'Creative' Problem-Solving Tactics in Case Interviews
Most of the questions you’ll be given in a case are relatively easy to prepare for — setting up the framework, sizing the market, calculating break-even points and identifying revenue / cost / profitability drivers, communicating your synthesis / concluding thoughts (which we’ll cover by the end of today!) are pretty standard exercises in the case interview.
That being said, there are some questions that will be thrown your way that are - for lack of better words - more ‘creative’. You won’t be given data, graphs, or charts to help point you to a right direction — there may be some context from the case background, and you may be able to ask more for information, but in general these questions test your ability to adapt to maximum flexibility. Some examples include:
How should our client think about marketing its new product to Millennial / Generation Z customers? How would this differ from other customer segments?
What are your hypotheses on the major risks of integrating the R&D functions of client ABC and target company XYZ?
The client has decided to add a new production line to increase capacity, but can only afford to add a line to one of their 5 facilities. What factors should they consider in selecting the adequate plant?
The client likes your recommendation, and asks you and the team what her company should start doing tomorrow.
As you can see, you can’t quite spam a ready-to-go framework and expect to provide a unique, differentiable, and stand-out response. To answer these kinds of questions, you’ll have to think outside-of-the-box. So what does that actually mean?
In terms of actionable advice, here are some of my best practices:
BEST PRACTICE 1: Even if the questions are ‘different’, there are a number of mini-structures you can employ to systematically reach a sound solution/recommendation. Here are some mini-frameworks you can employ if you’re in a rut…
Marketing + Brand Strategy
When given a marketing question, you can immediately think about the ‘4 P’s’ and how they can help you align your thoughts to the question at hand.
Segment your customers — who are you really selling to? Which customers are the most valuable / lucrative? Which ones cost too much to maintain?
Rethink your product — what are the characteristics of your target market? What are your competitors currently doing, and how can you differentiate yourself? What are the table stakes (must-have features to win over customers)? What are potential differentiators?
Rethink your price — what are your customers’ price elasticities? Competitors’ prices? Substitutes? Is your product premium (differentiable) or a commodity (non-differentiable)?
Rethink your place // sales channels — are you using the right channels?
Rethink your promotion. Do your marketing strategies align with your market — ensure product image, attributes, and quality fulfill the needs of all consumers or niche segment, reaching desired market share. Ensure target price is consistent with other products in the market and the consumer’s expectations
Promotion is the fourth ‘P’ that specifically focuses on how to actually develop and implement marketing campaigns. Promotion is synonymous with advertisement, with the fundamental idea being how one can best go-to-market and acquire customers.
In general, you should think about how you can create a successful introductory marketing campaign, including advertising, pricing, and bundling promotions. Also be mindful of case-unique factors such as market share status (re: if you enjoy top 3 producer status operating under limited market fragmentation, it’s easier to position the brand as a top player in the market segment), and don't suggest anything too crazy for your client (re: if your client is an everyday shoe retailer, having Steph Curry as an athlete sponsor/partner doesn't make too much sense).
You can also talk about how the client should react to competitive responses (re: advertising, pricing, distribution agreements), and ensure product positioning does not cannibalize your client’s other product segments.
Note: In marketing, decreased demand for an existing product that occurs when its vendor releases a new or similar product is called “cannibalization.” This is a common risk case interviewers love hearing, so if this applies to you make sure you use the term!
Risk Identification + Management Strategy
Depending on the client and industry, risks will look different. No matter the case, however, there are always certain dimensions of risks you should look out for — competition will always be one, but you can also use the PESTLE framework:
Political: think regulation, government intervention, and laws regarding antitrust (preventing and breaking up monopolies), consumer protection laws, labor laws and unionization, etc.
Economical: think broader macro-economy (re: are we in a recession or an expansion, are we in an industry that is at greater risk for underperformance in a recessionary environment or a pandemic hahahahaha f*ck), interest rates (re: if interest rates are high then borrowing is expensive, and it will be difficult to engage in activity like M&A, launching new products, entering new markets, etc.) etc. If you want to be fancy, you can even include global economic conditions like trade wars, tariffs and sanctions, and more. You can hypothetically include this kind of analysis if, say, you are working with a Chinese client (and need to account for the case of a trade war).
