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The Art and Science of Marketing

For as long as she can remember, Heather Dretsch, assistant professor of marketing at Poole College of Management, has been passionate about teaching and diving deep into the stories that make humans who they are. By the time she was an undergraduate, she knew she wanted to become a professor. But first, she took some time to develop her skills in industry, grounding her teaching in a well-rounded understanding of the impact of human psychology on product innovation and distribution.

“Marketing is the perfect marriage of science and art,” she describes.

You have to understand how the human brain works, cognitively, in order to design the brand strategies and stories that will most affect your target audience.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Brand Storytelling

A significant portion of Dretsch’s research focuses on co-creation, a phenomenon that describes how consumers contribute to a brand’s development as they interact with a product and share it within their circles of influence. “Brands exist in the minds of consumers because they’re meant to generate meaning and points of connection for people to relate to,” Dretsch explains. “Consumer narratives are becoming more and more important in an increasingly media- and internet-driven society. Brand advocates and sponsors on social media are a huge source of reach for companies.”

Sometimes, what companies choose to withhold from their audience is just as significant as what they choose to share. A second stream of Dretsch’s work, and the topic of her most recent paper, involves brand secrets, like Starbucks’ secret drink menu or Nike’s exclusive product launches. These products are only accessible to top subscribers or other loyal customers with insider knowledge. “In our current digital age, everyone is inundated with information all the time,” says Dretsch.

Consumers need avenues to connect with brands on a more personalized level that not everyone can access. In most other industries, secrets tend to be a negative thing. But brand secrets are all about discovering something new and deepening brand-consumer relationships.

Dretsch is also at the forefront of new research on the mindset of different generations of consumers. She describes how, in response to the Millennial generation’s growing emphasis on expressing positive emotions online, many brands have started to shift their focus to “marketing sensations,” or how their products make consumers feel. “We’re recognizing the importance of consumers’ meta-cognitions,” she elaborates. “For example, wearing athleisure is meant to evoke feelings of empowerment and comfort. When it comes to designing an aesthetic brand, companies can also feature different colors to elicit emotional responses from their consumers.”

Translating Academic Research to Industry Knowledge

The stories that brands tell in collaboration with their consumers can impact an industry’s trajectory in profound ways, and Dretsch recognizes the untapped territory in marketing research. Recently, she helped spearhead Poole’s Consumer Behavior Lab, a research space for interdepartmental collaboration in marketing and innovation. In the lab, faculty members conduct cutting-edge research that helps them understand how consumers react to changes in product design, messaging, trend timelines and more. “Poole is constantly innovating,” says Dretsch. “Even as we teach entrepreneurial practices, we ourselves live out those values every day, and that’s exciting to be a part of.”

Despite the success of her publications and ongoing research, Dretsch continues to see herself as a professor, first and foremost. The most rewarding aspect of her teaching, she says, comes in the form of enabling her students to apply classroom theories in real-world applications. A strong proponent of NC State’s “Think and Do” mentality, Dretsch’s eyes light up when she shares how her students have dedicated their time to improving the branding and social media platforms of local companies. “A huge part of marketing is learning to give back, especially when companies strive to make their consumers’ lives better,” she reflects.

It’s inspiring to watch my students transform classroom concepts into lived realities for themselves and their communities.

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