U.S. Cellular dials up fresh ideas in two-day sessions

        To compete in a crowded cellphone marketplace, great technology alone won't cut it. In a field dominated by world-class advertisers, marketing is critical.
        So when Dave Kimbell, chief marketing officer and senior vice president at U.S. Cellular Corp., suggested doing a marketing training program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management for his team, CEO Mary Dillon quickly agreed.

        “We've always invested in a lot of great training and development at U.S. Cellular, but frankly, we hadn't really been doing it in the world of marketing,” she acknowledges.

        With more than 300 employees, the marketing department encompasses responsibilities such as pricing, social media, vendor partnerships and promotion planning. Some employees have worked there for less than a year, others for decades. “We wanted to provide a common framework within marketing,” Mr. Kimbell says, “so we're speaking the same language.”

        Held last March, the two-day session was organized with the help of Eric Leininger, marketing professor at Kellogg. The training began with opening comments from Ms. Dillon, a former chief marketing officer at McDonald's Corp. She told the 40 attendees that she saw marketing as an engine to drive growth. “It was important for people to hear how excited I was about possibilities and what I thought it could lead to, in terms of improved results,” she says.

        U.S. Cellular Corp.

        2011 revenue: $4.34 billion (most recent available)

        Number of participants: 40

        Duration of university-based training: Two-day session (one held last year, and another slated for March)
        Topics included the fundamentals of branding strategy, marketing plans and consumer insights. “It wasn't necessarily that these were radically new concepts,” Mr. Kimbell says. But the training did instill a common framework that his team references throughout the year. (Some employees still have handouts from the sessions tacked to their office walls.)
        The training, he says, has led to noticeable improvements. It helped staff members think in a more strategic way about the marketing mission and how to advance it, Mr. Kimbell says.
        Ms. Dillon agrees. “In terms of return on investment, the application started immediately,” she says.
        Next month, U.S. Cellular plans to have another two-day training session at Kellogg, with the same group of marketers. The group will take basic marketing elements discussed at the first session and look more closely at how they fit into U.S. Cellular's broader business strategy. Says Mr. Kimbell: “This is a complex, competitive industry we're in, and one of the things we want our entire marketing team to do is think not just as advertising or supply-chain leaders but as business owners.”

        By: Sandra A. Swanson February 18, 2013  --- Reprinted with permission from Crain’s Business Chicago.
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