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Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Kelley School MBA students work on "growing" market for Scotts Co.

Bloomington Brands offers chance to manage $12 million product

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Back row (from left): Jonlee Andrews, Bob Stohler, John Price, Zach Griffin, David Rhoades and Sundar Venkat. Front row (from left): Emily Miles and Beth Chrisco.

Print-Quality Photo

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Like many professors at U.S. business schools, Jonlee Andrews is accustomed to using case studies to teach students about marketing.

"Every marketing class is based on cases and examples and things that have already happened," said Andrews, clinical associate professor of marketing and director of the Center for Brand Leadership in Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.

"You just can't get marketing data because it is highly proprietary. It would be a dream to have a company give you data that was six months old," she added.

For Andrews and her students, something better than a dream came true last year when a retired executive vice president from Scotts Co. approached the school with an idea for MBA students to market an "orphan" fertilizer product called Osmocote.

While at Scotts, Bob Stohler, an IU alumnus, had wanted to boost sales of the time-released fertilizer among home gardeners. Osmocote, although popular among professional growers, languished in the shadow of another popular Scotts plant food, Miracle-Gro. Now, along with Andrews, Stohler oversees six Kelley MBA students who manage the brand for Scotts for course credit, from offices on the courthouse square in downtown Bloomington.

"Rather than living the case, it's kind of like we're writing the case," explained one of the students, David Rhoades. "When the new class comes back, we're going to be the ones really handing them the case and saying, 'This is what we've learned.'"

As it enters its first full academic year, everyone is expecting the program, called Bloomington Brands, to blossom this fall.

"The traditional way to teach marketing is through cases and computer simulations," said Andrews, who also directs the school's MBA Consumer Marketing Academy. "These methods still work, but Bloomington Brands will pioneer leading-edge marketing education that will set us apart from all other schools."

Unlike some experiences in other MBA programs, where students may be responsible for short-term consulting projects, Bloomington Brands enables a small group of students to immerse themselves in every aspect of marketing a real, $12 million brand.

"Marketing has a Hollywood element," said Stohler, whose 35-year career also includes executive positions at Procter & Gamble and S.C. Johnson as well as top management roles at Synthes and Rubbermaid Europe. "People think that's what marketing is -- being extraordinarily creative -- but in fact marketing is about managing detail. At Bloomington Brands, we focus on execution.

"When you actually manage a brand -- particularly a brand such as Osmocote that's not an 'A' list brand -- the resources are pretty limited," he explained. "As a result, you have to do a lot of things that you assumed in a big corporation that someone else took care of. That's one of the reality checks that the students learn here much earlier. We can give them a breadth of experience that they might not get as quickly in a larger company."

Experiences for the students have included working with an advertising agency, repositioning the brand to fit within the overall Scotts portfolio of plant foods, writing market research briefs, managing a cost reduction program and, together with the Scotts sales team, developing trade marketing programs for major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Lowe's and Home Depot. Students frequently have traveled to Marysville, Ohio, for meetings at Scotts.

"They're interacting with all parts of Scotts Co. They're on the phone several times a day, talking to a sales person, a market research person, somebody in R&D, somebody in package design, somebody in finance or operations," said Stohler, a native of Madison County, Ind. "They're gaining confidence that they can deal with these people, that they know enough about the business, what questions to ask and how to encourage a person who works in another part of the business but who is vital to getting things done."

Students involved echo Stohler's sentiments.

"Having the opportunity to work on a nationally distributed, established brand is a brand-new experience for me," said Chicagoan Rhoades, 31, who previously handled branding for a small maker of fresh soup.

Beth Chrisco, a marketing associate from Farmington Hills, Mich., added, "What I like about it is that this isn't a large-volume brand … so it's a challenge to be able to come up with promotional tactics with a smaller budget."

One of their biggest challenges has been that they have not been users of garden products themselves. "Many people who come into the MBA program aren't married and have not owned a home. They almost all have excellent, very meaningful work experience, but home ownership and tending to a lawn or a garden have not occurred in their life," Stohler said. "They don't come in here with any dirt under their fingernails."

Scotts Co. also appreciates the venture. "We've found this to be a terrific experience and hope that the Kelley School has gotten as much out of this collaboration as we have," said Jim Hagedorn, chairman and chief executive officer of Scotts Co. "We have benefited from having these bright young people work on building our Osmocote brand, and how it can be positioned in new and interesting ways."

While there currently are just six Kelley MBAs directly involved with Bloomington Brands, other students have benefited from their experiences in classes and have participated in related projects to review market research and other efforts to understand consumers' attitudes and behavior regarding Osmocote.

Everyone wants sales of Osmocote to increase as a result of Bloomington Brands' efforts, but another important aim is to offer greater employment opportunities for Kelley School students at employers such as Scotts. Corporate recruiters are looking for graduates with hands-on experience and street smarts.

"At an internship, you're involved and you're working on it, but you don't own the desk," said Jessica Hoste, a recent graduate now at Nestle Purina. "With this, you really own it and you are responsible and you're responsible for daily fires and making sure that things get done on time."

The other initial graduates from Kelley and Bloomington Brands now are in management positions at Kimberly Clark and General Mills.

The Kelley School also hopes Bloomington Brands will gradually expand to include other companies' orphaned products, and officials have been involved in talks with other companies.

"As things expand and as we find different channels of distribution that we want to be in, we'll probably need to find a second Bob Stohler," Andrews said. "In a perfect world, we'd have a stable of brands; we'd have every consumer marketing person who was interested in being able to work on one of these brands -- hands on -- and getting a lot of their education that way. That's a big picture right now."