The millennial challenge: Capstone course pushes students to reach young consumers

Five students standing together

Millennials—people in their 20s and 30s who skip advertisements and traditional media in favor of YouTube and Instagram—are important apparel consumers, but also tricky ones to reach.

Who else but a millennial, then, could solve the challenge of marketing to this selective audience?

This spring, merchandising students at Washington State University worked with retailer Nordstrom and trade organization Cotton Incorporated to solve the real-world problem of connecting with the millennial generation.

Putting themselves in the role of professional merchandisers, 15 teams of students were tasked with raising awareness of Cotton Incorporated’s environmentally sustainable practices, or planning a collaboration for Nordstrom that pairs a retail brand with a fashionable celebrity.

“These students are solving problems that our industry is working on right now,” said AMDT chair Joan Ellis, who coached seven teams for the Cotton Incorporated challenge. “Companies really want to know how to connect with a selective consumer like the millennial. It’s a real challenge, and there’s no one right answer.”

Student talking in front of screen projection of color swatches
Yitao Qu shares design details of his team’s pairing of millennial fashion blogger
Aspyn Ovard and clothing company MadeWell.

Now in its second year, the capstone challenge draws on four years of AMDT coursework and preparation—from forecasting, teambuilding and textile knowledge to technical skills in Photoshop and Excel.

Students worked with AMDT Advisory Board members Holly Thrasher, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Nordstrom, and Mark Messura, senior vice president for global supply chain marketing with Cotton Incorporated, to share real industry perspectives on their proposals.

“In AMDT, the challenge is to prepare students to enter the industry,” said Messura. “But in the capstone class, we get a chance to go the other way—industry enters the classroom.

Final presentations will be shared with the industry representatives, and the class is also a competition, with top proposals winning prizes.

“Smart, effective marketing programs targeting the right consumer segments, combined with an awareness of design and key issues such as sustainability, are exactly the challenges that we in business face every day,” said Messura. “Students face these challenges head-on through the capstone class in a way that will be no different than their first week on the job. It’s the best preparation possible.”

Connecting through social media

Five students in front of banister.
Capstone course teammates Yitao Qu, Ryan Kauffman, Emma Vogelman,
Julia Hines and Chanté Ho.

In the Nordstrom challenge, eight student teams taught by Assistant Professor Jihyeong Son were asked to pair a fashion celebrity with a brand for a temporary, holiday-season campaign aimed at shoppers ages 18-40. Every one of the student teams chose a fashion blogger or YouTube channel host as their personality.

“Online bloggers are millennial opinion leaders,” said Son. “When millennials search for fashions, they’re browsing social media, Instagram and YouTube. They feel attached to online celebrities—they’re fashionable, and they aspire to their lifestyle.”

“As young customers, we know what we want,” said merchandising student Chanté Ho.

She, along with teammates Yitao Qu, Julia Hines, Emma Vogelman and Ryan Kauffman paired MadeWell, a vintage-inspired clothing company, with Aspyn Ovard, a YouTube fashion blogger with more than two million followers.

“We liked how her personal style and interest in travel meshed with millennials’ desire to travel,” said Hines.

“Our generation wants to travel, and wants experiences. We’re interning and working abroad after graduation, instead of settling down,” said Vogelman.

“Millennials are introducing a new economy,” she added.

“This project has really challenged me to think more broadly about finding products that suits more people’s needs,” said senior Ashley Lindstrom.

She was part of a Cotton Incorporated student team that explored recycling and donation programs that show how industry can give back to the environment, and used Instagram and bloggers to reach their target audience.

“Coming together as a group, brainstorming and accepting all ideas, we worked towards the best product that we can successfully pitch to our client,” Lindstrom said.

“This project makes all of us more competitive in joining the workforce,” she added.