University of Vermont

Office of Community-University Partnerships & Service Learning

Cabot Marketing Challenge Enriching Students, Local Businesses

The Sugarsnap pea mascot and banner, created by students participating in the Cabot Marketing Challenge course, on parade in Burlington. (Photo courtesy of Abbey Duke)

As owner of a local food service and catering company, Abbey Duke doesn’t have a lot of time to develop in-depth marketing plans. She’s busy enough with payroll, opening a new location and other aspects of running a small business. So when students in a marketing course offered to provide creative, cost-effective marketing strategies with financial support from Cabot Creamery Cooperative, she was more than happy to listen.

“I was excited to see what ideas the students would come up with and which ones would work,” says Duke, owner of Sugarsnap, a farm-to-table eatery with three locations in Burlington and South Burlington. “They’ve had some great ideas that will hopefully increase business over time. The support of a successful company like Cabot that has grown by doing really smart, creative things over the years is a real benefit to both the students and me. I’m looking forward to seeing what sticks.”

The Cabot Marketing Challenge, a new course offered through Community Development and Applied Economics (CDAE), is the brainchild of Cabot marketing guru Roberta MacDonald, well known for her innovative and inexpensive marketing strategies. Designed with input from the School of Business Administration and CDAE, the course paired 18 students from various majors with five local business owners to work together to create an effective marketing strategy.

David Conner, assistant professor in CDAE, and adjunct lecturer Kate Finley Woodruff '89, G '07, who is also a marketing consultant for Cabot and other companies, had students read about all aspects of marketing and meet with experts in the field before developing their marketing plan in consultation with their respective owners.

“Each team developed a full marketing plan, presented it in class with the owners present and then received feedback,” says Conner. “It’s a great model because local businesses gain from the expertise of UVM and Cabot to improve their marketing practices and contribute even more to the state’s sustainable community economic development. We have a great set of bright, motivated students and a great set of locally-owned, socially responsible firms.”

Putting the vision into practice

By the end of the fall semester, many of the students’ ideas had been implemented. Cynthea’s Spa improved its signage and further developed its Farm-to-Spa product line. The Roen Financial Report, an alternative energy investment newsletter, rebranded itself to better capitalize on the vast knowledge, expertise and credibility of owner Harris Roen. Yogarama Athletica used elements of a redesign plan that included the renovation of its storefront in an effort to increase traffic by highlighting the unique, high-quality products offered there.

Tasked with developing more advanced marketing plans in the spring for two of the five businesses, students started meeting more regularly with Sugarsnap and Brown Dog Books & Gifts in Hinesburg. An element of reality entered into the mix when the two groups were given $10,000 to implement their evolving marketing plans, courtesy of Cabot. Although each of the student teams worked together and shared ideas, their marketing plans turned out to be quite different, evident in the way each group chose to allocate their budgets.

Students working with Brown Dog owner Natacha Liuzzi designed and placed advertisements in local media such as Kids VT and the Charlotte Citizen. They also implemented less expensive marketing methods, which included the creation of a monthly calendar of events with readings and book signings that they helped organize; a redesign of the store’s layout by putting books into three defined nooks; and an increased online presence on Facebook and other social media.

“Sugarsnap and Brown Dog are very different businesses that require their own marketing strategies,” says senior Ben Mervis, who is responsible for maintaining the marketing budget for his Brown Dog team. “We’ve spent a lot of time redesigning the store and trying to make it a real presence in the community. We’re hoping to increase her limited but loyal fan base by holding promotional events and showcasing her inventory, which we hope will make the bookstore a primary resource for people in the area. ”

Measuring success through sales

In an increasingly bottom-line world, measuring the effectiveness of the plans will be based heavily on sales. Liuzzi, who was convinced she was going to have to close her store last fall, says the enthusiasm and ideas generated by the students was timely and contributed to keeping her business. Convincing Cash Mob! Vermont, an organization that brings crowds of people to a local business to spend money, to come to Brown Dog, for example, resulted in a huge sales day and allowed Liuzzi to “pay a lot of bills.”

“I was reluctant to try some things at first like redecorating the place, but it’s really worked out well,” says Liuzzi. “They’ve done a lot of advertising and publicity that has resulted in some new customers.”

Duke says she has a very consistent customer base at her Riverside Avenue location, but would like to broaden it by attracting more students and potential customers who are unaware of it existence. She’s hoping the May 2012 grand opening of Sugarsnap’s ECHO Museum Café, which students have been promoting through advertisements and improved signage, will broaden her clientele. To that end, students added Sugarsnap to the growing list of local businesses that accept CAT$cratch, UVM's prepaid debit account linked to CatCards, or student IDs.

Senior Erin Christiansen, manager of the Sugarsnap budget, says she and her teammates have had no shortage of ideas, but have had to rely on some less traditional forms of marketing to stay within their budget. With this in mind, students constructed a float with a steaming bowl of hot soup atop one of Sugarsnap’s delivery vehicles and drove it in a Mardi Gras parade in downtown Burlington. Accompanying the float was a human-sized pea mascot with a student inside waving to the crowd alongside a new banner, also made the students, that has since been used a various public events including a recent farmer’s market outside the Davis Center.

MacDonald says she’s pleased with the results so far and hopes to continue promoting connections between students and local business, ideally resulting in jobs for students after graduation and increased sales. “There’s a lot of reciprocity going on,” says McDonald, senior vice president of marketing at Cabot. “The hope was that the course would eventually benefit the entire community and to some extent it already has. We plan to improve it each year, but hopefully other businesses like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Magic Hat, Ben & Jerry’s and Seventh Generation will join in and add their own art of marketing.”

Note: Conner and Finley-Woodruff are currently seeking firms to partner with the 2012-2013 Cabot Marketing Challenge courses. Applications will be available beginning June 1, 2012 and accepted until August 1. Firms will be chosen and notified by August 25, 2012. For an application or to discuss participation, please contact David Conner,, (802) 656-1965.