Geometry, Unilever Join to Teach Shopper Marketing at Michigan State

Course Seen as First of Its Kind in Field That Still Mystifies

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Credit: Geometry/Lunchbox/Michigan State University

Shopper marketing has become a big part of many marketing budgets, but it remains largely absent from college marketing curriculum and something of a mystery even within marketing organizations. WPP's Geometry and Unilever have joined to help change that by backing an undergraduate course at Michigan State University that they believe is the first of its kind.

Geometry and affiliated WPP agencies provided much of the instruction for the mostly online class that concluded last month, with Unilever providing fodder for case studies, including a final group project that aimed to create a program for Axe. The class filled to capacity with 40 students, four of those students ultimately accepted internship offers from Geometry.

"We've been talking about the lack of talent in shopper marketing at the junior level," said Geometry CEO Carl Hartman. "There really isn't that much training, and it's a growing area."

Geometry executives could find no other courses quite like the one they ultimately created, despite thousands of marketing programs out there. Many of those programs are located in cities with major retail headquarters and large clusters of shopper-marketing specialists, including Northwest Arkansas, Minneapolis and Cincinnati.

"This is the first fully fledged undergraduate course in this specialty," said Phil White, senior VP strategy and planning at Geometry, who helped set the course up with Joe Videan, a longtime creative director for WPP's G2 and other agencies. Mr. Videan is also an adjunct Michigan State marketing professor.

That Mr. Videan was acquainted with the field was a plus – and a rarity that may help explain why other programs don't teach shopper marketing, Mr. Hartman said. "A lot of the faculty at major universities come from the advertising world," he said. "Especially if you were in an advertising role 15 or 20 years ago, shopper marketing either didn't exist or what you had was more akin to trade marketing and it wasn't anything you would get excited about."

Mr. White said he hopes to help develop a graduate-level shopper marketing course as well. And Mr. Hartman said there's enough subject matter for a major, though he doesn't think Geometry has enough people with enough extra time on their hands to teach all of it.

The curriculum included a detailed look at exactly what the so-called "path to purchase" is, and delved deep into some real-life recent cases. It covered, for example, how Unilever encountered friction with its biggest retail customer -- Walmart, which didn't see the big Axe Peace launch, with a 2014 Super Bowl ad showing fierce rivals laying down their arms to embrace one another -- aligning with the retailer's focus on supporting U.S. combat veterans.

David Painter, VP-general manager at WPP's social-shopper agency Lunchbox, walked students through how Axe helped turn things around at Walmart through its Stage Pass program last year, offering free music downloads for people who bought Axe products and exclusive concert footage or biographical videos of country stars Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett.

"Axe was losing relevance with the millennial male shopper," who was going to rival brands such as Old Spice, according to a Unilever video shown as part of the course. Walmart "was struggling to get that millennial shopper to come into the store to purchase," Mr. Painter said. So the program aligned with the interests of both. And it helped reverse a negative sales trend for Axe, with 75% of shoppers who purchased products because of it buying from more than one category.

Kevin Flagg, senior director of shopper marketing at Unilever, served as a judge for projects from six student teams, alongside top Geometry executives from New York, Chicago and Minneapolis.

"Unilever, Geometry and frankly all business need to create curricula for any and all of our employees as part of creating a workforce that's marketplace ready," Mr. Flagg said. "We need students to be aware of shopper marketing and learning the craft as early as possible so it becomes second nature."

Mr. Flagg also believes the course, and others like it, could help define what shopper marketing is to an industry that's often a little fuzzy on the subject. "I think awareness of shopper marketing is low even in major CPG companies that don't appreciate the craft," he said.

Mr. Flagg was impressed with the quality of the final presentations, to the point that he and other judges quickly moved beyond "polite questions" to "asking very pointed questions, because of the maturity and quality of what they presented." When he took the students' findings to the Axe team, they said they'd developed similar insights from their own research.

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