About Shachar Meron, M.S.: Shachar Meron is the Academic Director of the Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As Academic Director, he oversees curriculum, faculty resourcing, and student recruitment and admissions. In addition, he teaches classes in advertising strategy and creative campaigns as a Lecturer in the undergraduate Advertising program, including that program’s capstone course, The Sandage Project.

Prior to his role in academic program development and instruction, Mr. Meron worked as a brand strategist and creative director, serving clients such as Nordstrom, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola, and Boeing. He also co-founded and managed BatesMeron Design, a boutique branding agency, as well as Redacted, the largest copywriter association in Chicago at the time. Mr. Meron earned his Bachelor of Science in Advertising and his Master of Science in Advertising from the University of Illinois.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Shachar Meron] One of the things that makes our program unique is the fact that it is a joint effort between the University of Illinois’ Department of Advertising in the College of Media, and the Gies College of Business. As such, it combines courses in consumer insights and messaging, along with training in business concepts and strategies that are central to connecting with customers. Our program covers all channels of commercial communication, including paid, earned, shared, and owned media. We come together as a faculty at least once per semester to discuss our classes and the composition of the program curriculum.

The Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication is the first program of its kind at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and was the result of wanting to cater to the interests of professionals who want to become business leaders, but who are more interested in the brand management and strategy side as opposed to finance, supply chain management or pricing strategy. Through our research, we found that there is a growing number of people who are really interested in working with brands: brand strategy at a marketing, branding, or advertising agency, or at a large company such as Google or All State Insurance on the brand management side.

The program is comprised of 12 courses that students take in sequence over 15 months. It is cohort-driven, meaning that a group of students begin the first class at the same time in August and they complete all classes together.

What we’ve found is the strongest aspect of this program is the people—we have students who are eager to implement what they have learned directly into their job. Some of them work in marketing or sales, or digital media, and are interested in moving more into the strategy side of things. Some of our students are entrepreneurs with a technology or product development background, and who want the strategic branding and communication skills to launch their products and services.

Students take classes on strategic media management, promotions, and messaging. They also learn the essentials of business management, consumer insights, strategic branding from a global perspective, project and team management, and how to assess the efficacy of various campaigns and use those insights to improve campaigns.

The first courses start at a very high level to provide an overview of the industry, including the world of brands, target audiences, the concept of consumer insights, messaging, and positioning, organizational identity, and the process of branding and rebranding. Consumer insights is an important part of our curriculum, and we actually have two classes devoted to it because so much of effective branding is about understanding your target audience and knowing how a consumer thinks. The measurement and evaluation classes give students the tactical skills in analysis and data visualization. And then the program wraps up with the capstone project.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication is delivered entirely online. Could you elaborate on the online technologies that this program uses to facilitate student interactions with peers and faculty?

[Shachar Meron] We use the platform Blackboard, which allows every course to have its own webpage where you can look up the syllabus and video lectures and engage in discussion boards and forums. Instructors regularly post prompts that students must respond to in the forums and bounce ideas off of each other.

We also use Zoom for live sessions. While this is an asynchronous program, meaning you never have to all log in at the same time and receive lectures in video format, we invite all students to meet for a broader discussion in real-time once a week. If a student has to miss the meeting because of a job or family conflict, there is always a way to make it up without it impacting your grade, as we have students in different time zones and with varying professional schedules. We actually see a really great turnout for these live sessions.

These live sessions really help to build camaraderie within the student cohort, with many students becoming friends even before they meet in person. They learn what the different backgrounds are of the people in their cohort, and what their strengths are. And from there they can build their own network. Faculty also offer online office hours during a set period of time, and by appointment.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication program must complete an SBC Professional Capstone Project. Could you elaborate on the capstone, and what it entails?

[Shachar Meron] The capstone project does vary from year to year based on what the instructor has in mind, but in its essence it is the development of a full branding and marketing plan for a particular brand or organization. And the organization and challenge are both real-world so that students can interact with actual challenges that an organization faces, and how to resolve them.

For the first year, the organization was the Strategic Branding and Communication program itself, and involved taking the SBC program and providing a comprehensive analysis of the program’s current marketing strategy, and a full plan for branding, messaging, and marketing. The project involved students interviewing people, completing a great deal of primary and secondary research, and formulating recommendations for how to evolve the SBC brand to appeal to different audiences.

The capstone culminates in a full marketing plan discussing how you might design and implement various creative concepts for campaigns, and how you might spend the media budget. The capstone is a group project, so students break into groups to develop this deliverable. As this program grows and evolves, we might bring on multiple clients for students to choose from, but for now we are keeping it at the single client that the class works on together. The instructor serves as the primary mentor for all students in the class.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication program? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?

