A push to diversify the creative class

OLSON has spearheaded a new campaign to turn minority high school students onto advertising careers

Loring Park’s OLSON company is the driving force behind a new initiative called The BrandLab — an educational program for Twin Cities high schools designed to introduce students from diverse backgrounds to the field of marketing.   

The program is the brainchild of John Olson, CEO of OLSON. The agency started the concept a few years ago, but now several other Twin Cities marketing and communications companies have signed on to support the program.

BrandLab supporters, teachers and students recently celebrated the official launch of the program at General Mills’ headquarters in Golden Valley. Organizers hope it becomes a national model and promotes a more diverse workforce in the advertising industry.

“It’s our responsibility to come together as a community to help the next generation of marketers reach their full creative potential,” Olson said. “We’re proud we’ve been able to create an experiential learning program — born and bred in the Prairie — to provide exciting opportunities for diverse students in Minnesota, and eventually, across the country.”

The BrandLab curriculum is taught in six area high schools, including Patrick Henry, North and South in Minneapolis. The class will be in 12 classrooms in 2011, said Jim Cousins, executive director of the BrandLab.  

Major corporate backers include General Mills, Target, 3M and Land O’Lakes.

Olson called The BrandLab a “simple and elegant idea,” but acknowledged it was “murder getting it going.” OLSON invested significant agency time and talent to get it off the ground and it now takes $200,000 to $300,000 to operate it each year.

Joe White, a senior at Patrick Henry High and BrandLab student who attended the kickoff party, called the class an “exciting” experience. He’s learned how to use Photoshop and worked on a “brand of me” project that has the students create a collage of images and words that define their personal brand.

Cheryl Martin, a teacher at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, said BrandLab has been a “phenomenal” experience. She co-teaches the class with industry professionals who come in and work with students on mock marketing campaigns. For many of the students involved in the course, a career in marketing or branding wasn’t even on their radar before they got involved with BrandLab.

“It helps them to see a whole world of possibilities,” Martin said.

The class is designed to teach students about the history of media and become more analytical about their media consumption habits. They discuss ethical issues in the industry, the basics of branding, market research techniques, tips on synthesizing the research and finally the creative production process. The learn how to work in a variety of media platforms, including print, radio, TV and non-traditional formats.

Brenna Whisney, a brand anthropologist at OLSON, has worked in BrandLab classrooms and now focuses on developing the curriculum. As a brand anthropologist at the agency, she looks at brands as cultures and taps academic researching methods anthropologists use to conduct market research.

She said they work to tailor The BrandLab curriculum for the needs of each classroom. For instance, if it’s an English class, there is more emphasis on writing. If it’s a media arts class, more attention is paid to production work.

Whisney said it’s been fun to watch students get excited about the “brand of me” exercise. It’s a fun activity for them to work in as they are in the midst of figuring out how to define themselves in so many different ways.

Besides classroom work, BrandLab provides students with opportunities for field trips, job shadowing, internships and scholarships. The goal is to follow-up with students, too, while in college to see how they are doing. Even if students aren’t sold on the idea of going into marketing and advertising, the organizers are hoping they are left with a broader perspective on possible career options.

Mark Addicks, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Golden Valley-based General Mills and a BrandLab board member, said he’d like to see the program in the country’s top 50 cities within five years.

“I’m thrilled to see Minnesota companies rally around such an important effort that impacts the whole industry,” Addicks said. “I’m personally passionate about The BrandLab because I see firsthand the benefit that diversity brings to the creative process. Inspiring a new generation of talented creative professionals from diverse backgrounds is not only good for the community, it’s good for business.”

For more information on The BrandLab, visit thebrandlab.org.