Poole Undergraduate Team Makes ‘Perfect Proposal’ in USPS Innovation Challenge
Competing against undergraduate and MBA student teams from universities across North Carolina, the Poole College team places second with its 'unique approach' to the challenge.
– Caroline Barnhill
Team player. Adaptable. A good listener. Those are some of the soft skills that Pieter Verhallen has come to look for in his students when selecting a case competition team. Verhallen joined the Poole College of Management in late 2021 as an assistant teaching professor in marketing and, from the very beginning, was eager to bring his experience in coaching case competition teams to the college.
He didn’t have to wait long.
In 2022, Verhallen coached his first team of Poole College students for the FEP University of Porto International Case Competition, held in November of the same year. That competition was soon followed by the Heavener International Case Competition, hosted by the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, which is one of the top 12 international case competitions in the world, and a qualifier for the Champions Trophy in New Zealand (the world championship). There, our Poole Wolfpack team performed very well, especially in light of being a new entrant. Around the same time, in early 2023, a United States Postal Services (USPS) Direct Effective Innovation Challenge representative contacted Pieter to gauge his interest in entering a team for an upcoming regional competition.
“I looked into the Direct Effect program and saw that prior Innovation Challenges were of high quality, and I appreciated that, as part of the Direct Effect program initiatives, USPS business partners would come and guest lecture in your classes to instill knowledge to students on real-world integrated marketing approaches,” Verhallen says. “The current generation of students is very much aware of digital marketing, but often less so about the advantages of integrating physical channels, such as direct mail.”
Seeing the quality of past Innovation Challenge events — and also of the business leaders who came in to guest lecture — Verhallen decided to submit a team for the spring challenge in Charlotte, N.C.
The Challenge … and the Team
ESPN, the sports media juggernaut, owns the SEC Network — a channel focused on sporting events for teams in the Southeastern Conference. For this edition of the Innovation Challenge, participating teams from 11 North Carolina universities were asked to imagine that their university was part of the SEC and develop a marketing campaign that would entice their fans to watch the network and develop brand loyalty.
It was amazing to see how quickly our team came up with strong, creative yet feasible ideas and put them into practice.
“I pulled together a team of fantastic undergraduate students — Daniel Webb, Federica Lenti, Emma Collins and Anthony Jackson. In most case competitions, advisors are separated from their team. However, for this challenge, advisors were allowed to observe the case cracking process,” Verhallen says. “It was amazing to see how quickly our team came up with strong, creative yet feasible ideas and put them into practice.”
Following an initial brainstorming session, the team began to put their plan into action. Lenti and Jackson created the final direct mailer, Collins assembled the social media campaign and Webb created the mockup of the campaign’s website landing page and associated digital media.
“It was a holistic strategy that utilized both physical and digital marketing channels and incorporated a strong emotional appeal,” Verhallen says.
“The Direct Effect educational materials mentioned that mail campaigns with an emotional aspect, like handwriting, are far more likely to be opened. Personal mail, like a Christmas card from your grandma, is something that you will open 99% of the time,” Webb explains. “Because NC State and the SEC have strong traditions that are rooted in southern culture – and since we happen to have two mascots who are a married couple – the team decided the direct mail piece could ask the reader something poignant and emotionally powerful, like ‘popping the question.’ That’s something the recipient would open.”
Carl Boettner, a USPS product development specialist who works on the Direct Effect program, found the students’ approach to the challenge new and exciting.
“It was a unique approach to turn the advertisement into a wedding invitation. Invitations are high-quality pieces that people look forward to opening, so the idea of NC State marrying into the SEC was really creative,” Boettner says. “That’s what we hope to see out of these challenges. It’s a great experiential learning opportunity for students to work with real clients to solve a real marketing challenge. Currently, there’s a big wave in education to focus on digital marketing, so by allowing students to practice using multiple channels to market a business is a great way for them to differentiate themselves when it comes time to look for jobs.”
At the end of the event, which pitted their team against teams of both undergraduate and MBA students, the Poole College team placed second.
“Every judge told us how impressed they were with what our students came up with and that it was an extremely hard decision to choose only one winner,” Verhallen says. “In light of the team’s excellent performance, USPS invited our students to join me as panelists at the 2023 National Postal Forum on educating the next generation of marketers. Plus, the judges from ESPN shared that our team’s campaign truly brought forward novel ideas, and that they intend to incorporate some of our students’ thinking moving forward.”
Luke Diocca, a sports marketing manager at ESPN, served as one of the company’s judges.
“From the ‘Will You Marry Me’ creative approach to the team’s thoughtful channel integration of the campaign and enthusiasm on stage, we were thoroughly impressed by Emma, Anthony, Frederica and Dan’s presentation,” Diocca says. “Being able to engage in a brief and present a campaign on the same day is an extremely hard challenge for any marketer, so our judging team was exceptionally impressed by the detail and creativity they showcased. Personally, I can’t wait to see where and what marketing teams they end up on in the future.”
As for how challenges like this prepare students for the real world, Webb sees immense value.
“Business innovation challenges like these are a fantastic way for students to see how working in a pressure cooker environment affects their final work product. It is very similar to how real-world marketing is applied – with digital and physical campaigns being launched with fast-moving and sometimes seemingly unachievable deadlines,” he says. “I graduated and now work at Plantd, a technology startup founded by two former SpaceX engineers, that is creating a new type of building material that captures carbon from the atmosphere and helps to solve climate change. Every day at work, we are rushing to hit deadlines, push out campaigns, and move as fast as possible. The SpaceX methodology is inherently a pressure cooker one, and competitions like this one strengthened me in the environment I now spend my days in.”