How one lecturer’s own career epiphany inspired his innovative marketing lesson: dissecting brand messaging to see what (and if) it delivers.
Six years ago, Marcus Collins was at the peak of his career as a marketing executive, helping big-name brands forge connections with consumers. One night, while he was lying awake in his New York City apartment, he had a minor panic attack and began to wonder if he was a fraud.
“I had been leading social media campaigns for Bud Light Platinum, State Farm, McDonald’s, Sprite, and the Brooklyn Nets,” he explains, “and it hit me like a load of bricks. Social media is really about people. And I knew nothing about people.”
He began to question everything he was doing with his career. Did his skill set, built over more than a decade, mean nothing? Had he been asking the wrong people the wrong questions? Worst (and his greatest fear): Would his peers and clients realize that his expertise was incomplete?
“It was a very vulnerable place to be,” he says of that night, which he now refers to as his Jerry Maguire (or aha!) moment. “I was super excited I had that epiphany, but more than anything, I was scared s—less.”
What he did next did not just send him in a new direction professionally, it drove him into academia, too: He studied up on behavioral economics and the psychology of human behavior, consulting the works of noted scholars George Loewenstein (of Carnegie Mellon University), Daniel Kahneman (of Princeton University), and Dan Ariely (of Duke University). Soon, Collins realized he had been looking at the world from a completely wrong angle.
Today, in his role as a marketing lecturer at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, the Detroit native tries to replicate that same “kick in the pants” for his students with a lesson he calls More than Words.
Challenge: Misconceptions, false perceptions
Collins had spent thousands of hours in his professional life trying to deconstruct brand messaging for clients. But after his epiphany, he realized that at no point had he really considered how these brands made truly personal connections with their target audience.
Most of the time, our relationships with brands are purely transactional: They sell something, we need it, so we buy it. There is less consideration of what creates true, relationship-based loyalty with those brands.
For instance, when someone mentions Starbucks, everyone can picture the logo, the in-store aromas, and the special touches, like using Italian names. (Hello, Venti Latte!)
But what does the brand stand for? It goes deeper than a logo and customer experience. Collins wanted his students to understand what it is that creates that connection—and why many brands miss the mark.
“Trust, love, and connection happen in the limbic system of the brain, where emotions exist and where decision-making takes place,” he says. “As marketers, we need to engage the limbic system to make it real, to create that belief in a brand that will actually resonate. And that requires looking at things a bit differently.”
Innovation: Drive students out of their comfort zones
Collins’s goal was to try to get his students to discuss what they thought they knew about particular brands, but then pull the rug out from under them. His hope was to replicate his aha! moment from a behavioral-science point of view.
That involved students’ channeling a place in their brains that they had not visited since they were kids. Collins had done a ton of reading on breaking down the psyche into a childlike state, including the works of Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who studied the ways in which children learn differently than adults. Using this information, Collins set out to create an exercise that threw off his students entirely.
“Our brains don’t like us to be in an uncomfortable place,” he explains. “We direct our cognitive energy to a place of what’s called cognitive equilibrium. What I try to do as a teacher is put students into a disequilibrium. I challenge everything they know about the status quo. I make them confront the fact that they may see something in one way but, after taking another angle, they may realize their perception may not be [accurate].”
Course: MKT 302 Marketing Management, MKT 409 Social Media Marketing, MKT 613 Consumer Behavior
Frequency: MKT 302 and 613: twice a week in 90-minute sessions; MKT 409: a one-time, 3-hour lecture offered twice a year
Class size: 80 students in each section
In his words: “[This exercise] does a good job of illuminating the blind spots we have for brands. It illuminates the shortcomings of transactional-based relationships and plays up the idea that we think of ourselves as Spocks—that we’re rational human beings. But we’re not. We’re rationalizing.”
MKT 409 Social Media MarketingSee materials
Lesson: More than Words: The in-class aha!
As it turns out, trying to get students to question the status quo does not require a ton of slick visual aids or an overly didactic lecture. It just involves having them engage in smaller group discussions where they can throw around ideas, much as creative agencies do in strategy meetings.
Collins refers to this lesson as More than Words, which he says is applicable for understanding how brands create emotional connections. He keeps the framework the same in each of the 3 courses in which he uses it. Here is how it breaks down:
Take a closer look at the familiar
To start, Collins divvies up his 80-person lectures into 4–5 groups of 16–20 students each. Each group is assigned a familiar brand such as Pizza Hut, Dell, or Tropicana (usually three or so groups are looking at the same brand).
The ask for each group is simple: Talk collectively among yourselves about that brand and try to identify:
- Why the brand exists
- How the brand communicates its message
- How the brand proves its message
- What the brand’s belief system is
What students often find is that this is not as easy as it sounds.
