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A Slam Dunk in Marketing
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
“Can you find 10 people to try on a pair of sneakers?” The question from Converse was a gimme for Ian Cross, who directs Bentley’s Center for Marketing Technology (CMT) and teaches in the Marketing Department.
His response -- “How about 4,000 Bentley students?” – kicked up more than a little interest at the athletic footwear company. Before long, Converse had paired with the CMT to conduct fit and wear trials with Bentley students, a target demographic for the company’s casual wear.
Founded in 2000, the Center for Marketing Technology is a full-service market research, strategy, and teaching facility. There are resources for convening focus groups, conducting and analyzing field surveys, and fostering interactive learning in a classroom with 40 networked work stations. About 25 corporate clients a year cross the threshold for projects that span consumer goods, retail, finance, health care, technology, government and education.
Converse jumped in last fall. Focus groups of students tried on six to eight pairs of test shoes and recorded observations about fit and feel. They also wore the shoes around campus for two to four weeks to test durability and performance.
“The students provided useful information for decision-making,” says Kristen LaFontaine, a 2003 Bentley alumna and product tester at Massachusetts-based Converse. She shared the input with footwear developers and explored potential solutions. A final report sent to factory partners noted whether each shoe was approved, and if not, detailed the reason. [LaFontaine is featured as a Class Notable in this issue.]
On the heels of the successful market research, the Converse–Bentley partnership expanded to a “corporate immersion” course for the spring 2011 semester. Student groups are creating a marketing strategy for three different lines of shoes: Premium, John Varvatos, and the limited edition First String. Deliverables include a marketing plan and campaign that covers retail stores, the Internet and social media, events, and public relations.
“Through an investment in market research, we’re helping companies minimize the risk of business failure,” Cross says of the work, which can inform major product launches, sales and marketing strategy, pre- and postpurchase planning, and return-on-investment decisions.
Senior Kelly Peterson was among those who got a foot in the door to real-world experience through the Converse course. The students had weekly contact with company executives and visited company headquarters in North Andover to learn about the production process.
“I definitely consider this more of an internship than a class,” Peterson says of the experience.
Shopping for Insights
The most successful projects, according to Cross, are those where students can see themselves in the role of the subject and the researcher. “They can identify with both.”
Such was the case for a corporate immersion course with off-price retailer TJX Companies. Students analyzed different retail footprints for the company’s HomeGoods stores: a stand-alone business and a superstore format, which couples HomeGoods with a T.J. Maxx or Marshalls.
“Why do you shop at HomeGoods versus the homemaker demographic?” Cross asked students, as they sought to understand the shopping experience of customers.
Finding the answer started with shelving assumptions – a “major challenge,” says Kristen Mausert ’11.
“When the results contradicted our beliefs, it really opened our eyes to how valuable the research would be for us and the client,” she says of her team’s preconception of different store formats.
The team gained insight by applying qualitative and quantitative market research tools available in the CMT, and met often to analyze results. Site visits to HomeGoods opened doors for firsthand observation of store layouts, consumer interviews about the shopping experience and purchases, and “shop-alongs” with pre-selected customers.
“Students offered a fresh perspective and an unbiased view of our business, and allowed us to interact with an age group we are hoping to attract to our stores,” says Stephen Mastrangelo, vice president of planning and allocation for HomeGoods. “Working with the team at the CMT enabled us to stay focused on delivering results for HomeGoods.”
Students were assigned to work with members of different TJX departments such as retention, marketing and customer service – and reported on progress in weekly meetings.
“This type of collaboration was one of the most incredible parts of the experience,” recalls Marketing major Monica Mohan ’11.
Adds Cross: “As students shared critical research with clients, they also acquired experience from executives who treated them like marketers -- not students.”
What attracts big-name businesses to the CMT? Cross credits “unfiltered, fresh thinking by young people who are training to be successful business people. Our students are analytical, business minded and pragmatic, and we tap into that.”
These were qualities that appealed to Apple as it looked for ways to raise awareness of Macintosh computers among business students.
“We conducted research and brainstormed creative ideas, to create a marketing plan and social media campaign that would connect Apple to higher education,” explains Persida Konomi ’10, former president of the Bentley Marketing Association.
She and others in the spring 2010 course launched a Facebook campaign at Bentley to help break down misconceptions about the role of Macs in business. Student teams presented recommendations for bringing new technologies to Bentley’s learning environment, such as podcasts and iTunesU.
“The students took ownership of the project and wanted to make a difference in the outcome,” observes Paul D’Ascoli, higher education account executive at Apple. “That was very motivating and exciting to the Apple team.”
The creative vibe strikes a chord with clients.
“Executives can come into the CMT, turn off their BlackBerry or iPhone, and sit down with a group of smart students and professors who are engaged in finding answers and sharing opinions,” says Cross. “Companies are often surprised and amazed at the results. They enjoy working with us and get business value.”
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.