Business students in A.J. Otjen’s marketing communications courses at Montana State University Billings discover there’s more to creating a great marketing campaign than meets the eye.
“It’s more of a visual call to action,” senior marketing major Alissa Barth said. “All aspects of marketing are involved—from psychology to research, to analysis, communications and execution.”
Barth was one of 13 business students who were tasked over the past year with creating three 30-second commercial spots for the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch as part of a two-semester long project focused on applying classroom theory into real-world practice.
The commercials began airing this month on Bresnan and Charter Communications stations.
Students enrolled in Dr. Otjen’s Integrated Marketing and Communications fall semester course and, subsequently, her spring semester Applied Marketing and Communications Undergraduate Research course, work with community businesses and nonprofit organizations who need help with brand identity and marketing strategies.
The project is an ongoing effort by Otjen, associate professor of marketing in the College of Business, who has over the past decade worked with clients such as the Salvation Army, Billings Depot and the Beartooth Nature Center. She and her students have garnered 11 American Advertising Awards — six of which are gold awards.
For students, Otjen said, the opportunity is a taste of how the professional world will be different from the learning environment of their classroom.
“The strategy and client set the pace and project deadlines,” Otjen said. “The coursework is designed to be as close to real life as possible so that the students have a clear understanding of the dynamic and sometimes messy experiences.”
This year’s class worked with Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch to help advance public awareness of its programs . Students researched best practices for the industry and worked closely with YBGR to develop the message.
“Youth suicide and mental health is a serious issue, and YBGR has many community-based services to help address these issues,” Barth said. “The messages we helped develop were clear — the whole community needs to be a part of the solution to teen suicide and other mental health issues youth experience. YBGR is here to help youth and their families whether it is in their home, school or life.”
Otjen and YBGR set parameters for the students on how to stay consistent with the organization’s brand identity and ensure copyright law and university policies weren’t violated. Outside of this, students were given creative freedom to script and direct the commercials.
Participating businesses and nonprofits provide the funding for research, production and design expenses. Often times, nonprofits are awarded grants and sponsorships to help cover the cost.
The class collaborates with Spotlight Productions, a Billings-based video and marketing company. The production company has sponsored a large portion of their services since 2005 for participating nonprofits.
Anne Gauer, one of two principals of the production company, said before video production begins in the spring semester, students verify every statistic and test each one of their concepts in the fall semester to see what marketing strategy will be most effective.
“These students are very busy, hardworking people and their efficiency always impresses me,” Gauer said.
Although the production is a team effort, each student was assigned roles such as script writing, talent casting, location scouting, costume and set design, and budget and time management.
Next year, Otjen and her students will work with Billings Clinic and a marketing campaign aimed at fighting childhood obesity.
“Service-learning helps students understand social responsibilities, which is essential to becoming a successful business person,” Otjen said. “Students are gaining such a valuable educational experience.”
Students are also making a positive impact on the Billings community, Barth said.
“The results of our efforts matter. It’s not just about getting a good grade, it’s truly about making a difference,” she said.