Illinois Graduates Inaugural Cohort of the Strategic Brand Communication Master’s Degree Program

By Molly Leahy, Communications and Marketing Intern

After 15 months together in the inaugural strategic brand communication (SBC) program, students met in person for the first time at their graduation ceremony on October 27, greeting each other with hugs in Gregory Hall.

The SBC master’s degree program is a collaboration between the College of Media, Gies College of Business, and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL). It is the first of its kind to be offered completely online.

“Every single course was extremely valuable,” said Emilie Vicchio, based out of San Diego. She was one of 29 students in the first SBC cohort. “My company was growing and I was able to directly apply [what I learned].”

The program is a blend of the benefits of a master’s degree in advertising and an MBA—it gives students the best of both worlds and focuses on topics like brand strategy, business operations, and media management. Shachar Meron, academic director of the program and lecturer in advertising, said the program was created to provide an opportunity for people to advance their careers online.

“There’s definitely an interest in online learning and how you can advance your education and career without having to completely disrupt your life by pausing your career or having to move to a different location,” Meron said.

two students at a graduation ceremony hugging “We are very pleased to collaborate with Gies College of Business to offer this cutting-edge program that was developed for students who want to learn strategies for effective brand management,” said Tracy Sulkin, dean of the College of Media. “The courses were carefully curated and will equip them with relevant skills to advance their careers.”

“For businesses in today’s global marketplace, communicating a brand strongly and consistently is essential,” said Jeffrey R. Brown, Josef and Margot Lakonishok Professor of Business and Dean of Gies College of Business. “The SBC degree brings together the strengths of the faculty in Gies Business and Media to develop individuals who are prepared to provide needed leadership in brand messaging.”

Most of the graduates have been working in the industry for a while, with a variety of backgrounds, and were able to learn from each other’s experiences. Through U of I’s expertise in both business and media, students benefited from the latest research and practical applications in the field.

“There’s a lot of value in the expertise of the faculty, who brought great and diverse perspectives to [the program],” said Kim Gudeman, director of communications for the Coordinated Science Lab at Illinois. “We had such a great cohort; I learned as much from my peers, who were in Fortune 500 companies to very small organizations, jack-of-all-trades to masters of one, media and brand management to creative strategy.”

CITL director Michel Bellini was excited to see the Department of Business Administration in Gies College of Business and the Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising in the College of Media come together. With the help of CITL, they developed an extensive online program that prepares students to be leaders in the field.

man in front of tv with multiple screens on the television“The intellectual input is coming from the faculty themselves, so the idea is to look holistically about what each department wants to achieve with the program and advise and guide faculty,” Bellini said. “They can really develop the course the right way with the right technologies and embed it throughout the whole program.”

While the program is composed of a variety of elements, the degree focuses on a common element: branding. Meron said the program is centered on understanding brand strategy, whether it’s the creation of a brand or how a brand fits into a company’s larger context.

“One of the really fun things about the program is you look at [brands] in a different way,” Meron said.

For Darrel Smith and Jacqueline Smith, the program held an additional bonus. The married couple decided to take the class together to build their joint expertise. “We did it together because it was the best fit for our business—we’re starting a vodka company,” said Darrel.

The SBC program also offers three-course certificates and individual course options. For more information, go to

(At top: Eighteen of the 29 graduates in the first SBC cohort were able to attend graduation. Middle: Students exchanged hugs after meeting each other in person for the first time. Bottom: Advertising lecturer Steve Raquel, who teaches SBC 502, talks to the second cohort during the live portion of the class.)