UVA Darden Professor Kimberly Whitler Helps Students and CEOs Build Their Brands
By Jen A. Miller
While working on her MBA, University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Kimberly Whitler took a class in marketing and “loved it,” she said. “It was a class that focused on an enterprise-wide view of growth. My mind expanded in a way that no other class had allowed it to expand. And of course, the professor was dynamic and brought the real-world into the classroom.”
That led to an internship with Procter & Gamble (P&G), where she worked in brand management, global strategy and international marketing for nine years. There, she learned that brands don’t become household names by accident. They “engineer growth,” she said. “They were constantly conducting research to improve processes and create greater value for consumers, in an effort to unlock profitable growth.”
P&G also had “a deep respect for the capability of their competitors,” she added, instead of being dismissive or even arrogant, which she has seen sink other once major brands.
Despite her early success in corporate marketing, it came at a cost: she was working all the time. A pastor noticed, and suggested she read Halftime by Bob Buford. From that book, she learned that most people have a midlife crisis “because they live the first few decades of their lives chasing money, fame, fortune — shallow, superficial things,” she said. “People get to the middle of their lives and see that this is not fulfilling.”
Instead of continuing down that path, she decided to “plan for my midlife crisis,” she said. Her goal was to save as much as she could so that, at 40 years old, she could “pivot and do what I wanted to do, regardless of income.” Instead of sitting on a beach doing nothing (which she joked was on the early list of potential options until she spent 10 days doing this and was bored), she decided to get her Ph.D. in marketing and go into academia “to feed my own brain and spend time helping young people”
In her work, she strives to bring an upper-echelons perspective to marketing strategy, helping boards, CEOs, CMOs and top management teams “better understand and leverage marketing for their firm’s advantage,” she said.
Brand Positioning for Strategic Advantage
That is exactly what she hopes to achieve on a broad scale with her new book Positioning for Advantage: Techniques and Strategies to Grow Brand Value (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2021), a how-to guide for creating, building and executing effective brand strategies. She wrote it with the goal of bridging the divide between the academic and business worlds.
“On the practitioner side, many books are filled with interesting stories and anecdotes. On the academic side, you have important theory and textbooks often filled with a lot of vocabulary. This is a critical foundation, but there is what I call a ‘theory-doing gap.’ Students want to understand how to identify a differentiated market position that leads to superior market share. This book introduces tools — repeatable processes and systematic, data-based approaches — that can help bridge the theory-doing gap,” she said. It helps address the question aspiring C-level marketers and executives often ask: What is the science behind identifying a superior market position?
Athlete Branding for a New Era of College Sports
Whitler is a huge fan of UVA men’s basketball. “My favorite time of year is coming up,” she said during a phone interview this fall while her dog, Maddie, tried to jump into her lap.
That might seem obvious for a professor at UVA, but it’s also become part of her work. Whitler, who studies how to engineer brand value and growth, is helping student-athletes, who can now financially profit off their name image and likeness (NIL), build brands of their own without making a misstep. While new opportunities around NIL open new doors for student-athletes, they also invite new risks.
“These student-athletes are young and have varying degrees of knowledge of business. They can easily be taken advantage of,” she said.
Whitler, who was recruited by the United States Air Force Academy to play golf in college, created a kind of road map for student-athletes.
Through a partnership with the UVA athletics department and a grant from Darden Dean Scott Beardsley, she and McIntire School of Commerce alumnus Jay Hodgkins created a workbook that will help athletes design, activate and monetize their brands to achieve their goals and take advantage of the NIL landscape. The book will be out this spring from Darden Business Publishing.
Agencies are pitching themselves to schools as partners to help students navigate the landscape, “but we don’t know which of these agencies are going to be reputable five years from now.” Plus, she added, student-athletes are busy. “They have zero time between sleep, school and athletics. Now we want to introduce the opportunity to ‘go spend time monetizing your brand?’ If they’re not directed in the right way, they could end up spending five, six, 10 hours a week trying to monetize their brand, when the best way they could really do that is through commitment to their sport and academics.”
The workbook walks student-athletes through four steps: one, setting a vision and goals; two, designing your brand; three, activating your brand; and four, monetizing your brand. For example, one chapter addresses the risks and rewards of different marketing channels. “If you sign autographs, that’s very low risk,” she said. “If you smile and shake hands, I doubt you’re going to say something controversial.” Social media, on the other hand, can be very high risk. Tweet the wrong thing, and a person’s brand can be destroyed in a flash. But when done right, it can net greater “annuity-like” rewards than just signing autographs, which is a one-time income generating activity.
Whitler is hoping that the book empowers student-athletes and “gives them agency to be able to control their own destiny.”
From undergrad student-athletes to Darden MBAs to corporate executives, Whitler has made a habit of helping people unlock the power of brand building to do just that.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 17,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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