BY KEVIN MOE
A major company has a dilemma with one of its brands. You are tasked with preparing a case analysis and presenting your best recommendations on how to rectify the situation. You have 30 hours.
Brand management students get this taste of the high-pressure world of marketing at the Elite Eight Brand Management Case Competition, held at the school annually for the past 10 years. This three-day competition brings together top students from across the country to apply their considerable marketing skills to derive solutions to vexing marketing problems.
Eight student teams are presented with a strategic brand management challenge currently faced by a partner company, which in the past has included the likes of Target, 3M, Best Buy, and General Mills. After their allotted 30 hours, each team presents its findings to a panel of expert judges, allowing the partner companies the opportunity to critically assess students’ brand management, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. The top three teams earn cash prizes.
Putting Skills to the Test
Many of the students who participate in Elite Eight do so to better their understanding of the brand management world and to connect with others in the field. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to put the skills I learned at the Carlson School to the test,” says Stephanie Lay, a member of the third-place-winning 2007 team. “Also, I was interested in interacting with students from other schools and learning how they would approach a similar business challenge.” Just as many students have found that the skill sets they developed during the competition have translated into valuable resources in their professional lives.
“One thing I can say is that the experience of the case competition is hands down the best way to determine your strengths and weaknesses as a business professional,” says Wes Whalberg, ’10 MBA, a member of the 2009 team. “You have a certain amount of time to give a problem everything you’ve got. You get tired, you get frustrated, and you actually begin to lose your nerve after about 18 hours straight with nothing in your stomach but scones and coffee. This is the true test to see if everything you have been studying and taking quizzes and tests on really stuck to you.”
Whalberg’s case dealt with a technology company that had a product it did not know how to market. “It was a huge struggle to decide how to start. The truth of the fact was that no amount of pre-work could prepare you for the real thing,” he says. “The best way to prepare would be to go through an actual case competition ahead of time with the group. Doing this is next to impossible, however, and that is why the real thing is so valuable. Other than joining a case competition, nobody will subject themselves to anything close to that level of output.”
Whalberg says it is undeniable that case competitions are helpful in future careers. “They embolden you to realize what you are capable of under pressure,” he says. “It forces you to face your weaknesses head on, rather than dwell on what they might be during your interview preparation. It makes you understand how important teamwork and communication are, and it forces you to trust your teammates. All of these things are heavily promoted at the Carlson School, but never as aggressively as in a case competition.”
Micah Blum, ’09 MBA, was a member of a 2007 team and echoes many of Whalberg’s sentiments, especially the experiences he was able to draw upon in his career. “Participating in the case gave me practical experience in structuring and framing brand-related challenges,” he says. “Ultimately, participating in the case helped push me to concentrate on marketing and join the Brand Enterprise, which had a dramatic impact on my experience at the Carlson School.”
Blum’s team worked on a case for a local company’s bottled water product—in particular, how to increase sales. “Our proposals ranged from introducing new ‘international’ flavors to showcase during a sales event to suggesting new displays that differentiated the water on the shelves,” he says.
Intense Preparation Required
The preparation work necessary to arrive at these suggestions was immense. Katie Primmer, ’08 MBA, one of Blum’s teammates, says they were relentless about preparing beforehand and a commitment to that was a prerequisite when selecting students to be on the team. Some of the things the team did was interviewing previous participants, researching local companies which could be subject matter for the case, preparing email lists for a survey, reviewing reference books to identify marketing strategies, creating presentation templates, and holding numerous team meetings. “We also reached out to several of our marketing professors, such as Mark Bergen, Seth Warner, and Om Narasimhan, who were extremely helpful as resources before and during the competition,” she says.
Blum says that during the prep sessions, the team attempted to identify each person’s relative strengths and their interests to ensure that the best skills were leveraged. “For example, a few team members were more interested in presenting than others,” he says. “This led our team to select three team members to lead the presentation portion, which seemed to increase the presentation’s effectiveness. We all contributed content, challenged each other’s ideas, and worked together to produce a pretty exceptional volume of ideas.”
Primmer says she really appreciated such an opportunity to work on a substantial, real-life case, despite the grueling nature of the competition. “Some people are scared off by the intense situation the competition requires, but that just makes it even more rewarding and delivers enormous growth and learning in a short amount of time,” she says. “The feeling of accomplishment was similar to running a marathon, but students are already constantly in training…why not run the race?”