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MBA students get their hands dirty, help brand Skagit Valley

MBA students get their hands dirty, help brand Skagit Valley

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picking potatoes

Image: PLU master’s students studying Marketing Management work in a potato field in Skagit Valley, about 60 miles north of Seattle. (Photo by Jason Borean)

February 8, 2017
By Genny Boots '18
PLU Marketing & Communications

TACOMA, WASH. (Feb. 8, 2017)- Last semester, master’s students in Pacific Lutheran University’s School of Business got their hands dirty and counted craft breweries, farms and grocery stores as their classroom.

The MBA Marketing Management course brought them to the agricultural community of Skagit County, where teams of Lutes researched and presented marketing solutions in partnership with the Skagit County Economic Development Alliance.

“We got to use the Skagit Valley as a background where students are learning and then applying,” said Mark Mulder, assistant professor of business. “This project also incorporates service learning, which is a big part of PLU’s pedagogy.”

The course runs every year, focusing on real-world clients. During fall semester, 42 students directed their attention toward Skagit Valley, a region about 60 miles north of Seattle. Agriculture and crop production is the primary industry there, thanks to renowned soil quality and more than 90 crops grown in the area.

Students in the class looked at branding Skagit Valley as a region and creating a tourist destination for those traveling between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. They examined how best to market products coming from the region, so grocery shoppers statewide can recognize Skagit Valley on the shelves. They even studied the craft beer community.

“Really, the big broad question was to think about farming and think about what is produced on traditional farms — it’s produce, so corn, potatoes, strawberries. And it is just a commodity,” Mulder explained.

“An apple is an apple, a corn is a corn, it doesn’t really matter where you get it. In the marketing context we ask ‘how do we allow consumers to think about this in different ways, so it’s not just a commodity,’” he continued.

The direction for this year’s course started with Andrew Miller ’13, a graduate of PLU’s MBA program who works as director of business retention and expansion for Skagit County.

“Initially up here, there was a lot of ‘yeah we’ve worked with other schools before and it never really worked out,’” Miller said. “But I know Mark, I know this project and I know this experience.”

Students, such as Alex Domine ’16 and his team, focused on crafting the Skagit Valley experience. Domine studied how farmers markets, such as Pike Place or others, are more of an experience than a trip to a grocery store.

“We were selling the experience of being part of a common good and made it convenient,” Domine said.

Dr. Mary Noel ’18, a family physician at Madigan Army Medical Center, worked on branding the region. Her team figured out how to help consumers recognize Skagit Valley products at grocery stores.

“You go into the store and regardless if you see a carrot, strawberry or apple, it will be from a brand that consumers see and resonate with,” Mulder said.

At the end of the semester, Noel, Domine and their fellow students presented the findings and ideas to clients.

“It was mind boggling how many good ideas came out of this,” said Miller, who sat in on all the presentations.

Miller and the Economic Development Alliance are now sifting through the presentations, trying to incorporate strategies from the students.

One presentation Miller was very excited about came from a team of students who studied Tillamook, Oregon, and how it’s been transformed into a tourist destination, as well as an experience for locals. The presentation may be used to create a similar experience in Skagit Valley.

“It’s the rising tide that will float every single agricultural community,” Miller said. “Public market is amazing how many different ways that this can touch people economically.”

Mulder attributes the success of the PLU course to the diverse group of students enrolled.

“We have so many students coming from so many different disciplines and that’s a point of celebration for us,” he said. “Education, philosophy, environmental science and it’s a great chance to celebrate the diversity and thought that comes into the MBA program. And that’s who PLU is.”

And Miller is pretty happy with the results.

“At PLU, the MBA program is such a different flavor. Not all about the bottom line,” he said. “PLU puts, if not their money, their time of where their mouth is and what is important. This was a great fit.”