The Progressive: Justine Rapp

Justine Rapp keeps her students well connected

“So, If Coke was your friend, what kind of friend would they be? Describe them to me. How about Pepsi? Could they hang out together?”

Assistant Professor of Marketing Justine Rapp’s conceptual query is initially met with an unsettling silence, but it’s not for a lack of interest from her captive audience. The nearly three dozen students assembled for her Digital Marketing and Social Media course are clearly familiar with the expectant tone in her voice, and frantically begin scouring their laptops, phones and iPads for an answer that, hopefully, will elicit an approving grin and nod.

“Coke has a real job and has a traditional outlook on things, and, well …” comes a halting response from somewhere in the middle of the third row.

Rapp knows they’re searching for the right words, but in this particular case, that’s somewhat subjective, and she wants them thinking big picture. “Good. Yes. That’s a start,” she responds, encouragingly. “Anyone else?”

“I don’t know if they could hang out, because Pepsi seems kinds of hipster and young, and Coke would probably have a hard time relating to that,” replies another.

Determining a corporate brand’s persona and reach is a foundational component of Marketing 340 — a course that boldly endeavors to provide students with a detailed understanding of the ever-changing digital marketing landscape. Ascertaining what a brand is, how it works, and what it does goes a long way in helping her students develop innovative approaches to the two main projects for the semester: Developing paid advertising for nonprofits on Google, and website development for real-world business clients.

Now that they’re connecting the dots, Rapp is ready to begin the day’s discussion on how corporations like Coke and Pepsi present themselves to consumers in the digital marketplace, and the social media platforms they’re using — effectively, or not — to connect with their target audiences.

First and foremost, it’s important for her students to understand the playing field, and she asks for opinions on companies that they feel have either strong or weak presences across their respective online platforms. Most importantly, she wants apples-to-apples comparisons; companies like Nike and Microsoft may be digital marketing bellwethers, but they’re obviously not targeting the same consumer base.

After some spirited group discussion, it’s decided that today’s compare-and-contrast will center on the food retail sector, and how a niche company like Trader Joe’s seems to be hitting all the right notes with its customer base, whereas traditional industry giant Ralph’s seemingly struggles to cement their brand’s online identity.

“When you look at Trader Joe’s web presence, what are you seeing? Who are they trying to be?” Rapp inquires as she toggles between the two corporations’ web and social media pages on the media projector. The expectant tone returns. Clearly she’s building toward something, and this time, the class is on the same wavelength.

“Friendly. Engaging. Relaxed. Healthy,” reply the students.

“Now, what’s going on with Ralph’s? Do you get the sense that they have a strategy, and if so, what is it?”

“Boring!” comes the immediate response.

Rapp is delighted. “Exactly! Trader Joe’s wants to run away from that corporate image, while Ralph’s just wants you to know they’re there, and happy to help. It’s a weak presence by design … which might actually make it strong.”

While the majority of her peers employ a theoretical approach to educating the next generation of marketing professionals, Rapp believes a more hands-on approach is essential. After all, just about every parcel of available marketing data suggests the majority of future jobs within the industry will be digital or social media-based, and she wants her students to hit the ground running once they earn their diploma.

“I think you can go to lectures, listen and leave. That’s easy. But I want them thinking, acting, reacting like they would in a real-world business environment. That way they have more stock in the game.”