“They usually start with the brand’s tagline,” Collins says. “And often that tagline doesn’t have a payoff, or [it] has nothing to do with why the brand exists.” Examples: Pizza Hut’s former slogan of “No One OutPizzas the Hut.” Or Tropicana’s current slogan, “Bring Out Your Best You.”
Students dig deeper and often cannot come up with a suitable answer because the brand’s raison d’être is not clear. Or there is not a clear communication of the brand’s convictions in its marketing. Collins will not hesitate to call out students and say, “You’re not answering the question.”
Play devil’s advocate
Many brands project an image of themselves that is not shared by many of their consumers—or, more often, the people who revolve around their ecosystem, such as employees and suppliers.
Case in point: Students most often think they have a clear picture of what Walmart stands for: lower prices; easier access to everyday products; and a convenient, one-stop shopping experience for busy, cash-strapped people. But that is when Collins begins to challenge the norms.
“Does everyone Walmart touches truly live a better life?” he will ask his students. “The employees probably wouldn’t tell you so based on wages and benefits. The suppliers wouldn’t—their margins are abysmal.”
As it turns out, Walmart ends up being one of the more divisive brands in Collins’s classes, as it touches on global socioeconomics and the class system. It becomes clear very quickly that there are many sides to Walmart. And, in a grander sense, none of the brands Collins has preselected are able to prove what they truly stand for. Except for one.
Drop a red herring into the mix
There is one brand Collins assigns in this exercise: TOMS, the manufacturer/retailer that is best known for its slip-on shoes but is also a purveyor of clothing, eyewear, and coffee.
Collins points out that TOMS’s mission statement makes very clear what they stand for: With every purchase, the company donates a matching piece of product to a developing nation on a one-for-one basis. Yes, TOMS is about financial success—but they see their place in the world very clearly and have a much different value proposition than other clothing manufacturers.
“They’re an example of a brand that walks the walk and talks the talk,” Collins says. “They have clear convictions, and they communicate their why, and their actions demonstrate it.”
The reflection phase
The goal is for students to have that aha! moment—to really look at brands from a different angle. After the groups’ share-outs and a wider discussion by the entire class, Collins throws these questions back at the students:
- How does this exercise (and what you have learned from it) make you feel?
- What will you do with this information if you are tasked with selling a brand?
Collins usually touches on the neurological aspect of these sorts of connections, explaining how the right message engages the brain’s limbic system and creates an emotional bond.
“It’s biology,” he explains. “Biology beats marketing mumbo jumbo—and a bad tagline—every time.”
But that is fodder for some of Collins’s lessons that follow this one.
Complications: Not every example fits the mold
Collins created this lesson 4 years ago, and he found very quickly that some brands were too contentious to inspire truthful discussions. He nearly jettisoned Walmart, as it turned out to be divisive among some students. Microsoft, too, was problematic because Collins felt that since Bill Gates stepped away, it no longer lived up to its message (that the world would be more productive with a computer on every desk).
“[Students would] push back and say, ‘But I love Microsoft, I use it in every aspect of my life,’” Collins says. “I would say, ‘Just because you use it doesn’t mean you love it.’ The truth was that it was just too ubiquitous in the marketplace, which meant we weren’t discriminating enough to see the learnings clearly.”
Other brands were easier to integrate over time. Collins began folding in pizza brands because they were, in effect, a commoditized industry. Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, and the like were telling us they made better pizza—but chances are they were all interchangeable to consumers, creating a more transactional relationship.
Explains Collins, “They end up communicating, ‘My pizza is fresher or hotter,’ or ‘There’s cheese in the crust.’ That’s all value proposition. They don’t have a clear ‘why,’ a true brand belief.”
Outcomes and student feedback
Sometimes the message does not kick in 100%. And that is fine with Collins. He has often met with students challenging him with disbelief. But that is the minority. The lesson sinks in with most students.
“If they’re telling me, ‘This really makes me evaluate the products I use,’ or they question what it is about a particular brand that creates an emotional connection beyond what it actually does, then I know they’re getting it,” he says.
Many of Collins’s students are already entrepreneurs on a small scale, so they are able to directly connect the lesson to what they are doing with their side gigs. He says he is most proud when such students tell him they now understand why they were struggling to craft a marketing message that actually stuck.
“Probably the best feedback I got,” he reports, “was when one student told me she got dragged to SoulCycle almost against her will, and then when she applied the thinking from the More than Words assignment, she began to understand why people have an almost religious loyalty to that brand.”
He adds, “Really, any time a student says the words, ‘I never thought about it that way,’ I know I’m getting through.”