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November 23, 2016

Hands-on marketing class designs Acura campaign to appeal to millennials

Projects in Marketing class students with the Acura ILX car they are promoting to millennials as part of a nationwide contest. Behind them is the older vehicle on which students at the class’s Nov. 7 event posted their aspirations — part of the class’s “Aim Higher” marketing theme. Photo by Marty Levine

Projects in Marketing class students with the Acura ILX car they are promoting to millennials as part of a nationwide contest. Behind them is the older vehicle on which students at the class’s Nov. 7 event posted their aspirations — part of the class’s “Aim Higher” marketing theme.
Photo by Marty Levine/University Times


Robert Gilbert, business administration faculty member in the Katz Graduate School of Business, stepped away from the blare of the WPTS DJ and the organized tumult his Projects in Marketing course students had created in the Schenley Quad. This Nov. 7 event, designed to promote the Acura ILX car during a semester-long class project, also featured free food, a roving magician, the Pitt cheerleaders, an opportunity to contribute canned goods to charity by filling the trunk of one 2017 ILX parked nearby, and the chance to play car karaoke (a riff on James Corden’s viral “carpool karaoke” videos from “The Late Late Show”).

It’s the 10th year Gilbert has shepherded a group of mostly seniors through this class, offered twice a year. “My role is more of a facilitator, even a CEO-kind of role” than as a traditional professor, Gilbert said. He organizes the students into an advertising agency, then into agency departments (public relations, research, campaign strategy and advertising) and chooses department heads, creating the structure for them to accomplish each semester’s marketing project. He steers them away from marketing approaches that are inappropriate for the project or wildly off-strategy, and offers lessons on branding and positioning, PR and advertising.

Gilbert admits Acura may be a tougher selling task for these millennial students than were past designated clients such as the National Football League, American Eagle or the United Way.

“Every campaign is a little different, but what I am really happy about is the energy the students in my class are transferring to the other students,” he said. “What we are trying [is] to get this brand into consideration, if not for their immediate next purchase, for a down-the-road purchase. We’re getting a lot of people into the car, which is a big priority.”

Half of his class campaigns have been for local companies or nonprofits, Gilbert said, while the other half, such as this semester’s Acura campaign, are part of a national competition among 21 universities run by EdVenture Partners, which develops industry-education partnership programs. This semester’s marketing class, dubbing themselves “Pros In Motion,” will know by Dec. 2 whether they’re among the top three teams and are headed for Torrance, California, to present their campaign and its results to Acura executives. Top prize is a $5,000 contribution to Pitt — and Gilbert’s Pitt class has won before.

When the business school was first approached a decade ago by EdVenture, said Gilbert, “it seemed like just a terrific idea and we quickly realized it deserved to be a class unto itself.”

While most campaigns have been focused on marketing to millennials, some have focused on other consumer groups. A previous campaign, marketing the National Football League’s Play 60 initiative to encourage active children, for instance, required appealing to elementary school teachers and younger parents.

Gilbert recalled encountering the Play 60 tagline for the first time and knowing his class would need to make big improvements on it. “It was something like ‘The NFL movement for an active generation.’ It was, in our opinion, too long, not inspiring.” So his class suggested: “Make every day game day.”

“The NFL and Steelers loved it,” Gilbert said. After pitching it to Steelers personnel at the team’s South Side headquarters’ team meeting room, he recalled, his students encountered coach Mike Tomlin in the hallway. He asked to hear the class’s strategy and tag line.

“He kind of looked off into space and put his hand on his chin and said, ‘Yeah, that’s a lot better than what we’ve got,’” Gilbert recalled. With that high praise, “the kids floated out of the room.”


“The hands-on, practical, real-world opportunity to apply what they have learned is really the motivation to do this,” Gilbert said of his decade-long experience with Projects in Marketing.

A prior class spent the semester trying to market the Chevy Volt, an electric car that was aimed at older buyers with more income than a typical millennial student. Targeting millennials with the Acura, perceived as a luxury brand, and its ILX, with a base price of about $28,000, “there is a challenge right off the bat,” Gilbert noted: Millennials are reported to be altogether less interested in cars than previous American generations, let alone an Acura.

Yet, according to his class’s research among their peers at Pitt, three quarters of millennials plan to purchase a car in the next five years.

One of the class’s initial press releases — representing just the tip of their marketing plan — noted that these same millennials have “relatively low knowledge and interest in cars.
“On the flip side, cars, according to millennials, are a mark of success,” it continued. “They feel purchasing a car will give them feelings of security and accomplishment.”

Hence the class’s marketing theme: “Aim Higher.”

