Brand management in a digital world

Brand names are among the most valuable assets that a firm owns. In a recent Interbrand survey, the world’s top three brands commanded immense values of $184 billion (Apple), $141 billion (Google) and $80 billion (Microsoft). The world of branding is undergoing tremendous change as consumers spend more time online and learn about products and brands primarily through online channels.

At the Center for Branding at the University of Pittsburgh Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, we advise businesses of all sizes and types on digital media. We have observed the following three key trends:

Growth of digital channels

In the old days, marketers used to advertise on a few mass media channels such as radio, newspaper and TV. Today, there is a proliferation of digital channel options including banner ads, search ads and social media ads.

Faced with a plethora of options, how can brands ensure that they maintain a consistent message across various platforms, or that their voice is even heard?

In response, digital ad agencies manage campaigns that are optimized online minute to minute based on demographics and geographical information. A key challenge is the fact that consumers seamlessly engage with brands across multiple digital devices, making it increasingly difficult to ascertain which channel is driving the conversation with customers.

Managing brand equity online

Another key trend is the growth of social monitoring and social listening. Comments made by consumers about brand names across various social media platforms are aggregated and categorized, allowing managers to infer how consumers are engaging with brand names.

This social media listening can offer important clues to marketers about potential problems brewing in terms of product quality or pricing, thus acting as an early-warning mechanism. In this way, social listening has in some ways supplanted traditional forms of market research.

Protecting brand reputation in a time of crisis

In a crisis, social media often acts as a megaphone and amplifies negative news. Samsung Galaxy phones, which caught on fire, ignited a social media maelstrom. Volkswagen’s diesel emission scandal became a dominant social media topic of conversation. (I co-wrote a 2016 article on this topic in the Harvard Business Review, “What 100,000 Tweets about the Volkswagen Scandal Tell Us About Angry Customers.”)

How can brand managers effectively mitigate the impact of the spread of information on social media following a transgression? What interventions succeed and which ones are not effective? These are important questions to address in the digital landscape.


Brands and brand equity are important to the success of all firms. In our increasingly connected, global and mobile world this brings new challenges and new opportunities for reaching customers and maximizing sales. How current models of brands are created, measured and managed must evolve to keep pace.


Vanitha Swaminathan is the Thomas Marshall chair in marketing and director of the Center for Branding at University of Pittsburgh Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business