National parks get boost from Olin School project

School of Art contributes logo designs

It’s not an exaggeration to say the University’s influence stretches to the highest peaks in the land — because those peaks are a part of the National Park System.

The connection was made by Rick Bennet and several Olin School of Business students.

Bennet is a longtime supporter of the national parks and a trustee for Glacier National Park in Montana. Prior to earning an executive master of business administration (E.M.B.A.) degree from the Olin School in 2004, Bennet spent 27 years with May Department Stores, ultimately serving as vice chairman.

Thanks to a class project, Bennet was able to merge his passion for the parks with his business background and put them to practical use.

Bennet said Glacier was looking for ways to expand its fund-raising repertoire. The park foundation asked him for input, and he said it seemed obvious that selling merchandise was the way to go.

“Merchandising is what I know,” Bennet said. “Selling apparel seemed obvious.”

At the start of his second year of the E.M.B.A. program, Bennet enrolled in a course called “The Start-Up Game,” an introduction to entrepreneurship that is literally a competition. He used the class to foster his idea for selling merchandise with a Glacier National Park logo.

The plan was well-received. In fact, it won the Start-Up Game, so Bennet continued to develop it the following semester in a class called “The Hatchery.”

The project was then expanded to include all the parks; this was done at the request of the National Parks Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the parks system.

Several M.B.A. students were brought on board as part of a practicum project to do market research and develop the plan further.

Their first mission: find out if one logo should represent all parks, or if each park should have its own logo.

The question was posed to National Park Foundation members, and 83 percent said a logo for each park is preferable.

“The responses indicated that people would be much more likely to buy something with a logo that represented their favorite national park,” Bennet said. “A logo for all national parks is too distant. People tend to have an affinity for one particular park, and they want something that displays the preference.”

The semester ended, but the project did not.

In fall 2004, Ambar G. Rao, Ph.D., the Fossett Distinguished Professor of Marketing, took over the venture in his “New Products” course. Rao said it was the first time the class had worked on a nonprofit project; in past years, it was more common for corporate clients to provide the project.

Rao said there really isn’t any big difference in the research process.

“The students still have exposure to all the aspects of new-product development,” Rao said. “Those aspects include product design, demand estimation and the development of a launch plan, including pricing, promotion and channel selection.”

Rao’s students spent the semester developing the launch plan and selecting the right logo from among a set developed in the School of Art. Frank Oros, assistant professor of advertising design, Heather Corcoran, assistant professor of graphic design, and Scott Gericke, lecturer in graphic design, worked with their art students to develop logos for the four most popular national parks: Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier and Yellowstone.

For Oros, partnering with the business school for these kinds of projects is a natural fit; the two disciplines are tied to each other.

“No artist can survive without a sense of business,” Oros said. “And no business can survive without the tools of images, because we are such a visual culture. We depend on visualization of ideas.”

Meanwhile, the marketing students studied several questions about what would motivate park visitors to buy merchandise: Does price matter? Are people more inclined to buy if they know a portion of the proceeds will support the parks? Does the percentage of the proceeds allocated to the parks influence the decision to buy? Do people care if the merchandise is brand-name or not?

The quantitative research revealed what many students suspected. Price did have an influence on the decision to buy a product; the larger the percentage of the proceeds that went to the parks the more likely customers were to buy.

Clothing, backpacks and fleece jackets were the most popular items chosen, and logos were important. In fact, people didn’t seem to mind if a nonbranded item was offered — as long as it had a park logo.

Amanda Culbertson, a second-year M.B.A. student who participated in both the practicum and the class, said she was impressed by how much the donation to the park mattered.

“The contribution portion influenced people’s buying decisions to a much greater extent than we initially thought,” Culbertson said. “In the first survey, 15 percent said they had no interest in buying park-branded merchandise. But when they learned about the contribution to park preservation, two-thirds of them changed their minds.”

It wasn’t until after the New Products course ended that the National Park Foundation heard the school’s recommendations. Students Tycho Ferrigni, Amanda Culbertson, Beth Hunsicker and Dave Drew presented the results of the quantitative research — a conjoint analysis — to the National Park Foundation in late January. The foundation was impressed, said Bennet, who is now an adjunct professor in the Olin School and teaches a class in social entrepreneurship that he helped develop.

He said the park foundation is working on ways to make the theories of the Olin School team a reality.

As for the students, they were impressed as well. Drew, who was also a part of the project through practicum and the New Products course, said the experience was worthwhile.

“It was a substantial project,” Drew said. “We were consultants from start to finish, which is rewarding in and of itself. But I think the whole class was excited about the parks and happy to be working on something that had meaning to us beyond the classroom.”