In The Covid Era, A Different Kind Of Elite Case Competition

In mid-December, I pulled together the planning team for the Kellogg Biotech and Healthcare Case Competition to address two questions. First, should the event move forward when an in-person format wasn’t possible? Second, what might be an appealing and challenging topic in this year with a pandemic?

The Kellogg Healthcare Case Competition is one of the oldest and most prestigious case competitions in the world. Started in 2004, the event tackles complex topics related to public health and commercial healthcare. Teams apply from business schools across the world and then we select eleven or twelve teams to participate. A week before the event, teams receive a case to work on. On Friday evening teams turn-in their slides and then gather for a casual and fun dinner. Saturday, teams present to the judges and attend the Kellogg Healthcare Conference during their open time.

The day wraps up with a debrief session, a dinner with the judges and an awards ceremony. The top team wins $5,000.

The in-person event works well; students meet new people, learn from tackling a case and potentially win a significant prize. The judges enjoy the event as well, both seeing the presentations and having a chance to interact with the students.


Tim Calkins

But in a Covid world, the case competition couldn’t proceed in its usual style. A gathering of 100 people from around the world was not going to happen. We debated canceling the event, but quickly redesigned the program, creating a three-part event.

  • In part 1 we invited teams to apply, submitting a short application and resumes. Based on these applications we selected 20 teams to advance.
  • In part 2, we gave each team the case and roughly 10 days to submit their solution in the form of a video presentation. A team of judges — all industry executives — reviewed these videos, provided feedback and, at a Zoom gathering, announced the Final Four.
  • The final round, part 3, consisted of live presentations delivered on Zoom to a new panel of judges. Teams had 15 minutes to present, and then 5 minutes for questions from the judges. After a short meeting of the judges, the program proceeded to a case debrief and awards ceremony.


Identifying a case topic is always a challenge; over the year’s we have learned that it needs to be a new case, not one a team might have seen in an MBA class, interesting and engaging. 

This year we settled on a topic that had meaningful impact and was applicable to everyone participating in the event: building Covid-19 vaccination rates in a world of vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers. We asked teams to do two things. First, evaluate the issue: how much of a problem will vaccine hesitancy be? Second, what could a business leader do to address it?

The case question has three appealing parts. First, it is a relevant and timely question. Right now, vaccines are rolling out. There is more demand than doses but soon the situation will switch, and there will likely be more doses than demand. 

Second, it requires a blend of strategy and creativity. Teams need to think about how to impact the issue on a strategic level, and then develop some tactics that were impactful and possible.

Third, there is no single right answer. There are multiple ways to look at the question, and multiple potential solutions. 


The event was a huge success. A total of 82 teams applied for the competition, a new record. Picking 20 to move on was a challenge because the teams were impressive. In round 2, the 20 teams developed impressive videos with highly creative ideas. We had a broad collection of schools, including UT Austin McCombs, HBS, Illinois Gies, Duke Fuqua, LBS, Maryland Smith, Wharton, and others.

In the final round, the Final Four teams, from Georgetown McDonough, ESADE, Chicago Booth and McMaster DeGroote, battled it out. Eventually a team from Chicago Booth prevailed. 

More important, however, the competition identified some highly creative ideas that have the potential to shape the Covid-19 vaccination role out. Judges in the final round included the Director of the American Public Health Association, a marketing manager from Pfizer’s vaccines group, and executives from Astellas, Humana, Optum and Eli Lilly. Additionally, as a virtual event we were able to offer it to the public and anyone interested in hearing the ideas directly from the teams presenting. 

Teams important Covid case observations. 

  • This will be a big issue that requires focus and can benefit from MBA leader input. Twenty teams rated the challenge on a 1 to 10 scale with 10 being most challenging. The average score: 8.4
  • Timing is complex. Creating demand before supply is available could create disappointment and frustration, hurting the effort. Waiting too long might result in COVID cases falling dramatically, reducing urgency and motivation to seek out a vaccination.
  • Segmentation is critical. The top four teams all segmented the market and developed tailored plans for key segments. Certain communities require particular focus. 
  • Reaching the anti-vaxxers isn’t a priority: changing the minds of people clearly opposed to the vaccine will be immensely difficult. Finding a way to respond to anti-vaxxers social media activity, however, is essential. 
  • Building trust is a core challenge, and the best way to do this is to focus on credible spokespeople. In different segments this might be a sports hero like LeBron James, an entertainer like Snoop Dog, or a military leader.
  • It will all take coordination and resources.

The 2021 case competition brought together teams from around the world to learn, network and have an impact. It all required a new format, but the result exceeded expectations. In future years, when the pandemic is behind us, the competition will combine the power of a virtual event with the personal connection of an in-person gathering.

Tim Calkins is clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. His courses including Marketing Strategy and Biomedical Marketing; he is also co-academic director of the Kellogg on Branding executive education program.

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