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Foster MBAs learn marketing on premium tequila, next-gen game console

If tequila could be said to have any role in higher education, it is—at best—as a distraction.

At least, typically.

In Mark Forehand’s Consumer Marketing and Brand Management class at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, however, tequila served as a powerful pedagogical tool. Tequila Partida, to be precise. The going concern of one Gary Shansby (BA 1959), chair of the Foster School Advisory Board and renowned branding guru.

After a career of building obscure or failing consumer brands into blockbusters—Famous Amos Cookies, Mauna Loa Macadamia Nuts, Terra Chips, Spic and Span, Vitamin Water, to name a few of the 50+—Shansby has recently devoted himself to building a super-premium brand of tequila from scratch, which is to say, from the finest 100 percent pure blue agave grown on a single estate in Mexico.

Partida is considered by aficionados to be among the finest tequilas available. The problem? Young adults barely know it exists. As Shansby formulated a new strategy to build his brand among this key demographic, he decided to open his company’s challenge to Forehand’s MBA students this year.

New twist on proven pedagogy

A brand audit has been the capstone of Forehand’s course for many years, but this is the first time the brand’s founder and CEO has been in the room to introduce the case and ultimately help evaluate the proposed solutions.

“I heard very clearly from students that Gary’s involvement provided both a depth of insight about the brand and a special motivation to take their analysis to the fullest level,” says Forehand, a professor of marketing and the Pigott Family Professor in Business Administration at Foster.

Student teams chose between marketing Partida and a similarly compelling challenge to expand the brand of Microsoft’s next-generation Xbox One (introducing its new role as a hub to living room entertainments while retaining its standing as a killer gaming console), as presented by Jamil Rich (MBA 2002), director of Xbox Brand.

Job well done

The Partida teams organized focus groups to understand their target market demographic of educated young people, interviewed bartenders and other taste-makers, and delved deeply into the category, competition, packaging, pricing, and position. They even studied Partida’s unofficial mascot, known as its “spirit bird.”

Some common themes emerged from the final presentations: Confirmation that educated young people are largely unaware of the critically acclaimed brand. That they equate tequila with fun (and sometimes a bit too much fun). That they trust friends and bartenders more than companies. That Partida’s online image needs an update—and a triple-shot of social networking. That Shansby should have some fun with the spirit bird.

Bullseye. The student insights aligned almost perfectly with the meticulously developed strategy that Shansby had in the works. His recently launched marketing campaign comes complete with a robust social media presence and a focus on the fun side of even this finest of tequilas, as exemplified in an irreverent—and hilarious—promotional video that could well go viral among the demographic.

“To be in a marketing strategy class with a professor the caliber of Mark, these students are getting a great education,” Shansby says. “But I think they’ve reached out even further through this project.

“I was blown away by how smart and how intuitive and how serious and how fun these students are. It really pleased me and made this entire exercise a wonderful experience.”