i learned more than i taught

Last week I had the honor of guest-leading a session at the University of California-San Diego. classroomAlthough the class was about news-writing, the instructor wanted to spend a day focused on brands and so she asked me to do a brief intro to brands and then lead the group in a brand management exercise.  It was an eye-opening experience and I thought I’d share some of my takeaways.

I learned a lot of different things so the following list lacks the cohesiveness that I normally like to present in my posts, but I hope you will indulge me — and perhaps you might find some a common thread(s) weaving through my points.  In the end, the bottom line takeaway is that I learned more than I taught — isn’t that always the case?!

Denise’s Top 5 Takeaways from Guest-Leading a UCSD Class on Brand Management:

about brands & teens

#1.  the lack of perceived differentiation is hurting teen apparel brands — We started with a discussion of brands the students like and they immediately brought up Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister.  But after a discussion about the two brands, it was clear there is little perceived differentiation between them.  The students pointed out they can get the exact same shirt from both chains and the little difference in brand image they perceived between the two brands (A&F is slightly more classy; Hollister, more casual) wasn’t meaningful to them.  The brands were interchangeable for all intents and purposes and sales were the only reason to visit one over the other.  Yikes — if I were in charge of one of these brands, or the many others that compete in the same space, I’d be very afraid.

#2.  a crisis isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be — We engaged students in an exercise in which they assumed the role of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand management team.  We painted pictures of several fictitious crises which the company might experience and asked them to develop an action plan to get the brand back on track.

One of the crises had to do with the company CEO embezzling company profits to fund an expensive affair.  While some of the students displayed a personal intolerance for such immoral behavior, they pretty much all agreed that it didn”t really matter to kids their age.  In fact they seemed more concerned about the money lost than the integrity of the CEO.  Combine this with the fact that none of the students seemed aware of the Domino’s disgusting video crisis which happened a few months ago and I’m reminded to consider the real impact of news items, despite the coverage in the news or blogosphere.

about brand management

#3.  kids can develop better brand crisis management strategies than pros do — Not all of the action steps that the students presented as responses to the fictional A&F brand crises made sense, but some of them demonstrated an insightful understanding of business and brand management.

One breakout group’s work was on a crisis produced by a new product flop — they included plans to introduce another new product which would be completely new to A&F (a product line they hadn’t previously carried for example.)  They felt the company would need to do something dramatic and truly newsworthy in order to distract customers from the prior failure and to reinvigorate excitement about the brand.  I commended them for not recommending A&F simply resort to deep discounting, which seems the knee-jerk reaction of most companies these days.

The group which worked on the CEO embezzlement crisis recommended an increased employee discount program.  They believed it was important to reassure company employees that the CEO’s recklessness wouldn’t affect their jobs or paychecks — and to stimulate increased purchasing without drawing too much attention to the news item.  The students seemed to understand intuitively the power of engaging the chain’s salesforce, their biggest customer influencers.

about the class

#4.  girls still defer to boys in the classroom —  You’d think, with all the progress females have made in business, politics, sports, etc., that gender dynamics at school would have changed — but not based on my experience with this class.  There were 11 girls and 1 boy in the class and several times during the day I observed the female students deferring to the male.  It happened when I asked for input or comments (the girls seemed to wait for him to respond first), when the breakout groups had to elect a spokesperson (he assumed the role for his group because the others didn’t step up), and when he said something in front of the class (there seemed a reluctance to criticize or challenge what he said.)  Now, granted, the boy was very sharp and smart and so some of the deference was probably appropriate.  But this was a real disappointment to me and I’d love to see this change — but how???

#5.  some teachers have so much more to offer to students than course content — The instructor of the class, Stephanie Ann Martin, went beyond simply teaching the subject matter and I’m not just saying this because she is a dear friend of mine.  Based on the probing questions she asked them and the way she encouraged them to think critically during the class exercise, it was apparent she wanted them to learn far more than the topic of brand management.  She wanted them to grow as people and develop skills that will serve them well regardless of their career choices down the road.  And she had so much wisdom to share — please see the letter she wrote to her students at the conclusion of the class.  I hope her students took advantage of all she had to offer.

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