Sociocultural: think consumer behavior trends (re: Millennials/Gen Z’s moving away from fast food, sodas, and other ‘unhealthy’ food and drinks), pop culture trends, demographic trends, and more. Also think about cultural trends in your own client’s organization — how is culture changing within your client?
Technological: think about how certain innovation may impact your client — perhaps they aren’t prepared for digitization (re: brick-and-mortar vs online sales / e-commerce, overly reliant on physical distribution, etc.).
Legal: think lawsuits, patent protection/infringement, etc. This is a particularly critical risk area for pharmaceuticals and biotech companies — these companies are constantly researching and developing new drugs and have to secure FDA approval, undergo clinical trials, and ensure their products meet safety standards (and avoid being sued to oblivion by customers for malpractice).
Environmental: think areas like sustainability (re: is your client on-track meeting energy conservation goals? Energy costs are running high, and failing to achieve sustainability can not only hurt brand image and reputation but also lead to higher running variable costs), climate change, pollution, etc.
Competitive Analysis Strategy
When asked why a competitor is out-competing your client, you should immediately think — how are they out-competing us in terms of revenues, and then costs?
For revenues, think about the 4 P’s — are they out-competing us in product superiority/meeting customer’s requirements better (re: what are our customer’s buying requirements), pricing (are they under-pricing us and being perceived as a more affordable and attractive option, or over-pricing us and being perceived as a superior, premium quality good), distribution/place (are we not selling where our customers are), and/or promotion (is their marketing strategy more tailored, effective, or persuasive than ours, and if so why and how)?
For costs, think about our client’s and competitors’ cost structures. Are we more inefficient in fixed costs or variable costs, and if so how and why?
Handling ‘Next Step’ Strategies
Although this is typically a question asked in the synthesis, you may be asked these types of questions in the middle of the case. When approaching this kind of question, think about how you would tailor your thoughts using some structures below:
Finance // Allocate required resources for launch
Communicate launch decision and timeline to Finance department
Analyze upfront investment and ongoing profitability targets
Secure resources required for initial investment and allocate to each department e.g., Marketing, Sales, Production, Distribution Marketing to start designing launch strategy
Marketing // Design product identity, message, packaging, etc.
Create advertising and promotional campaign
Define any channel-specific considerations e.g., displays, alternative campaigns
Prepare product communications for investors, customers, and consumers
Operations // Begin product tests, production line design, and logistics.
Create and test product
Communicate and negotiate product characteristics and prices with suppliers
Renegotiate supplier contracts for materials and supplies if necessary
Increase capacity of the existing production line maybe building a new one
Hire new people if needed
Sales // Start sales funnel from awareness -> conversion -> purchase -> repeat loyalty
Collaborate with marketing in defining message for retail outlets and consumers
Design distribution strategy and allocate resources for new product
Design and deliver product training for sales
Communicate new product characteristics and targets to clients e.g., supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, sport clubs.
Train sales reps, account executives, and customer service teams (if relevant)
However, having neat frameworks won't always prepare you for the unexpected. Below are some more best practices to help you weather the storm and answer surprising questions.
BEST PRACTICE 2: Put yourself in the client’s / customer’s shoes — when in doubt, try to think about things from your client’s perspective and your client’s customers’ perspective? If you are helping an airline achieve profitability, what would the finance team’s thoughts be? Sales? CMO? The pilots? The flight attendants? The passengers? Perspective shifting may help you unlock insights you otherwise would not consider.
BEST PRACTICE 3: Draw upon your personal experience — from past experiences (re: student org’s, business/consulting/finance clubs, internships, part-time work, research, startups, community service), you may be more experienced in certain areas. Many club leaders have great personal experiences promoting their student org’s on-campus — these are things you can draw upon when talking about marketing campaigns and strategies. Or perhaps you worked on a particular project during a summer internship that taught you about a niche industry or function — if relevant, you can apply that in a case as well. This is a pretty non-actionable tip, however, since most cases are designed to eliminate the possibility of some candidates possessing superior industry/functional knowledge over others.
BEST PRACTICE 4: Dig deeper into your initial structure — when in doubt, you can always go back to your initial framework and think about how you can drill even deeper into certain areas. In a profitability case, for instance, if the case is revenue-focused then you can honing in on price and volume. More specifically, given the unique parameters of the case given to you, you can begin developing more refined recommendations based on the industry, situation, and client capabilities.