Rebranding Belfast

How do 31 students in a Rutgers MBA class develop a promotional plan for a city thousands of miles away?

Through teamwork and innovation—and with the help of a professor willing to leverage her international connections and experiment with a real-world marketing study.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

That’s just what happened in Professor Elizabeth Hirschman’s Advertising and Promotion Management class at Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick. For a class project, Hirschman’s students produced a detailed marketing plan to assist cultural and political leaders in the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast.

The result of a semester of work, the students’ plan offers proposals for ways Belfast can attract more tourism and industry. “We want to rebrand Belfast in the way it’s perceived as a city,” said Hirschman, who got the idea for the project after returning from a trip to the city last year.

The project brought together a Rutgers professor, scholars from the United Kingdom, and Rutgers MBA students with a global outlook.

Think Belfast, and you may not exactly imagine it as a spot for your next vacation. In fact, the city has reinvented itself with boutique hotels and stylish clubs, even if many people still associate it with the era of violence between Catholics and Protestants known as “the Troubles.” No doubt about it: Belfast is a classic case of a city in need of rebranding.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Students from the class say the project gave them a sense of what’s possible when they collaborate on a challenging marketing problem. Unlike the typical case study, with an outcome that’s already made it to scholarly journals or textbooks, this one required brainstorming, research, and exploring the here-and-now issues facing Belfast. “The great thing about this project was that there isn’t an outcome yet,” said student Mukti Patel. “It was great to apply the knowledge from class to see if we could make some sort of difference.”

But how would a group of Rutgers students get attention in Belfast? That’s where Hirschman’s knowledge of Northern Ireland—and her connections there—played a key role. With assistance from friends of Hirschman’s who work at universities in Ulster and London, the class’s plan for the city, “Promoting the Belfast Brand,” will be presented to the Belfast City Council and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in coming weeks.

Students worked in teams on the project. One group studied Pittsburgh—another city that’s undergone a transformation—as a model for Belfast. “We researched the marketing strategy used by Pittsburgh and applied it to Belfast,” said Patel. “We wanted to understand what an industrial city would have to do to gain tourists. What were the tactics? Who was the target audience?”

Another group paid particular attention to the ways Belfast and Dublin, often rivals, could be partners in tourism and investment. “We tried to come up with ideas for how Belfast could take advantage of the positive image that people have of Dublin,” said student Steven Shie.

Students praised the project for putting them in the position of tackling the challenges of a situation far from their textbooks. “You really remember what you learned when it’s applied to a real-world setting,” said student April Cardone.