About Brenna McCormick, M.A.: Brenna McCormick is Graduate Program Director for Emerson College’s Department of Marketing Communication. As Graduate Program Director, she advises all of the graduate students in the Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication program, mentoring them from the beginning of their enrollment through their completion of their Capstone experience. In addition, she oversees the design of the program’s curriculum, coordinates the course offerings each term, and supports faculty members in the program. Ms. McCormick is also a Senior Executive in Residence for the Business of Creative Enterprise program at Emerson College, which is a new program that teaches undergraduate students the core skills that are needed to be leaders and managers in the creative industries.

In addition to her responsibilities as Graduate Program Director, Ms. McCormick works as a brand strategist and has over a decade of digital agency and consulting experience in creativity, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Prior to her current role at Emerson College, she was Director of Expeditions and Strategy at Terra Incognita Ventures, a division of the international agency Mediaman. Ms. McCormick is an alumnus of a previous iteration of the very program at Emerson College that she now directs, having received her Master of Arts in Integrated Marketing Communication. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from Boston University.

After college, Ms. McCormick worked in luxury retail, for Crane and Co. Paper Makers, before going on to earn her master’s part time at Emerson College and subsequently working for the consulting company CGI. Through her consulting and agency experience, she has worked with companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., EMD Serono, Procter & Gamble, Keds, Jones New York, Calvin Klein, IZOD, and Reebok, to name a few.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication, and how it is structured? Could you explain the 5+5 curriculum structure and how it maximizes flexibility for students while also ensuring they get the advanced training they need? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program, and what kinds of roles does this program prepare them for?

[Brenna McCormick] I’m incredibly excited about this program’s recent redesign to utilize a 5+5 structure, in that students take five core classes and choose five electives according to their interests. Previously, we had an iteration with two tracks, Planning Market Communication and Creative Market Communication, and while these tracks really helped students focus on either planning or creative development, we wanted to give our students the flexibility to pursue classes outside of their track, according to what they wanted to do post-graduation. So many roles within marketing communication are interdisciplinary, and so when our students came to us saying, “While I’m on this track, I’d really like to take this course in the other path,” we immediately thought, “Oh, we never intended for these tracks to be guardrails. Let’s take all of those down.”

One of the things that I love the most about this new curriculum change is that it allows our students to do what marketing specialists and executives do frequently, which is to search for ways to change things up and discover what is new and freshly developing in the field. It’s in the spirit of the industry that we allow students to take courses according to the precise skills and tools they want to build. To that end, as faculty we are always looking for how we can update the curriculum to reflect advancements in the marketing industry. We challenge ourselves to not only keep things current in terms of the content, but also in terms of the activities and the discussions we have. It’s a constant and dynamic process where we try to figure out what would work best for our students. Similar to how marketing as a discipline is customer-centric, we are highly student-centric and are always thinking of ways to create a better student experience.

In terms of the curriculum structure itself, we have five core courses: Introduction to Strategic Marketing Communication Seminar, Marketing/Brand Management, Creative Thinking and Problem Solving, Behavioral Economics, and Professional Applied Experience in Strategic Marketing Communication (Capstone). When we designed the program, it was very important to us that we have Creative Thinking and Problem Solving as a core course because creative problem solving is integral to all forms of strategy–it is crucial in problem positioning and differentiation, assembling effective teams, and designing innovative solutions.

Our other core courses also build key industry skills throughout the program narrative. Introduction to Strategic Marketing Communication familiarizes students with the processes and principles that go into developing a successful marketing initiative, including how to assess consumer needs, build consumer interest and trust through compelling storytelling, and manage the flow of marketing ideas and materials through an organization to its target audiences. Marketing and Brand Management focuses specifically on strategic decision-making around branding, product positioning, pricing, distribution, and business-to-consumer communication. Students also discuss the meaning of branding and brand equity, and engage in hands-on projects that simulate the kinds of branding challenges they will be expected to tackle in the industry.

In Behavioral Economics, students explore human thought and behavior through the lens of consumer needs and desires, and cultural influences. Diversity and social inclusion is a key concept in this course, as we encourage students to reflect on how members of different cultures and demographics can and cannot be compared, and how marketers can, above all, be empathetic listeners to their consumers’ backgrounds, the stories they have to tell, and their needs and values.

