“Battle of the Brands” Challenges Marketing Students


The products are real and so are the customers at Johnson’s annual brand-pitching competition

Most of us have heard the Chinese Proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” During the first semester at Johnson at Cornell University, the fish is a given: great professors teach core marketing concepts to the students. Yet within a practical learning environment, how do you create an innovative way to teach the students to fish? How do you instill the concepts necessary for understanding the experience of a true marketing or product manager?

Liz Riley, vice president of marketing competitions for Johnson’s Marketing Association, led one of its most exciting, innovative events: the annual “Battle of the Brands.” This two-week-long competition is sponsored by top global companies recruiting at Johnson. This year’s sponsors included Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Reckitt Benckiser, Unilever, and American Express.

Here is how it works: students form teams of five, plus a second-year student coach; they are assigned to one of the sponsoring companies, and given a product to market to the Johnson community. This year’s teams marketed Neutrogena Men’s Face Wash, Snickers Marathon Bar, Speedstick Deodorant, Dove for Men Shower Tool, and Airwick Color Changing Candle.

After Professor Manoj Thomas, faculty head of the Strategic Marketing Immersion, kicked of the challenge, emphasizing key frameworks, marketing components, and the art of understanding your target consumer, the battle was underway!

Over two weeks, the teams developed their marketing plans and executed campaigns within the business school, using their $250 marketing budgets. Everything is fair game, and creativity is encouraged. Students have created viral videos, sampling opportunities, contests, and unique advertising, featuring classmates and professors, among other creative marketing initiatives.

Everything led up to the day when the entire school came together for the “Johnson Marketplace,” where teams tried to sell their products to the Johnson community. Every attendee was given a certain number of tickets to “purchase” products from the teams’ booths. Teams control their pricing and try to maximize their profits, while attendees leave with handfuls of great products.

The competition culminated with students presenting their campaigns and strategies to a panel of judges, who scored teams based on application of core marketing concepts, including STP (Segmentation, Targeting, Positioning) and 4P (Product, Price, Promotion, Placement) analyses, creativity, financials, and presentation skills. The top team won the “Battle” and received $1,000 in American Express gift cards.

The Unilever-Dove team prevailed in the 2012 Battle of the Brands competition with its Dove for Men campaign. Coached by Tammi Nguyen, MBA ’13, members of the winning team included Sarah Herse, Ben Russo, Emily Schwartz, Brett Vegas, and Joe Webb.

Battle of the Brands is not only one of the most fun events for first-year marketers, but it is also an example of performance learning at Johnson. The hands-on aspect of the competition and the real-world marketing parities make contest a fantastic learning opportunity for anyone interested in marketing.

—Liz Riley, MBA ’13, and Michael Hendrix, MBA ‘13