Sweet Taste of Victory: Taking 1st Place in a Wine Case Competition

Written by Lewis Anderson and Jasper Stroeder, otherwise known as team Barrel Business

Within days of starting your MBA, invitations to partake in case competitions steadily flow into your inbox. These inter-school, international business problem-solving competitions are synonymous with the MBA experience. However, as classes get more intense, extra-curricular activities fill your diary and the job search heats up, the question becomes – is a case competition worth your time?

Headshot of the winner of the wine case competition, Lewis Anderson

Lewis Anderson, HEC Paris MBA student and 1/2 of the winning team Barrel Business

Having recently participated in the Datoire Global Wine Industry Case Competition, which we were lucky enough to win, we wanted to share our thoughts on why you should participate in at least one case competition during your MBA.

Firstly, the answer to “is it worth it?” is a profound YES. A case competition offers an excellent way of putting your newly acquired business-school knowledge to the test.  It allows you to benchmark yourself against other MBA students worldwide and receive valuable feedback from leading industry professionals. If you choose the right case (we chose a wine industry case because we are both passionate about the topic), it will be interesting and (for the most part) fun. You will also have the chance to network with like-minded people from other business schools. As a bonus, many case competitions also serve as recruitment events. We were both offered interviews with top US wine companies for making it to the finals.

Not all smiles and rainbows

Be warned, though, it is not all smiles and rainbows. We were full of energy and inspiration immediately after entering the competition. The case was based around the launch of a novel sparkling wine for millennials. We were brimming with ideas of how to approach it. We identified concepts and frameworks that we had picked up during the MBA that would make our analysis convincing. We could see the finish line before we had even begun. However, things did not play out exactly as we had anticipated.

Of course, we were thrilled to win. But more importantly, we were really glad to have stuck with the competition when dropping out seemed like a more sensible option.

The week that we needed to submit our entry was stressful, filled with academic deadlines and endless to-dos. Though we had already done plenty of reading about the industry and analyzed our customer group, deadline day found us sitting in front of a relatively empty skeleton slide-deck. Tired from a long week of classes, we debated whether it was worth going through the effort of completing the case. It wasn’t until virtually the final few minutes before submission that we got the deck into a shape that we were both happy with. It was not the prettiest deck we had ever put together, but the thinking and logic were strong, and the recommendations were convincing.

HEC Paris MBA winner of the wine case competition Jasper Stroeder

Jasper Stroeder, HEC Paris MBA student and 1/2 of the winning team Barrel Business

Turns out our last-ditch effort was worth it. But the notification of being selected for the finals went straight to our spam folder, and we learned about our success from LinkedIn. We actually had to double check with the organizers before believing it. From that moment on, we were re-energized. We spent the days before the finals transforming our analysis, originally written in an annotated deck, into a compelling story to win over the jury. Our bold recommendation to reject the case’s original proposal to develop a $75/bottle of champagne for millennials in favor of a Crémant de Bourgogne (which we called l’étranger or the outsider) was well received by the judges. They awarded us first place.

Of course, we were thrilled to win. But more importantly, we were really glad to have stuck with the competition when dropping out seemed like a more sensible option.

The winning edge over the competition

Reflecting on our experience, we spent some time discussing the other presentations to understand where we got an edge over the competition. We felt that many of the teams did a better job in analyzing the wine industry and coming up with ideas that solved the case’s business problem. Also, in terms of optics, we were clearly outperformed by some of our competitors. However, in our post-game-analysis, we concluded that there was one thing that set us apart from our competitors: storytelling.

During numerous MBA courses, we learnt a lot of concepts and frameworks that we used to analyze the case and come up with our own conclusions. Whether it was looking at the industry from a modified five-forces perspective, using value innovation to find strong points in substitute products, or making viable assumptions to estimate the financial impact of a sourcing region, we tried to apply our MBA knowledge. However, we used our MBA knowledge to assess what was going on in the case and critically evaluate potential courses of action, not just to show the judges that we had plenty of fancy frameworks in our repertoire. To put it in the words of one our strategy professors: “Do not use frameworks only to use them.” Taking this advice seriously, we only briefly showed the results of one single framework during our final presentation. Instead, we focused more on taking the audience on a journey with us, dropping in data and analysis to support our recommendations along the way.

So, to sum it up: please participate in at least one case competition before the MBA is over. You will not regret it. And if you want to stand out from the crowd, go beyond the frameworks and raw analysis. Construct a convincing story and a deck to support what you are saying and do not be afraid to let some of your beautiful charts and analysis fall out of the spotlight.

Read about other competitions which involved our HEC Paris MBA students, including the Beyond Disruption Post-Covid Strategy Competition and the CEIBS 2019 INNOVATEChina pitch competition.