Classified: Preparing Undergrads for Marketing’s New Challenges

“Classified” is part of a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

It’s an October afternoon in Lecturer Krystal Thomas’s Product Branding & Entertainment class, and the pitch sessions are heating up. The undergraduate students have just three minutes to sell their marketing campaigns.

In the first go-round, groups are making cases for a movie remake to an imaginary audience of Hollywood producers; a second round of pitches includes campaigns tied to a skin-lightening cream sold in India and a discussion of the emotive power of symbols like purple fingernails.

Thomas—who has been at the forefront of modern marketing as a consultant/producer for Disney and Showtime Networks—offers feedback that is both candid and exacting. “Your body language came across as ‘I couldn’t care less about this,’” she told one group. “The foundation of your campaign has to be emotional.”

Berkeley-Haas students come to the course seeking something different from the typical undergraduate business curriculum.

“We often have to make our case in business school through numbers rather than ideas,” says Ariana Diaz-Saavedre, BS 17. “Here, there’s a lot of opportunity to include our own voices.”

Thomas created the cross-disciplinary course six years ago to address all the ways that digital marketing, social media, video gaming, mobile devices, and other technologies have pushed marketing far beyond the 30-second TV spot.

Her course is capped at 32 slots but has a waitlist almost three times as long, and Thomas—currently an executive producer at  Irvine, Calif.-based branded entertainment, content development, and marketing consultancy Pooka Ventures—is a regular on the “Club 6” list of students’ favorite instructors.

“This is, without question, an amazing opportunity for me,” says Diaz-Saavedra, who will also earn a BA in media studies in May.

In class, students work with companies such as LinkedIn, Safeway, Glacier Water, The Cooking Channel, and Western Digital to design real-world marketing campaigns.

Thomas says her goal is to challenge students to question the status quo. “You have to ask the right questions — ones the executives haven’t thought about or can’t ask due to company politics,” Thomas tells them. She reminds them, too, that they can never know enough about what consumers want or need.

Kylan Nieh, BS 14, now a senior product manager at LinkedIn, recently shared with the class a LinkedIn app designed to help college students land their first jobs. Students will present marketing proposals on the app before the end of the class next month.

“We might hear something we haven’t thought of before,” he says.

Students praise Thomas for being a straight shooter. “There are a lot of intricacies of the entertainment business that she knows that you would never learn about unless you were in the business, or in this class,” says Michelle Rubinstein, BS 17.

Adds Diaz-Saavedra: “She’s very intimidating at first, and a little bit sassy. Everybody loves that about her.”

Students also appreciate that, despite Thomas’s hectic schedule, she also takes the time to mentor them.

Jess Mersten, BS 16, said the class paid off for her immediately. After her team pitched a campaign to Western Digital, the judges offered her an internship at the company.

After graduation, she took a position as a trainee in the retail management program at The Gap.

“I’ve been able to apply a lot of the customer-centric learning from that class to my current job,” she says.