Friday, 3 November 2017

A Graduate's View: The Master of Marketing Capstone Project's Role in Transitioning from Study to Work

A Conversation with 2017 Master of Marketing Graduate Chris North

Image: Chris North (left), recent graduate of the Master of Marketing (Beta Gama Sigma) with his father and brother. 

The graduations for the recent 2017 Master of Marketing cohort have now ended for another year and it is time catch up with the graduates as they make the next step in their career journey.  The Master of Marketing ends their degree on a very practical note by requiring all students to complete a capstone project.  In this project all students procure their own business client, identify a strategic marketing issue to investigate, complete their own research and then devise marketing recommendations to best address the issue. Students say it is the most rewarding part of the degree as they get to apply the skills they have learned throughout their degree into a real business life situation.  Chris North has just graduated from the program and talks about his experiences in his complex project for the Virgin Velocity Frequent Flyer Program

MoM: How would you describe the overall experience in completing the capstone's project marketing audit, project proposal, completing the research and then presenting the final report to your client?

Overall, it was exciting, like an amusement park ride. I could see the track, just not all the loops and turns! Some of the challenges I did not expect initially were around the depth of research required for the original project proposal. I had to uncover and then work through the complex issues impacting the Velocity program. I underestimated this at first. However, as students are working with an academic supervisor, I was guided deeper into the research to find more data that explained both the Velocity program, and the consumer trends in their market. Another hurdle was my own bias. I was not just a student, but a customer to Velocity. I have gold status with both Velocity and their main competitor (Qantas), so I was being swayed by my own views. Therefore the challenge with my research was to use my personal insight to my advantage as background knowledge, but at the same time be conscious and aware of my personal biases and not allow them to limit my information search and analysis.  The research really opened my eyes to the size and complexity of the loyalty market. I could see real opportunities for Velocity to better engage with its members and stand out in a very cluttered marketplace.

Image source: Mumbrella

MoM: What challenges did you find in your client's business that had to be overcome to get your project enacted and then communicated to Velocity's management team?

The main overall challenge was that Velocity is going through a period of extraordinary growth with many new members joining the program because of the many benefits they added to the program.  Velocity has been so successful in acquiring members and working on getting them integrated into the program that they had not had a moment spare to stop and evaluate what has happened and see if this was the best way to grow.  My research evaluated this period of growth and gained deep insights from a wide range of customers on their value perceptions and experiences with the program.  As you can imagine, the research revealed both problems and opportunities. The main challenge was putting all the insights together in a manner to distinguish the underlying causes of customer problems and then devising recommendations that aimed at improving member engagement with the program as a basis for future growth.  After a period of extraordinary growth, it was a challenge to deliver my project as a new way to perceive Velocity’s current situation and to increase their customer’s relationship with the program. 

MoM: We could describe your project as an arduous yet rewarding journey. You completed extensive customer research including both in-depth interviews and a broad-based customer survey to inform your recommendations. You had a plethora of findings showing a great depth of understanding of the customer's mindset. How challenging was it to deliver such deep findings to your client in a succinct way to support your recommendations?

This presentation was confronting, on a number of levels. I was presenting to an established and ongoing business, with people far better qualified than me to tell them about their customers. At the same time, I wasn’t walking in only to walk out as a student. I’ve worked in senior roles in media and investment banking, and only once have I seen a student present to a group of senior leaders in an organisation. I spent weeks crafting my presentation so they saw me, not as a student, but as an asset. Slides and text content was kept to a strict minimum (15 slides, no more than 20 words on a slide), and I spoke to them in their language. The delivery needed to challenge their current way of thinking, to shift their paradigms to show them their business faced ongoing challenges. 

MoM: The business environment changes more rapidly now than it ever has, so changes to the scope of works in the consulting project do happen.  That’s life!  What were the key things you focussed on that allowed you to consider your client’s instructions, and then quickly devise a realistic and achievable project that was in accordance with their instructions?

I went back through some of the old lectures, especially those around Brand Loyalty and Customer Lifetime Value. I knew they were the two main areas to focus on in this project. The business wanted to improve its internal marketing, while providing a more relevant product to the customer. I researched the Business Canvas Model, it provided me with a succinct representation of the customer experience, and what the customer wanted from their interaction. The Bain and Co Elements of Value Pyramid was the most valuable. It exposed the true touch points of the Velocity brand to its membership base. The strategy for Velocity over the next couple of years is to be Australia’s most loved loyalty program. But what is love? And what do customer’s actually love, and not just put up with? The models helped define the disparity between the aspirations of the customer and the aspirations of the business. The Value Pyramid is exceptionally good in showing how valuable it is to step into the customer’s shoes.

Image source: Bain

MoM: Your report was very illuminating for your client with telling marketing implications.  Can you tell us about how some of the main findings (even unexpected findings) that was valuable to the business?

The real eye opener was to see where the customer relationship with the brand was not necessarily in line with their long-term strategy. There were some members that loved the brand, but many who weren’t engaged, or weren’t given what they consider to be tangible benefits. The main takeaway was that all members need relevant benefits, not just the valuable top tiered members. The research uncovered an interesting insight whereby a recent marketing initiative designed to grow Velocity members had unintended consequences.  That is, comments saying “I’m now loyal to Brand X, thanks Velocity,” were most telling – the Velocity campaign provided more customer attachment to a partner brand, and not for themselves.

MoM: You have talked about the benefits to the business, what were the main benefits you received from completing the capstone project?

This project required a lot of preparation. Every subject in the course was used in creating the final report. In particular, the Evaluating Marketing Performance, Decision Making & Research, Contemporary Consumer Behaviour and Marketing in the Global Economy subjects were very valuable. I went through the subject revision notes and read the articles again. I wanted to be sure I could support any of my recommendations to the client. That to me is worth more than anything: being disciplined and researched well enough to make an informed marketing decision about a consumer’s behaviour in the global economy. 

Finally I was able to learn from my contemporaries and the academic staff. I was in constant contact with my mentor, and I formed a small group where we supported each other, and helped maintain perspective on the workload. We’d meet once a week to share the challenges and wins, and we walked away with learning outcomes that helped shape a better individual project. 

Photo: Lise Lehto, Master of Marketing Graduate October 2017

MoM: What advice can you give those students who are about to commence their projects or are now working through their projects?

  1. Be led by the overall business challenge and not nuances of a single marketing campaign. If I was to anchor my work to an idea, instead of a business challenge, then it would end in disaster. Focus on the challenge to the business, provide them with what they need. The Super Bowl as can always come later. 
  2. Be a solutions person, not a problem person. Put each challenge into the sentence “you know the problem with this company? (insert problem here)” and then imagine being the CEO listening to that. Your marketing career will go nowhere fast if you’re the ‘problem person’.
  3. WWALT? (what would a layman think?). This seems weird but it makes perfect sense because it forces you to use everyday, simple language, and not get hooked up into management speak. Does the business face disconnected and imbalanced mission synergy? What does that even mean? If you want to say “the business needs to become more customer focussed”, then just say that.
  4. One thought per slide. What? Really? Yes. It’s an old radio adage “one thought per microphone break”. It forces me to be succinct and relevant. I put every slide, every recommendation, and every info-graphic through the filter: what is the one thing I want them to remember? If I’m asking them to remember too much, they’ll lose interest. 
Colin Farrell
Industry Specialist Lecturer in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney Business School

Chris North

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