What makes marketing MBAs stand out? (Column)

Markus Giesler on why schools need to change their tactics for MBAs to get jobs

How will leading MBA schools contribute to marketing industry needs in the future? Last week, I saw a great ft.com interview featuring the Ross School’s dean Alison Davis-Blake. She had an important message. Business schools must change their tactics for MBAs to get jobs. As Davis-Blake usefully points out, “employers are looking at what it costs to hire an MBA and are saying to themselves, am I better off hiring this very expensive MBA talent…or hiring a much less expensive undergraduate talent and training them over time?”

This raises the question of what is going to give MBAs the competitive skill-based advantage in the future. Here, Davis-Blake gave a really powerful answer as well:

“Design thinking.”

And this brings us to marketing and, more specifically, to Customer Experience Design.

This course, which I recently developed and taught for the first time last fall, is unique on many levels. By “offering an integrated framework for designing customer experiences and for creating successful experientially based marketing strategies,” it conveys a set of strategic skills that, as Davis-Blake argues, “are not easy to teach” and are therefore highly desired by companies.

Design thinking in our course also addresses the “critical thinking” skills Davis-Blake mentions. My course is not a regurgitation of experiential marketing, the importance of touch, sense, and feel or retail spectacles. Rather, it transforms MBA students into 360-degree customer experience designers who know how to combine emotion, identity, material, and political resources in ways that create experiences truly greater than the sum of their parts.

But on the note of design thinking, the course goes even further than this.

I was able to design the course to operate as a business school within a business school. It is its own marketing department, its own media and marketing department, and its own industry and career relations department.

First, there is research. I work at a school where research is the absolute priority. And that’s because cutting-edge scholarship is a precondition to training cutting-edge MBAs.

Almost all of Customer Experience Design’s case studies, strategies, and tools are therefore rooted in my own published or even pre-published scholarly research as well as the applied research I’ve been doing over the last 10 years.

In addition, to develop the course, I spent the summer of 2013 traveling around the world to speak with managers at companies such as Tesla, Apple, Unilever, Nest, McKinsey and many others. And they said it loud and clear: we desperately need smart marketing design thinkers and doers. Now these and other companies can (and do) hire them straight out of my classroom.

On the media level, industry leader Marketing magazine came onboard early on to contribute with their incredible knowledge and network. In fact, Marketing magazine’s editor-in-chief David Thomas was so impressed with the course and my students that he featured an entire series of customer experience design insights produced by my students themselves called MBA Lab.

Now isn’t this course more work to teach? On the contrary, because longstanding boundaries between stakeholders in research, teaching, industry, and media are removed, the course becomes a powerful engine for cross-pollination, tremendously benefiting each group of stakeholders — and most importantly our MBA students.

In general, the MBA landscape is a tough market and competition among schools is fierce. But when it comes to re-imagining the MBA’s role in shaping tomorrow’s marketers, all stakeholders — industry, media, professors, and business schools — need to come together to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And while Customer Experience Design is just one example of how this can be done, perhaps one day the Financial Times will no longer rank schools but individual courses.

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