This marketing theme was reflected in the Nov. 7 event. Between the two Acura vehicles parked in the Schenley Quad was an older auto, which they were encouraging students to cover with Post-it notes reflecting their aspirations. On the vehicle — symbolically, a student’s first, less-expensive car — were notes saying: “To live on my own,” “To graduate” and “To make a good life for my family.”

Students see such ideas as part of “adulting,” explained Alexis Bovalino, a senior in Gilbert’s class and head of the class agency’s PR efforts. “We joke about becoming adults, so we use ‘adult’ as a verb … pretty much as a reference to the fact that we don’t know what we’re doing and as we grow up we realize our parents were right.”

Senior Kelsey Magilton, the class’s agency coordinator, said the team was holding such an event “not just to promote the Acura ILX; we’re here with a relatable message.” The slogan “Aim Higher” was devised to show that a car purchase — and of course buying the Acura ILX in particular — could signal a person’s progress in life, “getting bigger and better, always striving for goals,” she said.

“It’s a lot in two words,” she admitted.

While the class’s advertising efforts include the traditional flyers, banners and print ads, it’s their videos, social media efforts and guerilla marketing that may reach the most millennials.
“Millennials aren’t too keen on advertising,” Magilton allowed. In fact, she added, “we’re very aware that people tend to avoid ads no matter what.”

The class is concentrating social media efforts on Facebook and Instagram, since not enough millennials are using Twitter, their research found. Class members are sharing photos of their own advertising flyers and posting video ads, including two that they hope are both humorous and eye-catching. One, called “Pitt Professors Read Mean ‘Rate My Professor’ Reviews,” is modeled after a segment on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” show in which celebrities read mean tweets about themselves. The other parodies Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials. Here, a driver of a car — not an Acura — subjects the viewer to near-catatonic blather about luxury. Soon we realize he is actually an Uber driver talking to his passenger, who decides to get out early rather than listen to more pronouncements — and calls his friend with an Acura to pick him up.

The class marketing efforts include putting ads on exercise machines in campus gyms with the message “When you feel like giving up, aim higher.” The ads include part of an inspiring Spotify playlist, in the hope that gym users will venture to the campaign website to view the entire playlist — and see promotional material about the car as well. Class members also have attached 3-D-printed basketball hoops with the Acura logo to recycling bins on campus, in concert with the “Aim Higher” theme, and have given out water bottles with their Acura message at Penguins games.

Their biggest challenge, Bovalino said, is that a car is one of life’s largest purchases. To counter that, the “Aim Higher” message includes an implicit message: Aim higher for the future.

“You know how beer companies try to captivate 6 year olds with their ads?” she explained. “So when you go to make that purchase they’ve had years and years of impressions.”

Asked whether the event was effective, other class members reported receiving questions about the car and requests to peek at the interior.

Inside one ILX, Jesse Irwin — not a class member, but the popular host of the “Pitt Tonight Show” on the web — ran the car karaoke. Before he let one group of students pick their song, he did his own warm-up act. The Acura has a keyless lock, he told them: “Tell me a funny story about when you were locked out of your house.”

“There’s an automatic transmission here,” he added after a few lockout stories. “But who here can drive a stick?”

The students eventually picked a song from Irwin’s playlist, a classic cover of a Bruce Springsteen song: “Blinded by the Light,” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. They didn’t know most of the convoluted lyrics, with their internal rhymes, but they ended up with a positive impression of the car — and an internalization of the campaign’s message.

“It told us a little about the car and got us to learn about the stereo system — that’s big,” said junior Dom Forys.

“It seems out of my league,” said senior Shane Craig. “It’s too nice. But you’ve got to aim higher.”


How does Bob Gilbert grade such a class?

“Ultimately their grade is related to the success of their campaign,” he explained. The class’s students evaluate each other’s competencies and performances as workers in their ad agency, both above and below them in the agency hierarchy. “So I get a lot of input,” he said. “Even though I am able to see to a certain extent the level of contribution of individuals … those assessments are very helpful.”

Kelsey Magilton, for one, saw Gilbert’s course as the pinnacle of her experience as a marketing major: “This class is the first class where you have the actual experience to put your knowledge to use,” she said. “Sometimes I forget it’s a class and think it’s a part-time job. Experience-based learning: There’s not a price tag you can put on it.”

“We just got a chance to analyze our post-campaign research,” Gilbert said, and all indicators are positive.

Among 500 responses from millennials on campus to the agency’s post-campaign survey, there were measurable increases in top-of-mind awareness of the Acura brand, perceptions of how innovative Acura is, and whether respondents will consider Acura for future purchase.

“This is a marketing project,” he concluded, “but there are a lot of budgeting and even HR issues they experience. It’s a real-world opportunity and the students really thrive in it.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 7

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