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It was the ultimate benefit performance, providing equal advantages for both the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the VCU School of Business Global Marketing Management master’s program. Enthusiasm ran high on both sides as students from Associate Professor Brian Brown’s Brand Strategy class presented their research and ideas to members of VMFA’s marketing leadership team. The goal of this meeting: to suggest ways the museum could elevate its brand by establishing deeper relationships with younger and more diverse adults.

“It’s a big deal for students to get this kind of work experience,” enthused Brown. “They were invited to present. And it’s not just a hypothetical project. This gives them valuable exposure to real-world business situations.”

The Work Begins

Clearly, his students were up to the task. “Team Viscno” created its name from a Latin term suggesting glue and connectivity. Members included Isaiah Harvin (Master of Product Innovation), and Haley Miller, Ishani Uttam, and Sudipta Charkaborth (all M.S. Global Marketing). Both Charkaborty and Uttam are from Christ University, VCU’s international partner school located in Bengaluru, India.

VMFA was represented by Kristine Craig, Director of Membership, and Paula Saylor-Robinson, Director of Audience Development and Community Engagement. “Thank you for thanking us,” said Craig in response to the team’s introduction, “We’re excited to have outside eyes on this.”

In the Trenches

Team Viscno had done its homework, conducting surveys and interviews; observing events, programs and everyday activities; and using database tools and systems to give direction. They divided the museum’s support into “hard” (age 55+) and “soft” (age 18-29) categories, because as VMFA already knows, projected growth must include the younger generation.

This crucial younger target audience, determined the students, loves experiences, values travel and appreciates spontaneity. But commitment is a sticking point. It’s one thing to attend a Jazz Night at the museum; it’s another to become a full-fledged member.

Looking Ahead

To enhance the VMFA’s presence in Richmond, the team came up with five key insights:  communicate across all media; measure success for visitor engagement; leverage technology; enhance marketing practices; and build proprietary programs to enable deeper relationships. The last point involved creating an affinity program to attract a younger audience.

Saylor-Robinson was impressed.  “The students provided a unique perspective and insight,” she said. “It’s tremendously helpful for audience development and marketing.”

Craig was especially fascinated by the concept of an affinity program. “It really sparked curiosity in me,” she says. “The idea of further engaging people without making them members is a softer entry point I didn’t really consider before. It doesn’t require too much of a commitment. A loyalty program sounds good.”

The VMFA directors were pleased. The students looked relieved, and Brown chuckled outright. “You get people to exhibits and happy hour events and offer them value for their attendance rather than vice versa. It flips behaviors. Really creative!”

Definitely experiential learning at work – not to mention a student resume-builder.


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