Article by Melody Schmidt and Olivia Grider
Most nonprofit and community organizations are busy funneling limited resources into fulfilling their missions and don’t have the time, expertise or funds needed to build a strong image or develop a cohesive brand identity. At The University of Alabama, honors students are helping bridge the gap between these organizations and their target audiences.
Through UH 300 Marketing Communications, students create branding campaigns for nonprofits and other community-service groups. Working with real clients dials up the learning experience for students, says Tonya Nelson, who teaches the course. They take the work more seriously because the stakes are higher and proposed solutions are expected to produce results, she says.
Students hail from a variety of majors and quickly learn – then put into practice – key concepts regarding marketing and branding, including: a brand is the “personality” of a product or service and is built over time through messages, shared experiences and common interests; branding is growing a relationship over time; and branding requires empathy and flexibility.
“Students have to figure out their client, the nonprofit, and then they have to figure out what motivates their target market,” Nelson says. “And then they have to create messages that connect the two. It’s a great metaphor for how life really works. We have to have a curiosity that ultimately helps us relate to other people.”
While some students are communication majors, many hail from unrelated fields, including biology, math, fashion design, electrical engineering and accounting. “Sometimes the temptation is for really smart students to take classes in something in which they already excel,” Nelson says. “I am always so impressed with students who take a bit of a leap to do this work.”
Mallory Fleming, a junior majoring in English, says she never considered the science of branding and how brands sell products and services in the market until she worked on a campaign for the 57 Miles partnership between UA and Perry County. (See story on page 52.) “This class showed me the campaign process – how marketing people work together to come up with different ideas, and how those ideas transform as time passes,” she says. “I love to think about the fact that our class was able to create a new aspect to add to the 57 Miles brand and how our contributions to the project might make an impact.”
Nonprofits and community groups that partner with the class receive, free of charge, complete branding campaigns that include many hours of consulting and design work. The class devotes its efforts to a single nonprofit or community group each semester.
“The cool part of the project is that much of this work would cost thousands with an outside agency, and I think the work holds up to anything they would get from them,” Nelson says.
Since 2012, 75 students have produced five campaigns. Clients include: Tuscaloosa’s One Place, which provides services to families and children; Forza Financial, a microfinance nonprofit started by University of Alabama students; Mockingbird Farm, an organic farm in Marion, Ala.; Rockets & Racecars, which trains elementary through high school teachers to implement a curriculum in which kids create functioning model rockets and racecars; and the 57 Miles Perry County Partnership, which consists of a plethora of programs aimed at improving education, health and the economy in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Students developed logos, message strategies and platforms to create these branding campaigns. For one of their most recent clients, Rockets & Racecars, they worked with Dr.Marcus Ashford, founder of the program and UA associate professor of mechanical engineering, to create a brand identity that was both simple and smart, emphasizing that “ideas have real power.”
“The course was a godsend,” Ashford says. “We had a great idea and a ton of passion, but no clue beyond that. The class helped us organize our priorities and efforts. We are light years ahead of what we were likely to become on our own.”
Through its partnership with Mockingbird Farm, which uses permaculture to grow all its crops, UH 300 students promoted the farm’s newest business venture: selling homemade soups and other foods prepared from Mockingbird Farm’s fresh produce.
“I loved seeing how simple and connected communication can change an entire business for the better,” says Robert Pendley, who graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. “This class turned the abstract into a vivid and practical experience that I will forever remember.”
Nelson says her goal is for students to understand all people are remarkably creative, it’s OK to offer an idea before it’s perfect (it often becomes better when others have a chance to shape it) and that service doesn’t have to fit a stereotype. “I also hope it develops an empathy in them and helps them build a sort of service muscle, so that they seek out ways to make a difference no matter where they end up,” she says.
To learn more about UH 300 Marketing Communications, contact Honors College at 205-348-5500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.