Mendoza School of Business

Bolstering brand strategy for a Chicago museum

Published: January 9, 2017 / Author: Carol Elliott

The DuSable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side

As a brand strategist and marketing adjunct professor at Notre Dame, Carol Phillips is always on the lookout for challenging projects for her MBA Brand Strategy course.

“Brand strategy is easy to talk about,” says Phillips, the founder of a consulting firm called Brand Amplitude. “We all know what brands are. We know why they matter. But it’s a lot harder to think about how to build a brand.”

At a social event in 2014, Phillips met Perri Irmer, the president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, and asked, “So what do you do?”

Irmer described the DuSable and its marketing challenges, and Phillips sensed an opportunity for her students to work with an outstanding institution at a crucial time. The DuSable sits just a few miles from the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center, which is predicted to attract an additional 800,000 visitors annually to the South Side and provide the opportunity to dramatically expand the DuSable’s influence.

Further, the DuSable was recently named a Smithsonian Affiliate, a designation that allows the museum to bring Smithsonian artifacts and exhibits to the local community and to showcase its own collection through the Smithsonian’s network.

So the chance meeting between Phillips and Irmer came at the perfect time for the museum and the MBA Brand Strategy course.


The project began in the spring of 2015 with Irmer and DuSable curator Leslie Guy traveling to Notre Dame to talk to the MBA class. Afterward, the class split into 18 teams and spent six weeks crafting marketing strategy proposals. Each team also partnered with a student from the Notre Dame Design School.

“It was very different from a traditional brand strategy project, where you would have some marketing objective to meet,” said Phillips. “Certainly there are marketing objectives here, but is it to drive memberships, drive donations, or to drive visitors, regardless of membership? It’s all of the above.”

Teams explored the DuSable’s role and identity as Chicago’s storyteller for African American history, as a South Side community center, as a tourism destination, and as an entertainment venue. The resulting brand strategies were multifaceted and detailed, including plans for building corporate sponsorships and museum patronage, as well as increasing foot traffic by partnering with the larger Chicago tourism network.

There also was a significant emphasis on the partnerships with the community and neighborhood, through events such as taking exhibits into the area schools and sponsoring an open mic night for local artists.

After two classroom sessions, Irmer and Guy left with dozens of ideas for the DuSable’s marketing vision, several of which they are incorporating into their marketing strategies.

“The students’ presentations reflected an understanding of the DuSable’s important mission of educating all people, not just people of color,” said Irmer. “They presented us with creative and well-researched recommendations and strategies for marketing to a younger demographic, offering new ideas for drawing in and engaging young people, and validating some of our current plans, as well.”


Phillips considered the project an educational success — especially considering the broad nature of the task. “Problems don’t come prepackaged. That’s often the difficulty with business cases — the answers always seem obvious,” she said. “But when you’re really in the thick of something, the answers are never obvious. It’s really important for students to understand that sometimes things don’t have edges.

“I use the analogy of pancake batter — it spills out all over the place. It’s your job as a business person to create some structure so that you frame a problem that can be solved. So my goals were to give them those frameworks and let them loose with it.”

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