BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Because of non-disclosure agreements, there’s a lot that Kelly King and her students can’t say specifically about what they did in the Indiana University Kelley School of Business course, “M-355, Brand Management Practicum.”
But that’s part of the unique experience offered through an undergraduate Kelley School course that is geared toward students’ career interests in the creative side of marketing, working as a brand manager or as a creative service provider.
Students get real-world branding experience in the class as they work with brand managers at top consumer package good companies, who are bringing new products to market with millions in annual sales worldwide on the line.
“I can’t tell you much about the projects, because they were new product development projects, which is super exciting when you’re in the world of brand management,” said King, an adjunct lecturer at the Kelley School and the IU Media School. “But it’s the most exciting experience you can have in my mind because you’re launching or exploring new products.”
Students have worked with Samantha Loeffler, a brand manager at The Clorox Company and a Kelley graduate, who said she understands that excitement in her current professional role.
“These types of projects are extremely important because they give students the chance to exercise the knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom in a real-world project. There are many soft and hard skills that just need to be learned by doing,” said Loeffler, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Kelley in marketing and international business in 2013. “It also gives students a flavor for what this career is like on a daily basis and if it’s something they may be interested in pursuing.
“A critical lesson to learn when working at any company, but especially in the CPG industry, is that your decisions have to make sense for all stakeholders – the consumer, the retailer and the company,” she added. “Throughout the project. my students were challenged to think through their choices holistically and present a business case with rationale for all stakeholders.”
Piper Phillips, a rising senior majoring in marketing and international business, said she appreciated that the course enabled her to apply what she had learned in previous courses in marketing, supply chains and operations, as well as prerequisite classes.
“It was a cool accumulation of all the things that I had learned from years prior,” she said. “It was nice to get to combine those things and use them in a real-life experience … To work with a real brand and a real company while still in college prepares you, because it teaches you the nuances and how to apply the things that you’ve learned.”
King, also the founder and president of the 80/20 Agency, developed the Kelley course in 2020, which has continued to evolve and become more popular. It’s another example of why Kelley’s marketing curriculum is consistently ranked among the programs in the nation and why its graduates are able to hit the ground running with top employers after graduation.
After a four-week ‘crash course” of learning about brand strategy, positioning, buyer personas and brand storytelling, students are divided into teams and introduced to national brand managers like Loeffler, with whom they will continue to work with for the remainder of the semester. Students’ grades are based on a brand challenge book and presentations made to King and clients. There were five brand teams during the spring semester, working with companies that people interact with on a daily basis.
‘You actually feel like you’re making a difference’
Unlike getting theoretical cases and practice problems to work with, students in the course met frequently with brand managers, often on a weekly basis and for at least an hour. In some instances, students are introduced to other members of the product teams, including engineers, creative team members and package designers. “I was shocked how much they gave of their time talking to students, so obviously they found value in that,” King said.
“We would get new information that changed weekly and product tweaks from our brand manager and we had to be able to take that and pivot really quickly,” Phillips said of her experience. “It was unlike any class that I’ve ever had. You actually feel like you’re making a difference. They were taking our feedback into consideration. We felt we were being listened to by the brand leadership, which made us feel responsible. We wanted to make sure the work was correct because the stakes were higher.
“This experience felt more like an internship than a class,” Phillips added. “Everything clicked in place and this course made me realize that I was in the right spot and that this is something I’m good at.”
Other branding professionals, including those are Kelley alumni, serve as guest lecturers, including best-selling author and business consultant Mark Schaefer, whose book, “Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins,” is used in the class. Another was Susan Jones, a Kelley alumna, Dean’s Council member and founder of the growth acceleration firm Seed Strategy.
The course’s team composition mimics what students will experience in their future jobs and prepares them to see a business problem from a different lens and appreciate the diversity of views. To that aim, students from the Media School and the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design also are invited to enroll. Students learn how to work in teams with others and their different talents, knowledge, skills, and perspectives to create effective strategies, tactics, and deliverables for a brand, as in the real world.
“The type of work and the variety of work that students are asked to do – which for some involves research, while others do package design – was phenomenal. And their work is actually used,” King said.
Benefits for the brand managers and their companies include keeping current with what’s on the minds of many of their consumers. By working with these “Gen Z” students, they essentially get a “mini-focus group working on their brand.”
“They bring fresh thinking and new perspective to our company. Sometimes we’re so bogged down on our own day-to-day businesses that we forget to seek external thinking,” Loeffler said of the students and the value they bring. “It was also nice to hear how GenZ thinks – a group of people whom most of our brands are hyper focused on targeting but don’t have representation for on our teams.
“For my project, the students reinforced the importance of things like convenience and sustainability to GenZ when they’re making purchase decisions,” she added.
Another brand manager told King they were “blown away” by the students’ work. Students have landed internships as a result of their work in the course. Clients have asked some of the students to remain in touch. More than 50 students applied last semester for the course; class size is capped at 20. They are required to show how strategic, analytical and creative they will be in their application.
“Especially when it came to choosing a career path, I remember feeling so unsure about what certain titles actually meant,” Loeffler said. “It was personally rewarding to feel like I could help the young women on my team and provide advice. A few of them have gone on to connect with me on LinkedIn and reach out, which is so touching!”
Involvement of brand managers makes class unique
Other universities around the country, particularly those with journalism, media or public relations programs, have set up student-run advertising agencies. What makes the Kelley School class so unique is “the missing link” — the involvement of brand managers and strategy educators. “It’s really unique to have the strategic thinkers and the ones who can do the spreadsheets, research and work with the data … This is high-level branding,” King said.
Phillips recalled a recent conversation that she had with a friend who attends another business school on the West Coast. “I was talking with a friend about it and they were saying that they did something similar. But when I said we were meeting with the brand manager every week and presented to the VP, they were like, ‘wait, what, you’re actually working with the brand?
“I’ve heard about people at other schools doing real-life projects, but the difference is that we actually were working with the brand management team of the company,” she added.
And all of this success has happened in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited these interactions to being done via Zoom and to everyone’s’ surprise made things easier. Students likely will continue to use Zoom for communication and for final presentations to clients, since they are located all over the country. Some students found the class to be a great substitute for the internship experience they missed out on due to Covid-19.
King said it has been remarkable for her students to work with so many Kelley alumni, who are giving back, and hopes they will return the favor in the future. “We hope these M355 students will boomerang back to participate in this course again as brand managers,” she said.