Last week I helped pick teams to participate in the Kellogg Biotech and Healthcare Case Competition. This is an annual event held at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in which eleven teams of business students from around the world gather to present their assessment of a business case and compete for a $5,000 cash prize. It is one of the top case competitions in the world. This will be the 14th year of the event.

The experience of picking teams taught me an important lesson: being great is not enough. If you want people to notice you, you have to stand out. You have to go beyond the norm to highlight why you are the best choice.

The case competition application is simple. We ask just two questions: what are your qualifications, and why do want to participate in the event?

This year we received fifty-six applications from more than a dozen different business schools. Each team was talented, with members ranging from professionals with PhDs to students pursuing MD-MBA joint degrees. Applicants had worked at almost all of the top healthcare organizations: Medtronic, Pfizer, Intuitive Surgical, Amgen, J&J, Express Scripts and many more.

The applications were very similar. Each team discussed their outstanding qualifications, and then they explained in a few sentences why they wanted to be part of the event. Most talked about the chance to meet other healthcare-focused MBA students from around the world, and the opportunity to tackle a challenging healthcare case.

This made picking the teams very difficult. Out of the fifty-six applications, there were perhaps three that were easy to drop from consideration. That left us with more than fifty teams to consider. How do you pick eleven from such a qualified but homogenous group?

The reality was clear: being great was not enough. There were a lot of great teams.

Curiously, most teams didn’t go beyond the basic expectations. One team submitted a presentation, though, and that stood out. Another team included photos, which was also unique. In most cases, however, teams made no effort to be distinctive, and that was a missed opportunity.

I wonder if one reason for this is that many of the applicants have a scientific background. They’ve been taught to focus on data and facts. These are important, of course, but they ignore another critical part of the equation: marketing. Communicating why you are the best choice is an essential task.

The reality is that it is important to combine scientific achievement with a marketing focus if you want to rise above your competitors. You have to communicate what makes you special and unique. Simply telling people isn’t enough: there are a lot of great people in the world. Standing out is the key.

Credit: Tim Calkins

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