As mentioned previously, students can choose from a wide range of elective courses. They have the option of selecting a Professional Path in Strategic Planning, Digital Strategy, and Brand Strategy, crafting their own individualized course of study, or selecting a Professional Path with a few variances in the courses depending on their interest.

In the Strategic Planning Professional Path, we have courses in Market Research and Account Planning, Integrated Strategy, Strategic Planning and Marketing Communication, Managing Investments in Marketing, and Market Planning: Customers, Companies, Collaborators. For the Digital Strategy Professional Path, we have Digital Marketing, Descriptive Analytics and Predictive Models, User Experience Design, Content Marketing, and Civic Media Design Studio 1. The Brand Strategy Professional Path has one class that overlaps with the Strategic Planning path (Market Research and Account Planning), but also includes courses in Creative Writing and Storytelling, Advertising and Sales Promotion, Global Cultures: Anthropology and Sociology, and Design Strategies in Communication.

While those are the courses specifically, on a higher level, let me talk about the differences between these three general Professional Paths. Strategic Planning is very much about coordinating integrated strategies–everything from developing insights to weaving those insights into a strategy that then becomes a narrative or a larger strategic path. Brand Strategy, on the other hand, requires pulling from different skill sets and disciplines in order to develop a more comprehensive brand strategy–that is why we have classes in storytelling, advertising and sales, design, and global cultures. It is all about designing a human-centered experience that creates emotional resonance, which is at the heart of branding.

Digital Strategy is all about what is happening online. Digital marketing is such a loaded term for all that is happening right now, so this path is about equipping students with fundamental and advanced skills in areas such as descriptive data analytics and predictive models, user experience design, civic media design, and content marketing.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What does it mean to be an empathetic marketing and creative professional, and how does this program provide students with the insights and skills to develop empathetic integrated marketing and communication plans, campaigns, and initiatives?

[Brenna McCormick] I am so glad that you asked that question, because Emerson is a unique college in that empathy is part of the Emerson DNA, as are creativity and communication. What I hear from so many of my graduate students is that they come to Emerson because they are interested in gaining the skills to realize their higher purpose.

For example, we have one student who majored in Public Relations as an undergraduate. She started her own boutique agency and found herself working with restaurants and nightclubs initially, before she got a client who was an organization committed to environmental conservation. They had asked her to create a website informing people about the land and its heritage. And she shared with me, “This has such meaning. And this is what I realized I wanted to be devoting my professional energy towards.” I feel like it is these kinds of students who come to Emerson–to the SMC program as well as to other programs here. There is a sense of, “How do I do this with purpose? How do I do this with a mind towards being a change agent? How can I contribute to changing the industry for the better, and come from a place of caring and awareness, rather than from the mindset of, ‘I’m just going to sell some stuff.’”

There are not a lot of egos in our program. Rather, we have creative, thoughtful, and collaborative thinkers who are curious about how they can do the right thing, and how to pair the right thing with really great strategy. Something that excites me so much about our program is the conversations our students have about how they can be more ethical marketing practitioners. Both in my work with undergrads and graduate students at Emerson, they are very aware of the social, cultural, and ethical implications of different marketing strategies.

They are asking questions like, “What does this makeup company or skincare company represent? Who are the people they are showing in their ads, and to whom are they speaking? Are they being exclusive, and if so in what ways?” I think that we, as an industry, are doing better about reflecting on the impact of our marketing strategies and practices, and it starts with our students and training them to be above all things critical, ethical, and empathetic thinkers. We ask questions such as, “How do we care about all stakeholders? How do we really embody the values of the brand? How do we create a campaign that is meaningful, and isn’t just taking up more media space?”

Answering these questions comes down to understanding what your audience cares about, and that can be achieved through customer surveying and figuring out what resonates with them on the individual, community, and cultural levels. It also involves not necessarily jumping on a given bandwagon, but rather taking a wider view in order to see what’s happening on the periphery.

In our classes we make a lot of use of case studies focused on business challenges. We have a great balance of core concepts that students should know about, principles around how they can be strong practitioners in their field, and training our students to be more open-minded in their approach, to embrace creativity and look at many different solutions instead of just one. If you are able to gather more information and really sit with that data before making a decision, and ask yourself questions such as, “What is the challenge that I’m trying to solve here?” rather than, “What is it that my client wants me to do?” — that is where you arrive at better solutions. So from the very beginning of the program, students get an introduction to both sides of marketing–the data-informed strategy aspects, and the creative thinking and communication aspects.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication complete a Capstone project. Could you please explain what the required deliverables are for the capstone, and the steps that students undertake to complete them?

