Things didn't start very smoothly when Alisa Sommer ('14) and her team of five UCLA Anderson MBA candidates arrived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Wake Forest University's annual Marketing Summit and case competition last February. Instead of heading straight to their hotel for planning and preparation, they found themselves rushing to the emergency room. "One of our teammates fainted on the way there," says Jenn Hyman ('14). "On the first day of the competition, we had to go to the hospital."

Sleep deprivation begins early in the process of gearing up for a case competition. The exhausted Anderson competitor turned out to be just that, and the incident was the only glitch that weekend; Sommer's team beat out seven other groups from MBA programs across the world to win first place and take home $75,000 in prize money.

Wake Forest Case Competition team members (from left): Jenn Hyman (’14), Breanna Bey (’14), Cameron Snaza (’14), Alisa Sommer (’14), Fran Benjamin (’14)

Wake Forest is the longest-running such competition (it turns 25 in 2015) featuring one of the largest payouts on the case competition circuit. In 2014, the MBA case sponsor was North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc., whose net worth is more than $1.7 billion. Roger Beahm, professor of marketing and executive director of the Wake Forest University Center for Retail Innovation, calls the premier student-run event "an adrenaline-fueled opportunity for future business leaders to get practical experience and network with top executives."

A self-described "case competition fiend," Sommer participated in numerous competitions during her time at UCLA Anderson. She was nearing the end of her final year in the program and entered the prestigious Wake Forest Marketing Summit because she wanted to go out with a bang.

"I wanted to end strong," she says. "You're working with real clients and the prize is big. The competition is kind of fierce."

"One of the great things about Anderson is that everyone brings something different to the table."

Unlike most case competitions, the Wake Forest Summit consists of two rounds of eliminations. For the first round, the team submitted a wry yet earnest entry video — which they made with the help of Sommer's brother, a film editor - and a one-pager strategy for a proposed business case. Along with seven other teams, they were selected to go to the next round of competition.

"The case required us to create a go-to-market strategy for a new product at Reynolds American," Sommer explains, "from identifying the target consumer through developing the social media strategy, all within a $10 million budget." Once they convened in North Carolina, team members devoted themselves to one area. "We had someone who was very focused on research," Hyman says, "one focused on finance and another on the visuals. We each ended up finding a role." As a team, they constituted a diverse array of talent: "One of the great things about Anderson is that everyone brings something different to the table," Sommer says. "Our diverse backgrounds helped us tackle this problem from many angles."

But perhaps chief among their assets was the mindset with which the group entered into the competition. "We went there to win," Hyman says.

The team began positioning itself to take home the top prize right away. "At the very first cocktail hour," Hyman says, "we were meeting people from the company, telling them our stories and wanting to hear more about their business. We networked and expressed a sincere interest. I think it encouraged people to pull for us."

From there, they relied on a combination of creativity, hard work and a willingness to take risks. Tasked with coming up with a marketing strategy for a smoking cessation tool being developed by Reynolds, they devised a plan that would play to consumers' existing tendencies.

"Our research suggested that a lot of people start smoking because of the lifestyle aspect, because they think it's cool," says Hyman. "So we decided to look at this smoking cessation tool as more of a lifestyle purchase than a very medicinal type of purchase. We focused on marketing the ‘cool factor' of smoking cessation, the same factor that drove the initial cigarette purchase."

"Turning on music at 3:00 a.m. and having a dance party was definitely part of the experience."

"A lot of people start smoking because of the lifestyle aspect, because they think it's cool," Hyman says. "So they are looking at this [smoking cessation tool] as more of a lifestyle purchase than a very medicinal type of purchase. You have to think about it the same way you sold them cigarettes."

That meant that over the next three days — between holding impromptu meetings, doing research and building the presentation — the team would sleep for a total of eight hours. "Sleep is for the weak," the victorious Sommer later blogged. "Turning on music at 3:00 a.m. and having a dance party was definitely part of the experience."

The intensity of the week, coupled with the team's discovery that they worked well together, turned the competition into something more than just a way to practice the skills they'd learned at Anderson; it became a bonding opportunity as well. "We really liked working together," Hyman says. "People actually said they were surprised by how much we liked each other. We trusted each other and could have conversations about things. We were all friends beforehand and are all better friends now."

The final presentation went off without a hitch. Utilizing the four P's — pricing, promotion, placement/distribution and product — the group generated a strategy consisting of a polished PowerPoint presentation, a mockup of their proposed packaging and creative messaging to appeal to the target consumer.

The group opted to present last, and the judges they had focused their networking efforts on were noticeably interested in seeing what they had put together. In fact, the Reynolds executives had been particularly impressed by the team's camaraderie. "By that point, they'd seen a lot of presentations," Hyman says, "and they were very excited to see us. They probably knew us the best, and they liked us a lot; I don't think that hurt at all."

Their knowledge of the topic came through, adds Hyman, in both the presentation and the question-and-answer period that followed. "All five of us could stand up there and really defend our opinion because we had thought through everything."

When they found out they won, the team was overjoyed. But just as valuable as the prize — which, Hyman says, "didn't hurt" — were the relationships they made along the way.

"By the end," Sommer says, "all of us walked away not only with prize money, but as better friends and colleagues for life."