A team of B&E's top marketing students traveled to the corporate headquarters of Taziki's Mediterranean Café in Birmingham, Ala., as a semifinalist team in the first-ever Taziki's Collegiate Marketing Challenge. After a top three finish in the preliminary round, which started with 24 teams, the WVU team finished second overall.
WVU team leader Lori Crist and teammates Jaime Siudak, Sara Willingham, Jordan Wilcox, Danielle Lemon and Rachelle Purych traveled to Birmingham to present their marketing proposal to the Taziki's board of directors and executive team. Marketing student Joni Koay was also a team member, although she did not travel for the final proposal presentation in Birmingham.
"The students did market research and developed a marketing plan reflecting Taziki's current customer as well as local markets," said Dr. Michael Walsh, associate professor of marketing, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Taziki's Collegiate Marketing Challenge and responsible for the recruitment of WVU team members.
The students, who received academic credit for their participation, were briefed on the marketing challenge back in September and were given the task of developing a marketing plan for a Taziki's Mediterranean Café opening in a nearby city. For the WVU team, the city was Pittsburgh, Pa., specifically the Cranberry area. The team collected data, conducted surveys, and investigated the Cranberry area and the potential opportunities that it had to offer.
"(We) emailed the Chamber of Commerce for further information, visited fields and community areas that support local leagues or charitable functions, and gathered background information from various competitors in the area," said Willingham, a senior from Keyser, W.Va.
"At one point we had a 30-foot white board covered with ideas," said Crist, a December
2012 graduate from Charleston, W.Va.
In late November, the team presented its work in a preliminary round to local Taziki's store owners, store managers and J. Michael Bodnar, a B&E alumnus who was instrumental in fostering the partnership between the College of Business and Economics and Taziki's Mediterranean Café. Along with fellow alumnus Doug Van Scoy, Bodnar donated the Taziki's store on WVU's campus, which serves as a fully functioning laboratory for WVU students in the Hospitality and Tourism program.
"Many presentations have been on par with what would be expected from a professional marketing firm," said Seth Williams, marketing coordinator for Taziki's. "All three of these (finalist) teams took the root of the challenge to heart and developed some new and creative ways for us to build brand recognition in an otherwise unfamiliar market."
Many of the WVU team members were quite confident that they would be one of the top three semifinalists.
"I knew how much time and effort we had all put into this project, but it didn't sink in about how good it actually was until I saw the final project all put together," said Wilcox, a native of Parkersburg, W.Va.
"Preparing for the first round was intense. None of us had ever presented anything of this magnitude. It was really quite amazing to see all of our efforts come together," added Purych, an advertising senior from Victoria, B.C., Canada.
The students also felt that their coursework within the program at B&E was very helpful in preparing them for success.
"Throughout my education, teamwork and creativity have always been encouraged. These two aspects were absolutely necessary to succeed within this competition," said Siudak, a December graduate from Weirton, W.Va.
"The WVU business school really prepares you for situations in the actual business world rather than learning straight from the textbook. All of our professors taught us to think above and beyond what was on paper," said Crist. The emphasis on creative thinking, they said, is part of what led them to a top three finish.
"They presented a very cohesive marketing plan. They set their objectives and everything they did was consistent with meeting those objectives," said Dr. Karen Donovan, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and associate professor of marketing.
After these rigorous preparations, the students and Dr. France headed to Alabama to compete against marketing teams from Samford University and the College of Charleston for the chance to win $5,000. Upon their arrival, WVU team members met with their competition and event organizers for a dinner reception. The next morning, the teams individually presented their marketing plans to Taziki's top management. After the presentations, a luncheon was held and the results were announced.
"I was very proud of the presentation that they gave and the work that they put into the marketing challenge," France said. "It was disappointing to not win but they were up against some stiff competition. (The WVU team) did a fabulous job."
Although the team placed second, participants felt that involvement in the competition was incredibly meaningful.
"We want to provide opportunities for our students to compete in real world venues. (A semi-finalist finish) in the Taziki's Marketing Challenge brings a level of prestige to the quality of our students. It also speaks to the strength of our faculty and the training that our students receive in addition to their own ability," France said.
Crist, the team leader, said that preparing for the competition was one of the best experiences she has ever had.
"This was a real world experience brought into an academic setting that really set the stage for our understanding of an actual marketing plan," she said. "We are so grateful for the opportunity and it was an exceptional way to end our senior year."
Taziki's officials said that while many brands use traditional media to build awareness, Taziki's has found success comes from connecting with communities in more personal ways. The establishment of this competition, they said, is one example of community outreach through offering students a real-world challenge that encourages team-building and creative thinking.
"This competition has given me a deeper understanding of what marketing would be like in the real world. It was a valuable educational experience," added Willingham. Team member Purych agreed. "This challenge was one of the most important learning tools in my college education," she said.
"Taziki's has not only given us an opportunity to learn, but also a chance to grow as individuals and to discover what it takes to be the very best," Crist added.
Dr. France said that participation in these types of competitions is a great way to offer experiential learning to B&E students.
"We would love to continue having students involved. It's true real world experience
and gets them great exposure," she said.
Taziki's Mediterranean Café plans to expand into new markets in the coming year. The insight from the Taziki's Collegiate Marketing Competition will be influential in this expansion.