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The winning team and judges from the 2014 MBA Boardroom Challenge at the University of Guelph. From left to right: Christine Kalvenes, chief marketing officer, PepsiCo Foods Canada; Brian Rohl, MBA student; Rudi Fischbacher, MBA student; Anne-Marie Renaud, PepsiCo Foods Canada vice-president operations – Frito Lay Canada; Anke Foller-Carroll, MBA student; Sylvain Charlebois, University of Guelph course professor; Cory Roberts, MBA student

Jennifer Lewington/The Globe and Mail

Case studies are a staple of business-school education, with students expected to analyze and recommend solutions to a company's problem. But what if the case study happens in real time based with company executives in the classroom as judges? The Globe and Mail was invited to observe a live case "boardroom challenge" – the finale to a two-year master of business administration program at the University of Guelph's College of Business and Economics.

Before flying from Toronto to Quebec City for meetings, PepsiCo Foods Canada president Marc Guay made a quick detour to Guelph to confer with MBA students on a marketing question for his company.

Should PepsiCo Foods rethink how it connects with Canadian consumers? The company's products penetrate 99 per cent of Canadian households, but individual brands such as Tropicana, Frito-Lay, Quaker Oats and Gatorade are not advertised under the PepsiCo banner. With the success of Procter & Gamble's corporate-level Thank You, Mom campaign in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Mr. Guay wondered if PepsiCo could – or should – do the same.

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"Is there a play for PepsiCo to think and present itself as a corporation more so than as a collection of multiple, seemingly unconnected brands?" he asks, posing the live case question for Sylvain Charlebois's strategic management course. "We don't go to market as Pepsi."

The course is the final component of an MBA program designed for working professionals in food, hospitality and agribusiness and offered through a blend of online learning and on-campus sessions. The live case is the centrepiece of a six-day residential course, with 28 students organized in teams of four to answer Mr. Guay's question.

The live case study, one element in a two-year-old partnership between PepsiCo Foods Canada and the University of Guelph, benefits both parties, says Mr. Guay.

"It's a win for the students by providing a unique and interesting case study that is unlike any they might see in their books," he says. "It's a win for us in that we have an opportunity to tap some of the brightest brains in the country on a complex business program."

For students, the stakes are high.

The case study counts for 45 per cent of the marks in a course that concludes with a 20-minute presentation to a panel of two senior PepsiCo officials (who judge the merits of the recommendations) and Dr. Charlebois, who provides the academic grade.

Prior to arriving on campus, students identify the external issues facing PepsiCo and, once on campus, report their findings and conduct a follow-up analysis of the company's internal challenges.

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"The course has no borders," says Dr. Charlebois. "It takes every single issue a company would face." The live format, he adds, takes additional time, preparation and negotiations with the participating company. Compared to a textbook-based study, he says the live format pays dividends in simulating real-life conditions for students.

After Mr. Guay, Frito-Lay Canada vice-president of operations Anne-Marie Renaud sets the stage for a class visit that day to a nearby PepsiCo plant, which makes chips and other snacks. Two hours later, the students travel to PepsiCo headquarters in Mississauga for briefings by senior management on finance, distribution and sales.

Surprise is a common reaction among students who, like most consumers, are unaware that so many familiar snack brands are owned by PepsiCo.

"We all came away from it really trying to take in all the information and formulating the opportunities and threats for PepsiCo," says MBA student Brian Rohl, director of operations for Coast Hotels in Vancouver. "They [PepsiCo] wanted to be better together and have cross-promotion of brands but as a company it seemed so segmented."

For the case study, he teamed with Cory Haskins, a chef instructor at Algonquin College, and Humber College instructors Anke Foller-Carroll, in tourism management, and Rudi Fischbacher, in culinary arts. The foursome decided to work together based on their successful collaboration on a class project last year.

On a recent Friday night, halfway through the course, each team was assigned a "war room" to work on the presentation due in two days.

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By midnight Friday, playing off a PepsiCo theme of "better together," Mr. Rohl and his teammates devised a $6.6-million advertising campaign that paired combinations of PepsiCo products at meal times and special family gatherings.

But after a late-night critique by Dr. Charlebois, Mr. Rohl and his teammates realized they had to revise their proposal to incorporate consumer-friendly contests and cross-promotions with grocery store chains. Mr. Rohl says he got to bed by 3 a.m. Saturday morning.

The intensity of the live case format sets it apart from a textbook exercise. For several teams, the aha moment came, and went, in the process of gathering and analyzing information.

"It is so easy to deviate and go off in a different direction," says MBA student Raheem Pirani, who worked with Jessica Au, Kally Dimitropoulos and Karmagna Trivedi. Despite the time pressure, Ms. Dimitropoulos says the live format "is very reflective of real life." The course, she adds, "teaches us the skill sets to connect the dots."

By late Saturday, the teams received a second round of critiques from Dr. Charlebois, who wrapped up his rounds by 1.30 a.m. Sunday morning. Mr. Pirani and his teammates stayed up all night to tweak their proposal until the 8.30 a.m. Sunday kick-off, when they led off the presentations to PepsiCo's Ms. Renaud, chief marketing officer Christine Kalvenes and Dr. Charlebois.

The recommendations varied widely, with one team suggesting an entirely new corporate brand to incorporate the company's diverse product lines. All teams recommended print, television and social media advertising, but with costs ranging between $3-million and $6.6-million.

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The judges selected the polished presentation of Mr. Rohl and his teammates, who focused on leveraging the power of individual brands, with complementary product pairings for breakfast, morning and afternoon snacks and family-oriented special occasions.

"Instead of lumping together all the products under one umbrella, they thought through why the consumer might be interested in this messaging related to the products," says Ms. Kalvenes. "They connected the why to the what."

The winning team must wait until the fall to collect its prize: an all-expenses paid trip to Toronto, with a subsequent ride to Buffalo on the company's Gatorade bus to attend an NFL Buffalo Bills game.

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