[Brenna McCormick] I have taught the Capstone Course for a number of years, as have other faculty members. We have students work in teams with clients on a specific challenge during the semester. We choose clients to work with based on the challenge they need solved and whether it will employ students’ skills in strategic marketing. We want students to have hands-on experience in developing a strategic marketing plan, from research and insights to brand strategy and communication strategy. And, we have had some clients hire students to execute the campaign that they have designed.

Our clients have included organizations like Citizens Bank, where they asked our students to design an employer brand marketing campaign and strategy that would connect with Millennials. Our students quickly identified that the population Citizens Bank really wanted to connect with was the younger generation of mobile users, recently referred to as iGen, and they just didn’t know it yet. It was really gratifying to see how the folks at Citizens Bank were excited by the insights and recommendations our students had for them.

Another very different client example–and one of my favorites–is Plymouth Bay Winery. The owners of this winery reached out to me in January of 2020 and said, “We’ve heard about your program and we’d love to be clients–we’re looking at how we can better promote ourselves.” I was really excited to hear from them, and so I told them, “I’ll be in touch!” A few months later, I was able to secure them a client position with our program, right about the time that COVID-19 lockdown took place, and they told me, “We have a whole new set of challenges that we’re facing.” It was a true privilege to work with them during the COVID-19 quarantine mandates, when businesses were facing novel challenges and opportunities.

One of the most important things about the Capstone experience–in addition to allowing students to apply the knowledge from all of their classes to a concrete project–is the client-team relationship. In this case, it was such a joy to work with Pam and Mike, the owners of Plymouth Bay Winery, because they were the most wonderful, kind, fun people who made it a joyous experience throughout. It is also gratifying to students to see how award-winning companies and organizations need skillful marketers.

You can do many case studies on companies such as Nike, Starbucks, Target, Apple, and you can look at the campaigns that, say, Wieden+Kennedy creates for Nike and think, “Wow, everybody knows exactly what they’re doing.” And then in Capstone, students actually see the process behind those campaigns, and connect with the real people running these successful businesses, and we get to ask them questions about their vision, and learn about their struggles, and we see that the path to success is less direct and more complex.

For example, several of our students asked Pam and Mike, “Where do you envision your brand in the next few years? Do you have a competitor that you look up to?” And what Mike and Pam said was surprising, because it wasn’t another winery that they looked up to. They saw themselves evolving into more of a Stonewall Kitchen, which is a local, very New England brand, where you would typically buy your classic jar of blueberry jam with Maine blueberries in it, and other delicious, artisan, locally grown and made goods. And for our students, that comparison just clicked, because Plymouth Bay Winery sells fruit-based wines, by which I mean wines that are made with fermented fruits other than grapes, such as cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc. These wines have a completely different taste than conventional grape-based wines, and they are just so delicious, but they aren’t generally known to the wider public. So figuring out how to educate the public about these amazing wines and also the other fruit-based offerings Plymouth Bay Winery had was a central goal for our students that year.

The Capstone truly embodies what our program is all about, because it centers on using all of the knowledge students have gained to understand and address a client’s needs with empathy and purpose. Through the Capstone students get a preview of all the elements and steps that go into a marketing campaign. In the real world, professionals may take a section of the campaign’s development, such as the market research, or the pitch, or the whole campaign concept. Through the Capstone, students get a sense of what is happening in each of the moving pieces that then make the campaign. They are required to work as a team through each of those parts–if a student is a graphic designer by profession, he or she will still be involved in the Capstone’s market research, while the brand strategists amongst our cohort will get exposure to the design aspects that they previously might not have seen or worked with.

Exposing students to every piece of the campaign development puzzle gives them the vocabulary and the foundational understanding to approach myriad marketing challenges with confidence. When you are collaborating, whether that is on the agency side or the client side, it’s important that you are able to speak the same language and have the same context as the other people you are working with.

