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Louisiana firm turns
black consumer marketing effort into college outreach program
(July 26, 2009) What began 10 years ago as an effort by McIlhenny Co. to
reach out to African-American consumers has evolved into an educational
program that has given dozens of Louisiana college students hands-on
training in corporate marketing.
"Tabasco University: Promoting Education and Research" is a
collaboration between several historically black Louisiana universities
and the New Iberia (La.) company that makes Tabasco brand pepper sauce.
Through the program, undergraduate marketing students create Tabasco
marketing campaigns while serving as ambassadors for the brand on their
The program was launched in 1999 after McIlhenny executives realized
that the company's products, though stocked at Buckingham Palace and in
pantries around the globe, were considered "too hot" by many in the
African-American community, said Ron Thompson of Beuerman Miller
Fitzgerald, a New Orleans marketing firm that works with the company.
The program's inaugural year was set up as a competition between
marketing students at Grambling State University in north Louisiana and
Xavier University in New Orleans. The students were asked to use a
hypothetical budget to create a campaign promoting Tabasco as the pepper
sauce of choice in African-American homes.
"We wanted to engage the students as consumers and ask them what they
knew about the brand," said Martin Manion, vice president of marketing
at McIlhenny. The program marked the first time the company had
participated in a grass-roots effort and engaged college interns.
Over the years, the program has expanded to include Dillard University
and Southern University in Baton Rouge.
The task for the interns is the same each year: how better to turn a
product created in 1868 in rural Louisiana into something chic and cool
enough for the college set weaned on product-placement and slick
At each participating university, two interns are chosen by their
academic advisers to create a Tabasco marketing plan. They then travel
to the company's headquarters at Avery Island, where they meet with CEO
Paul McIlhenny, tour the plant, and present their marketing plans to
McIlhenny executives. They're then sent into the field, or in this case,
their respective campuses.
The students put Tabasco on stage at fraternity and sorority events,
offer Tabasco merchandise prizes during basketball half-times and
conduct taste tests during major campus events.
The interns -- usually juniors and seniors -- are paid for their
part-time, on-campus work. Their advisers are given an honorarium as
well, and the company donates money to campus marketing clubs since
those students help the interns with their promotions.
One idea generated by the student interns led to a promotion that
McIlhenny began using for the general public. In 2003, McIlhenny teamed
up with Pizza Hut on a Cajun Meat Lovers promotion that called for
placing minibottles of Tabasco in the box with each pie sold.
"With the bread and cheese and sauce, pizza is a perfect entry food for
us," Manion said.
According to Thompson, the promotion was one of the highest sales volume
promotions local Pizza Hut franchisees had ever done.
But McIlhenny gets more than new ideas from the college students it
works with. The company also gets a glimpse of the taste preferences of
their next generation of consumers. A survey conducted by Xavier
marketing students revealed that the spices and flavors that
African-Americans use today are almost 90 percent of what Mom and
Grandma used, according to Joe Ricks, a Xavier University marketing
professor who has worked with the program since its inception.
"If they can get this group to start using Tabasco, what it suggests is
that tradition will continue throughout their family life," he said. "If
you get them now, you get a family of users."
Ten years into the program, Ricks has been asked by the McIlhenny
company to quantify the results of the promotional efforts.
"With the amount of exposure you're having, you would expect some
increase in brand recognition, product knowledge," Ricks said. "It's
important to give your partners in the community some value and be able
to document that value."
A few years ago, McIlhenny took another step in its effort to reach out
to African-American consumers by targeting a place where people and food
connect: the church community. The company published a cookbook
featuring recipes collected from nine African-American congregations in
the state, all using Tabasco sauces. "Many of these recipes had never
been written down, just passed from one generation to the next,"
Thompson said. In fact, McIlhenny had a home economist work with the
recipe creators to quantify combinations usually conveyed as a pinch or
The first printing of "The Flavor of the Family Cookbook" was 2,500
copies and was followed by a second printing of twice as many. The
cookbooks sell for $7.50 by the churches and in the McIlhenny stores and
online. The proceeds go to the churches, Thompson said.
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