All of the Above

Carol Phillips has been teaching brand strategy to Notre Dame MBA students since 2003.

“I always try to incorporate some real-world experience into it,” the marketing adjunct professor said. “Brand strategy is one of those things that’s easy to talk about. … We all know what brands are. We know why they matter. But it’s a lot harder to think about how do you build a brand?”

At a social event last winter, Phillips fortuitously met Perri Irmer, the president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History, and asked, “So what do you do?”

As Irmer described DuSable and its marketing challenges, Phillips sensed an opportunity for her students to work with an outstanding institution that had some very big brand-building goals. Among them: attracting millennials to its South Side campus, capitalizing on the forthcoming arrival of the Obama Presidential Center nearby, leveraging DuSable’s just announced affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute, and simply, how to get more people through the doors.

Irmer and curator Leslie Guy traveled to Notre Dame to talk to the class about the challenges and opportunities. The class then split into teams and spent six weeks crafting their marketing strategy proposals. Phillips also partnered with the Notre Dame Design School, which assigned an undergraduate design student to each of the 18 teams to help with the proposals.

“It was very different from a traditional brand strategy project, where you would have some marketing objective to meet,” said Phillips. “Certainly there are marketing objectives here, but is it to drive memberships, drive donations, or to drive visitors, regardless of membership? It’s all of the above.”

The proposals were as varied as the challenges. Teams explored DuSable’s role and identity as Chicago’s storyteller for African American history, as a South Side community center, as a tourism destination, and as an entertainment venue. The resulting brand strategies were multifaceted and detailed, including plans for building corporate sponsorships and museum patronage, as well as increasing foot traffic by partnering with the larger Chicago tourism network.

Quite a few plans played with the museum’s existing “Du Something” slogan, offering new variations on the “Du” name to attract visitors, such as, “What Would You Du to Make a Difference?” and, simply, “The Duers.”

There also was a significant emphasis on the partnerships with the community and neighborhood, through events such as taking exhibits into the area schools and sponsoring an open mic night for local artists at the museum.

After two classroom sessions, Irmer and Guy left with dozens of ideas for DuSable’s marketing vision, several of which they are incorporating into their marketing strategies.

“The students’ presentations reflected an understanding of the DuSable Museum’s important mission of educating all people, not just people of color, about African American history, art and culture,” said Perri Irmer, DuSable CEO. They presented us with creative and well researched recommendations and strategies for marketing the DuSable to a younger demographic, offering new ideas for drawing in and engaging young people, and validating some of our current plans, as well.”

“What I found most helpful were the analyses of both our current and potential markets, as well as the suggested methodologies for attracting these new visitors (especially in light of the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center in five years),” said Leslie Guy, DuSable chief curator.

Phillips considered the project an educational success — even though students might have found the broad nature of their task frustrating. “Problems don’t come pre-packaged. That’s the difficulty with business cases, the answers always seem obvious,” she said. “But when you’re really in the thick of something, the answers are never obvious. It’s really important for students to understand that sometimes things don’t have edges.

“I use the analogy of pancake batter — it spills out all over the place. It’s your job as a business person to create some structure so that you frame a problem that can be solved. So my goals were to give them those frameworks and let them loose with it.”