Fall 2021

Living Science

Photo by Michael P. King


Early in his doctoral studies, Todd Newman noticed a distinct gap between people’s attitudes and their behaviors. At the time, he was studying the use of climate change communication to encourage pro-environmental actions. According to survey research he encountered, respondents generally held strong positive attitudes toward environmentally beneficial policies and behaviors. They also expressed a desire to take steps themselves, but follow-through was often lacking.

This recognition of a rift between how people think and act was a turning point for Newman. He shifted from a narrow focus on climate change communication to a broader look at science communication in general. He began to see that communication could be a tool for shaping actions in a way that is socially, environmentally, and economically responsible.

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC), Newman sees an opportunity for science communication to benefit from the marketing concept of branding. “Because it’s people who make policies, it’s people who vote for representatives, it’s people who do and benefit from science,” Newman says. “Individuals are the centerpiece to communities, institutions, and society.”

Newman believes that understanding this centerpiece is an important first step toward understanding broader implications for the intersection of science and society. Accurate and effective science communication is vital because the quality of communication from scientists and experts affects how people feel about science, policies, and technologies — and, consequently, how likely they are to support them.

What is the brand of science today?

First, it is important to note what a brand is. A brand is an emotional reflex one has toward an entity, whether that be a company, like Pepsi, or an institution, like UW–Madison. It’s built on experiences that accumulate into an emotion. I study a more complex phenomenon, the branding of science. Marketing research has shown how to shape and cultivate a brand to a specific consumer; however, scientists, and science in general, have not taken the time to reflect and utilize marketing research to brand science effectively. The grand question is, how will science proceed in creating a brand for itself?

What makes creating a brand for science difficult?

One challenge to branding science is its inconsistency. There are many different types of sciences in addition to science as a whole. It is nothing like McDonald’s, where it looks and tastes the same no matter where you are in the world. Fortunately, branding can be applied to anything. In my ongoing research on the topic, I’ve conducted a series of studies asking how people think and feel when they hear the word “science.” The results are clear: The emotion that the public most strongly associates with science is hope. I think science has intuitively recognized this but hasn’t necessarily used it for its branding advantage.

Why is branding science important in the public sphere when it comes to new technologies and scientific challenges?

Science communication has shown, for a variety of scientific topics, that you must make the science relevant to what people care about for them to have positive opinions about it. For people, it’s more about what the science will be used for, not the actual science itself. The feeling of hope around science is created from what science can do and what problems it can solve. This feeling is a positive brand for science overall, and more research should be done on branding science with new technologies and scientific challenges. It is about the messages that scientists and science create and how they affect the perception of science. Since people already feel hopeful about science, this would be a good emotion to leverage in order to build a positive brand for science.

You coauthored a book, Brand, a few years ago. Can you tell us about the book and what motivated you to write it?

Science affects everyone in some way, so I think that’s one of the things that was illuminating for me. The point of the book was to put together a way for people interested in branding to draw connections for how it can impact science and politics. Brand is unique as it considers the constant changes of the media environment and how much that has affected branding and its connection to the audience. It also takes into account [the importance of] knowing your audience and using segmentation, which is something that marketers do but also social scientists, like myself. Science — and aspects around science — are hard to segment: They don’t have clear lines and can be very broad by nature.

I wanted to write this book to educate about how branding can be used holistically. At the time, there wasn’t anything similar, nothing that walked the reader through how a brand is a kind of continuum going from something concrete — a product being sold at a store — to something more abstract, like how does the public feel about science. Our goal was to show the ways in which branding has been used across different entities in society and how best practices can be leveraged regardless of whether branding techniques were used by an individual, corporation, nation, or political party.


In Brand (Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2017), Todd Newman and his coauthor, DePaul University marketing professor Bruce Newman, present an original framework called the “Strategic Brand Focus,” which helps explain the complex relationship between the “3 C’s”: customer (audience), channel (ways to communicate to the audience), and competition (the development of a strategic position).


What are some of the things that you love about the LSC department and CALS?

One of the best parts of are their camaraderie of shared interests. Everyone — colleagues, faculty, and students — can come together on projects, which is why I think we are as productive as we are.

I also appreciate the interdisciplinary opportunities CALS provides to work with many other science departments on campus. I feel fortunate to be a social scientist studying within CALS because I think the college understands the importance of interdisciplinary work. It allows us to continue to complete unique and interesting research with our collaborations. I really enjoy this interdisciplinary side of my work. It has allowed me to get some invitations to talk about the branding of science — for example, I’ve been able to talk on the radio and other media — which I love doing because I don’t think people normally consider it.

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