For the Capstone, students are broken up into teams, which is advantageous in the fact that they can develop completely different approaches to solving a marketing or branding challenge, leaving the client to decide what works best for them. With the example of Plymouth Bay Winery, one team envisioned the Winery as a delicious and indulgent lifestyle brand, based on the many different fruit-based offerings the Winery provides. The other team saw an opportunity to introduce fruit-based wine to new, curious beverage drinkers. They found this incredible statistic that 85 percent of people who drink beer are willing to drink a cider or a sweeter wine. This statistic led to questions such as, “How do we introduce this brand to a younger demographic?” Their insights helped Mike and Pam see that they could lean into their quirky and fun personalities and develop external-facing media that was really playful and irreverent, content that would appeal to a younger audience.

Last summer we also worked with a startup called Voicelets, which was using voice technology, specifically Amazon Alexa, to create quizlets for users of Alexa. It was very tech-heavy, and the organization was looking mainly at an audience of teachers and parents. In this case determining the end user was key–was it elementary, middle school, or high school students? Capstone is infinitely fascinating to me as a course because it concerns real client challenges, and no two challenges are exactly the same.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?

[Brenna McCormick] As an alumnus of this program, I know from firsthand experience that the faculty for the SMC program are an incredibly accessible group. I am the main advisor, but students find mentors amongst their instructors and even their peers within the program. Mentorship is an interesting concept as it is different for each person. Perhaps your mentor is someone who is doing something you admire, or perhaps it is someone who is doing something radically different from your way of thinking about things, and you value that perspective. I feel that mentorship happens so readily in our program because faculty are so accessible, and so generous with their time. No matter how busy they are, they will always stop to meet with students because that is at the heart of what we do.

The culture of mentorship and openness in our program cascades down into student-to-student mentorship, which we see at play in our incredible and very close-knit alumni network. Even across the different iterations of the program, whether it was under the IMC or SMC designation, our alumni come back to mentor subsequent generations of students. We’ve been around for a long time, and in those years our alumni have developed strong careers in a wide variety of sectors. And yet they don’t forget about the community they had here, because if a current student has a question about a particular field, I can almost always refer them to someone in our alumni network. Those introductions just enrich students’ experience and the program’s community further.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students who are interested in Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Brenna McCormick] When I look at applications that come in, I am looking for passion and curiosity and also a sense that the student has really done their homework on the program. A generic statement about how they love and want to explore marketing is not as compelling as a statement that tells a story about why you’re passionate about marketing and what in the SMC program specifically is of interest to you in helping you achieve your goals. If you look at your personal statement and it could be sent to any number of colleges or universities’ graduate programs, then I advise doing more research and tailoring your statement significantly more, because admissions committees can tell who is genuinely interested in the program and who is sending many different applications without much discernment.

At Emerson we look at students’ SMC applications very holistically. I love to see letters of recommendation from both academics and employers. Letters of recommendation from current and previous employers add a personal narrative to the applicant’s resume–here’s the work that you talked about and are passionate about, and here is someone talking about how you did an amazing job changing their business or being a part of their team. Letters of recommendation that show how you brought this extra something to the work that you were doing for them, and how you in turn would make a great member of our community, really get our attention.

I look at applications as an overall, interwoven piece that paints a picture of the candidate. In addition to academics, we like to look at the whole story, and we’re really looking for that passion as demonstrated in students’ personal statement, work history, and letters of recommendation and how that applicant will contribute to the community of the SMC program at Emerson College

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Brenna McCormick] The accessibility and generosity of the faculty is one of the things that makes this program so amazing, and our students reciprocate that generosity with their time, engagement, and insights, both in the classroom and long after they graduate. Every time we have spring orientation, I reach out to some past alumni and ask them if they’d like to be there to help welcome incoming students, and so many of them come back and are genuinely excited to talk to our students. And each year, our students blow us away with their energy and excitement at learning from our faculty.

In terms of the content and skills students learn, there are so many things that our program does well, but one thing we are known for is being really passionate about branding–brand storytelling and brand strategy. We have a reputation amongst the industry as well–I often feel like one of the best forms of marketing is word of mouth, as it is genuine, personal, and the result of our building a reputation of excellence and truly helping students in their careers. Word of mouth is the best form of marketing praise in my opinion. And I can speak from my own experience that Emerson’s program (then called the IMC program) changed my life, not just in terms of my career but also how I approached creative thinking and problem solving in all aspects of my daily work, my career and even my personal endeavors.

Thank you, Ms. McCormick, for your excellent insight into Emerson College’s Master of Arts in Strategic Marketing Communication!