"Using Concept Papers in the Marketing Strategy Course"

By Raghu Tadepalli and Clint B. Schertzer,
Department of Marketing


Marketing Strategy course is a required course in most Executive MBA degree programs. Being the only Marketing course in the program the learning that is required is vast. This process is complicated by the fact that some students already have business degrees and others have never had a business course. The objective of the marketing strategy course is to give the students a flavor of the complexities of formulating, implementing, and managing marketing strategy and programs. While case analyses are one useful way to accomplish some part of the course objectives, we found that they rarely get the student to think through how various marketing concepts are applied. This deficiency, we feel is an important one since students, in the absence of carefully applying important marketing concepts, try to complete the case analyses without understanding the concepts. In some instances, concepts (e.g., positioning) are used without an understanding of what they mean and the different ways in which they can be used. Since a vast majority of MBA students do not work in the marketing area, we have successfully used concept papers to alleviate the problems noted above.

Each student in the Executive MBA Marketing Strategy course is required to write eight concept papers each focusing on an important concept discussed in the chapter. This concept paper needs to focus on how the concept is being used by their organization, the manner of its implementation, and the problems the organization has had either in using the concept, or implementing it. The concept papers typically cannot exceed two double-spaced, typewritten pages. These concept papers in our experience, have served several useful purposes.  

First, they have forced MBA students who do not have a marketing background, to contact marketing personnel in their organizations to find out how the concept is being applied. In this process, several students have commented that they have come to develop a healthy regard for the work that marketing department employees do and the difficulties with which they have to contend. Secondly, students especially in such areas as health care, financial services, and education have recognized that the marketing of services presents many challenges not addressed in the textbooks. Thirdly, we begin each class session by calling on some students to briefly explain how the concept is being applied in their organization. An unintended benefit of this exercise is that it allows all the students in the class to learn how organizations that are very different from their own are applying the concept. They also learn about other organizations they have only read about in the newspapers. In one particularly interesting exchange, students started comparing notes on the problems their organizations were having in evaluating attempts to measure customer satisfaction and most were surprised to learn of the sophisticated approach taken by some health care organizations whose employees were in the class.
Using concept papers does have some drawbacks though. In order for students to take them seriously, we have had to build in an evaluative component along with a suitable grade. In our case each paper is worth ten points. Since students have responded well to this challenge, faculty members in return need to spend some time carefully reading and making comments on these papers.

With a class size of forty students, this means reading and commenting on forty concept papers every week. The associated clerical task of recording all of these scores also is time consuming. The tendency to just skim through the papers and award ten points to each should be avoided. In order to simplify the task of the professor to some degree we have made and enforced one rule: No late submissions accepted and no revisions allowed. Another problem that could arise pertains to the grading scheme used. Unless the professor is clear about communicating expectations and enforcing them some students might not take the assignment seriously. We have tended to be very tough in our grading especially in the initial stages of the course and in some extreme cases have returned a paper or two to students with a zero in order to send a clear message regarding our expectations. Finally, we have had cases where students disagree with our grade. In such cases we have found it useful to show them well written papers of students from previous classes. The key is to continuously enforce the objective of the assignment, to understand how a marketing concept is applied.

The main lesson we have learned from this assignment is that professors need to persevere even when an assignment is not well received by students. In our case within the first two weeks we were able to establish the assignment's usefulness. Towards the end of the course students seem to show some fatigue from all the writing and we once again had to clearly communicate our expectations to them. In the end however, course evaluation comments showed that this type of assignment was well received by the students and they found it to be a very useful learning experience.

Raghu Tadepalli and Clint B. Schertzer are associate professors in the marketing department.

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