With ‘Rigor and Creativity,’ Wharton MBAs Win Wake Marketing Competition

Five Wharton MBA students (Iris Chin, WG’11, Jonathan Harmon, WG’11, Rebecca Ricalde, WG’11, Carolyn Schogol, C’05, WG’11, and Sodany Sor, WG’11) competed in the prestigious 21st annual Wake Forest Marketing Summit in February, came away the winners—and shared the $75,000 cash prize.

The team was tasked with creating a marketing strategy to grow the North Face brand over the next five years in a 36-hour competition against eight other MBA teams (in all, 126 MBA teams applied for the right to compete). The team received its case on Thursday evening at 8 p.m., and then had until 7 a.m. on Saturday morning to complete their plan. Later Saturday morning, they gave a 20-minute presentation to a panel of more than 20 judges (including North Face executives) and took another 20 minutes of questions. Though they didn’t know the details of the case before it was given to them, they did know in advance that it would be about North Face and they did significant research the month before the competition on the brand, its consumers, the industry and the competition to be prepared.

Sodany says that though none of them had ever participated in a case competition before, when they saw the size of the prize, she and her teammates decided to go for it.

Adds Jonathan: “While the prize money was certainly a motivating factor, it was the prospect of working with such interesting teammates and getting to know them better that prompted me to agree. The knowledge that I would have a fun and rewarding team experience regardless of the final result was decisive.”

Though this is the first time in recent years that Wharton Marketing Club students have participated in a case competition like this, the team hopes that future MBA students will give it a try as well. “It’s a real life test of what you’ve learned at Wharton and beyond,” Sodany says. “It’s an excellent way to bond with a small group of individuals … You have to really carefully manage group dynamics and figure out how to perform optimally under a very high stress situation. [And] it’s super interesting and intellectually challenging to figure out how to make an amazing successful brand grow even more. Regardless of what industry you’re going into, I think this will be relevant for future job.”

Their faculty advisor for the competition was my colleague Americus Reed. Americus is a deeply intellectual and rigorous scholar who studies how consumers’ identities influence their decision-making and consumption. He and I teach MKTG 622: Marketing Strategy (home to the dreaded and beloved SABRE simulation) and are research collaborators and co-advisors to a current Ph.D. student. I can’t imagine a better colleague. (He’s also not a bad drummer, and is a member of the department’s band—Brand Inequity, along with David Bell, Bob Meyer and Keith Niedermeier.) He says he agreed to work with the team because we have the best marketing students in the world and we need to show our stuff. Even knowing that, he says, he was blown away to see our students in comparison with the rest of the competitors.

“Sometimes we are working away diligently without any specific comparison point of what others may or may not be doing in terms of educating students,” Americus says. “But when you see peer schools, and you see how superior our students are, it makes you feel great as a faculty member. To know that you play a role in being a part of the best of the best. That’s a great feeling.”

Americus says our students stood apart because “they married rigor and creativity. The case judges remarked to me directly that they were heads and shoulders above the rest in terms of developing a very cohesive strategy and a set of tactics that flowed directly from that strategy. Their plan was creative, well-grounded in analytics and data, differentiated from competitive response and sustainable from a long-term point of view. They truly ‘wowed’ the judges.” (You can read Americus’s own take on the competition in the Wharton Journal.)

“I think brand perception analysis and understanding consumer behavior were key to creating a well-grounded strategy,” Rebecca says. “Our strategy classes also helped us map out the industry and competitor dynamics that was key in ensuring that our recommendations were really compelling for the company in the long term.”

“Funnily enough, my learning team experience at Wharton was without question the single most useful preparatory exercise,” added Jonathan. “It may not seem so when one is trudging through painful SABRE decisions or tricky MGEC problem sets, but the ability to collaboratively develop complex ideas and to efficiently divide and reintegrate work streams fostered by the learning team experience was invaluable.”

The team says that Americus’s experience working with companies like Nike and Saucony, in addition to his “chill” attitude, energy and encouragement, helped them to succeed in the competition.

What are they going to do with all that money? Pay loans, not surprisingly, and travel. But they also threw a celebration for the Wharton community to show their gratitude for the support given by their classmates, the Wharton administration and faculty. “We received an outpouring of congratulations from our friends,” Sodany says. “Some even told us they were following the live blog that Wake Forest put up, so they got the news in real time—which made us feel like Wharton was really invested in our performance. So we really feel like this victory was a collective one, shared by all at Wharton. We also loved how some prospective students decided to come to Wharton after hearing more about the win.”

These students are working to build the external reputation of the Wharton marketing brand the best way—by demonstrating excellence. In particular, when asked why interested MBA students should come to Wharton to study marketing, they cite Wharton’s unique quantitative emphasis, data-driven focus, innovative teaching tools (like our SABRE simulation) and amazing classes taught by seasoned professors. Jonathan says students should come to Wharton to study marketing because of the level of faculty involvement.

“Getting to work so closely with marketing faculty members such as Americus who are working on the discipline’s cutting edge has been a fantastic experience,” he says.

Oh, and the Wharton undergraduate Wake Forest team?

They placed second overall in the undergraduate competition. An amazing weekend for marketing at Wharton! We couldn’t be prouder.

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