professor and MetLife’s Global Chair of Diversity and Inclusion Cindy Pace to talk about the need for and challenges of a global diversity program. I’m looking forward to reading these same reports next year to see the change in focus.

Luxury was an interesting topic this year, as many of the traditional values associated with the luxury industry as well as how consumers interact with and value luxury continues to change. A demand for services and experiences are catching up with a demand for luxury goods in many parts of the world, and purposeful and meaningful consumption is replacing opulence.

I am fortunate to have wonderful industry colleagues who are generous with their time and knowledge, and I pull in the best of the best to share their expertise: (in order of appearance) my former student and current Course Associate Liz Eddy, Yvonne Lynam, President – Piaget; Milton Pedraza, CEO of The Luxury Institute; Steve Barrett, Vice President and Editorial Director, PRWeek, Lisa Boyd, Director - Social Impact, Lyft and fellow Columbia Professor Cindy Pace, Global Chair of Diversity and Inclusion for MetLife. Thank you to these experts and to my students for an enriching and interesting semester.

So, how is your content changing these days?

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