Team DivCo. gathers around a table on Grainger Hall’s second floor, going over its advertising budget for a cereal product, Hearty Squares.
Suddenly, all of their cell phones light up: It’s a news alert from Mike Judge, director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the Wisconsin School of Business. A food preservative, BHT, may have links to adverse health effects, and mommy bloggers—a core demographic for the team—are concerned. What will the team do?
The decision is just one of many for Wisconsin MBA students enrolled in Marketing 765, an applied learning course that uses a proprietary simulator to walk students through what it’s like to be a brand manager for a consumer packaged goods company. Designed to enhance experiential learning, the simulator essentially recreates the marketplace experience and puts students in the driver’s seat with strategic plans, budgets, key issues, and accountability for their decisions.
The opportunity to receive this state-of-the-art brand management training gives Business Badgers a distinct competitive advantage. It’s the same simulator that has been used by actual employees at Kraft Foods—including Judge during the years he worked there—with some custom adjustments to fit WSB students.
That competitive edge is needed, Judge says, because of the current job climate graduates can find themselves in.
“From a corporate standpoint, 10 to 20 years ago, you were staffed up more on the corporate side so there was an opportunity for your associate brand managers to go through the strategic planning and brand planning process. They could be involved and learn from their managers, but now it’s like everybody’s running lean,” he says. “You need performance right when they start, when they hit the ground.”
Lance Wilke, vice president with BTS, the global professional services firm that created the module, agrees. Wilke has been coming up to the School from Chicago for five consecutive Fridays during the Spring 2017 semester to assist students with the simulator.
“There are just fewer opportunities to get those experiences under your belt to learn,” Wilke says. “It’s like you’re just thrust into them.”
Wilke says it is rare that a simulator like this one is used in a higher education setting.
“I think one of the big things that comes through in something like this is systems-thinking mentality. You start to realize, my decisions have far-reaching ramifications on the organization, because as you pull one lever, four other things are moving. You’re starting to get a feel for how this role fits into a broader consumer packaged goods company.”
First-year MBA student and DivCo. team member Kevin Cencula said the software helped the team think on its feet while making choices like the one with BHT.
"The simulation forced us to consider the external environment, including competitor actions and consumer trends, when making key business decisions,” Cencula says. “Success in the simulation was predicated on doing this efficiently and effectively."
Second-year MBA student Priyanka Verma, who completed an internship last summer at SC Johnson and starts a job there after graduation, said the simulator helps in key decision-making, knowing what levers to pull when in a sea of data.
“Where do I have to dig deeper and where is it okay to have high level information? In the consumer packaged goods industry, you’re constantly inundated with data,” Verma says. “I think this was a good exercise for us in figuring out what’s important and what’s not for the decision at hand.”
At the beginning of each class, Wilke and Judge go over team results from the previous week. Wilke keeps the pace up and the mood light—he asks for a drumroll as students rap their knuckles on the desk—but the teachable moments are clear: Numbers don’t lie. Just like in a real job, teams are evaluated on their ability to produce results.
“Congratulations, you’re a nonprofit,” Wilke says as an image of a golden championship trophy pulsates on the screen and the room breaks into laughter.
The debriefing sessions also give Wilke and Judge the opportunity to discuss the 30,000 foot view. One week, for example, overforecasting came up as an issue across all of the groups.
“When you don’t hit your forecast, you’re always in crisis mode,” Judge warns the class, painting a picture of Hearty Squares inventory piling up at Walmart and the need for immediate damage control. “What is that meeting going to look like at the store?”
After the classroom sessions, students break into their individual teams to work on their product, picking up from the week before. The best experiential learning solutions create a vehicle for sharing perspectives, debating, and understanding through doing, Wilke says, which is why Judge and Wilke are on hand for help if needed, but purposely stay out of the way to let students work through the challenges.
The inspired learning experience that results is one of the reasons WSB has the “premier program” for brand management says Page Moreau, faculty director of the Center for Brand and Product Management.
“The knowledge and experience that a top faculty member like Mike can impart to students—that’s not something that they can get anywhere else. It puts our program head and shoulders above the others,” Moreau says.
Wilke says it’s not just in business; top performers in any field—athletes, pilots, surgeons—understand the value of practicing when the stakes are lower.
“When both engines go out, pilots know how to land the plane because they’ve seen that in the flight simulator. It’s the same kind of thing here,” Wilke says. “We don’t spend any money, no one’s getting laid off, consumers aren’t disappointed in us. It’s all riskless. But you get to play that role and really see what it’s like.”