[Shachar Meron] Much of the mentorship that occurs in the program is the result of conversations that students have with their instructors in the class. As I teach the introductory course, I’m really lucky that I get to meet each of the students right out of the gate. And many of them ask me for advice about industries of interest to them, as well as their current work at their place of employment, such as specific projects they are working on and how to optimize the presentation of them. For example, one of our students was launching a vodka brand that was his own creation, and he had some questions about segmenting audiences. We’ve had other students who work for an organization that is undergoing a brand identity transformation that is not going very well, and they want to discuss how the concepts we learn in class could apply to improving their company’s strategy.

I am highly available for office hour chats, during which I provide career advice, academic support, and connections to other faculty members whose expertise I feel would benefit the student. Many of my colleagues mentor students in a similar way, in that students will meet an instructor that has a great deal of knowledge and they think, “I really want to know more about this topic that we discussed in class.” And that serves as a mentorship opportunity for students as well.

This mentorship continues after graduation. From the class we graduated last year, I’ve already been speaking with alumni who reach out to me saying, “I’m at this new job now and I wondered if you have some advice.” So I generally feel like once I’ve been your professor once, I am always your professor, and this mindset is a common one amongst faculty members in the SBC program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication program, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Shachar Meron] In terms of how to be competitive, I think showing that you are someone who can be a self-starter is important. And we tend to naturally attract self-starters. What we look for is someone who has grown beyond receiving assignments and executing on them, and really wants to shift to being more proactive—someone who wants to become a leader in the space. So an application that showcases this kind of proactivity is particularly attractive to us. I recommend that students describe the initiative they have taken at their company, or something they have started on their own, such as a blog. The type of person who is eager to create something out of nothing will do very well in our program. Students are also required to submit three letters of recommendation, which can come from either academic or professional references.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Shachar Meron] I think that we attract a lot of business-oriented people who are also creative and want to focus on brand identity and evolution, which makes for a unique learning environment. The diversity within our program is also a strength. We have students who are recent grads, as well as professionals who have been in various industries for decades. We have students whose background has been in sales for the past 10 years, and people who have worked in computer science and coding. These divergent experiences can be particularly advantageous for when a student wants to learn about a particular industry with which they are not familiar. When I have a student with precisely this background, I put them in the same discussion group and they can discuss their respective experiences. The young people in the program can learn a lot from the more seasoned professionals, and vice-versa. While we are growing quickly, we still have a very intimate feel where all the students know each other and the instructors can give a lot of individualized attention to each student.

The sense of community that is cultivated in this small and close-knit program is compelling. When we had our graduation just this past October, it felt like a reunion because we had all these people who have worked together closely for 15 months but who have never met face-to-face. And as soon as they all walk in the door, they are giving each other hugs and tearing up with people they’ve never met before. It was really amazing, and it made us realize that there is this impression sometimes that an online program might feel a little bit impersonal because you’re on one side of the screen, and they’re somewhere else on the other side of the screen. But a lot of human interaction goes on here, in many different ways, and it really creates this community feel. Our first student cohort took it upon themselves to create a student leadership committee, where they could communicate with each other and have a collective voice with the faculty to share any issues or thoughts. They’ve also created a LinkedIn alumni group where they now share job opportunities and career updates with each other.

One might initially assume that online education means that the connections among students and between students and faculty are somehow less close. But to be honest, I’ve found the exact opposite to be the case. Students who opt for online education are hard-working professionals who are also managing their personal and family lives, and it is this shared experience of pursuing higher education while still fighting fires at the workplace and managing a full life at home that connects our students at a deep and fundamental level. The live sessions that we host are excellent examples of this. I remember our first live session, everybody was trying be polished and professional; most had even dressed properly for the occasion.

And there was this one student whose five-year-old daughter was trying to sit on her lap, and she was trying to shoo her away. And after a while, she allowed her five-year-old to sit on her lap. And then everybody just brought their pets and their kids, and there was this great moment—the first live session of the cohort, where everybody just melted, and it was perfect. From then on, that session set the tone.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work, internships, coursework, and rigorous research projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?

[Shachar Meron] The first thing I would advise students to do is to look at those 15 months and map out their time in the program in relation to their other obligations. I also recommend that students work a little bit ahead if they can, which can give you more room to take care of other responsibilities should they come up in the middle of your term. A lot of our faculty try to release their video lectures and modules on day one so that people can work ahead a little bit.

We have group projects in many of our courses, and these at times can be a challenge to coordinate between students with different schedules and/or who live in different time zones. To overcome these challenges, I advise students communicate early and often with their teammates. Group work can be fantastic if everybody is on the same page about responsibilities and schedules.

Another piece of advice I have for students is to be organized with their goals, and to manage their own expectations. For a program that is 15 months long, with maybe just a week off here and there for Thanksgiving or spring break, it is very important that you manage expectations for yourself and know that this is a marathon. You can’t sprint for 15 months. You’ve got to pace yourself, and you have to be realistic about what you can achieve while balancing your other obligations. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Thank you, Shachar Meron, for your excellent insight into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Master of Science in Strategic Brand Communication program!