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Exploring ‘Science’ as a Brand

Title: Title: Exploring the brand of science: implications for science communication research and practice

Author(s) and Year: Todd P. Newman and Becca Beets; Published in 2023.


TL;DR: As science communicators, we want to understand people’s feelings towards science. By using similar social science frameworks used in marketing, we can evaluate “Science” as a brand - whether it is seen as more functional, experiential or symbolic. This can help shape our science communication efforts to reach audiences and engage them emotionally.

Why I chose this paper: I saw Becca Beets present her research at the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) 2023 conference and as someone interested in branding and marketing, it stood out to me. Branding influences the perception of people to a product or institution, so it is helpful to apply it to science and how we can create positive impressions of science.


Why do you buy Colgate?

Their toothpaste solves the issue of plaque build-up and keeps your teeth clean.

Why do you buy Lego?

Their toy bricks offer a hands-on puzzle and enjoyable playtime.

Why do you buy a Rolex?

Their luxury watches evoke a sense of wealth or high-fashion.

But, why do you buy into “Science”?

In the case of multinational companies, they have built well-established brands through careful messaging to their audiences using advertising, product placement and design. The brand is the sum of how a product or business is perceived by those who experience it—including customers, investors, employees, the media, and more. Social science and marketing studies have been developed to understand these perceptions and how they play out in real world scenarios.

By applying brand frameworks to the brand of “Science”, researchers Newman and Beets looked to improve science communicators’ understanding of how audiences perceive science. By reflecting on the collective meanings that different groups attach to science, we as science communicators can better inform our efforts to shape the emotional connections people have with science.

The Concept

When purchasing an item or interacting with a business, a person’s motivations and perceptions are influenced by branding. Brand Concept Management (BCM) provides a framework to evaluate those feelings by associating the person’s needs with a concept category:

  • Functional - the product or concept provides a functional utility, such as solving or preventing a problem, like Colgate toothpaste.

  • Experiential - the product or concept evokes sensory, emotional, and behavioral elements, like the fun of building Lego models.

  • Symbolic - how a product or concept conveys one’s self-image, like a Rolex watch.

Newman and Beets wanted to find out how people viewed science in terms of these BCM categories: Is “Science” predominantly functional, experiential or symbolic in someone’s life?

The Research

To test how Brand Concept Management (BCM) can be used in the context of science communication research, Newman and Beets conducted surveys of the U.S. American public through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk).

For the first part they asked respondents, “how often do the following words come to mind when you think about science?” - rating on a scale of 1 to 5 their emotional associations of hope, joy, caution, boredom, and fear.

Then, in a randomized order, they asked three open-ended questions about what comes to mind when thinking about the “benefits of science” (functional), how respondents “experience science” (experiential), and “images of science” (symbolic).

Newman and Beets had a final sample of 788 responses for a broad “science” survey and 506 responses when addressing science subfields of astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, and psychology.

The Results

Through qualitative analysis of the open-ended survey responses, Newman and Beets identified four themes: applications, experiences, images, and attitudes.

  • Applications - practical or functional uses of science, e.g. vaccines development, food production, new discoveries.

  • Experiences - engaging or interacting with science, e.g. daily activities like driving, or educational environments like school classes or museums.

  • Images - visual representations of science, e.g. descriptions of laboratory settings, direct mentions of science-related professions or famous scientists, and descriptions of space or nature.

  • Attitudes - emotional responses were mostly positive but with some concerns about the risks and ethics of science.

Since the questions were based on the BCM framework, it is natural, and may appear obvious, that these themes correspond with the BCM categories:

Expected correspondence of themes to BCM categories. BCM Categories are presented on the left, with themes one the right. Functional = Applications, Experiential = Experiences, Symbolic = Images, and Attitudes is an additional theme.
Fig 1: Expected correspondence between Brand Concept Management categories and themes of responses. BCM Categories are presented on the left, with themes one the right.

However, Newman and Beets noted that references to the applications of science appeared frequently throughout the survey, even when respondents were not answering the Functional question but rather the Experiential or Symbolic questions. This indicates that people typically think of science as a utility, with science taking on meaning when it is connected to an issue that the person cares about.

Survey results illustrated with arrows as links between Brand Concept Management categories (Left) and Themes (Right). All the categories of questions led to responses about the Applications of 'Science'. The theme of Attitudes also featured in answers but to a lesser degree.
Fig 2: Actual links between Brand Concept Management categories (Left) and Themes (Right) based on question responses. All the categories of questions led to responses about the Applications of 'Science'.

This may also help to explain the results of the emotional associations. “Hope” was the emotion most strongly associated with “Science” and the various subfields, although “Caution” was the top rated response in specific relation to Chemistry! People have hope that science can improve lives and solve problems, especially in regards to health, technology and the environment.

Despite limitations of the survey methods using MTurk, the sample size, and the impacts of the Covid pandemic on attitudes during the response period, the use of open-ended questions was particularly valuable. Going beyond quantifying emotional responses, the answers covered a wide range of topics, from nature to AI and providing insights into personal relationships with science.

The Takeaway

Newman and Beets’ research is a valuable proof of concept of how Brand Concept Management, a marketing industry framework, can be an additional tool for analyzing perceptions of science. They highlight that many people perceive science as functional and are in turn hopeful towards how science may improve their lives.

By utilizing evaluation techniques from social science and other industries, we can better understand the different emotional connections that people have to science and the associations they are making between science and other aspects of society. Responding to these needs and emotions, we can tailor our communication to be impactful and relevant to audiences.

Edited by: Tony Van Witsen and Niveen Abi Ghannam

Cover image credit: Canva Pro Image Library with edits by Sam Ridgeway


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