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What makes a case popular?

Students clappingLook at www.thecasecentre.org/search and you will find a choice of more than 61,500 items available to the management educator. Your search may turn up thousands of cases in a single category such as strategy or marketing. As you refine your search, you may arrive at a shortlist of four or five. But what tips the balance in favour of one particular case for your class rather than another, and what prompts instructors to repeatedly order certain cases?

During 2009, The Case Centre collaborated with Stuart Read, Professor of Marketing at IMD and member of The Case Centre's Executive Committee, to research ‘What drives case sales?’. The project involved a statistical analysis of the 3,895,002 case copies sold by The Case Centre from 1993 to 2008 with the objective of examining whether particular case features correlated with case sales. Sixteen key attributes were applied, most of which are available as catalogue search criteria. These included page length, pages of text, pages of exhibits, publication date, source of information, subject category, part of case series, teaching note, video, educator preview copy, size of subject company, continent, industry and date of event. The research showed a broad distribution in case sales. Some sell none, the most popular was ordered 30,976 times, and the mean is 177 copies. The data revealed instructor preferences for virtually all the case attributes analysed. For example, field researched cases sell significantly better than those based on published sources. While only 52.5% of cases had a teaching note, they sold an average 135 more copies than a case without (nearly doubling mean adoption), demonstrating how useful teachers find their support. Of all the independent variables, an available video had the biggest impact on case sales, selling an average 413 more copies than one without (more than tripling mean adoption) - yet, only three percent of cases are offered with videos.

Stuart Read is keen to share the project findings1 and feels they have useful implications for case authors and The Case Centre, providing actual data on an ‘industry’ where there has been much speculation, understanding which attributes are associated with sale, and initiating a strategic conversation about the case writing and distribution industry moving ahead. “This has every characteristic of a ‘long tail’ business. As educators, writers and case distributors, we need to challenge ourselves to learn from other such industries like music and publishing, to ensure the business case keeps up with the times and meets market needs.” Regarding the most significant case adoption attribute, video, he adds, “It would be useful to understand why authors do not include audio visual materials. Is technology, lack of interest or incentives, or something else holding people back? We need to figure this and many other things out, and offer some form of encouragement or solutions.”

The instructor’s view

Anecdotal evidence from teachers adds a qualitative dimension to quantitative research. Michael Hay, Professor of Management Practice in Strategic and International Management and Entrepreneurship, London Business School, and an experienced case author and teacher, favours cases with additional items such as videos. However, he qualifies the benefits: “A well made film can bring great impact to a case class, but a badly made or poorly edited video can be worse than not having one.” He also highlights features not included in case search criteria like case writing quality and precision of content: “The best cases focus on one key decision point and all information in the case contextualises that specific issue: there is no irrelevant material; participants are busy people and many cases are simply too long.” Michael Hay also feels it is the counter-intuitive dimension of some cases that makes them such effective and dynamic teaching tools to use and re-use. For example, the successful case Evolution of the Circus Industry2 reveals a circus unexpectedly becoming a profitable business.

Julie Hennessy, Clinical Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University describes similar experiences using one of the most repeatedly ordered, award-winning cases, Unilever in Brazil: “This rich learning case allows students to immerse themselves in a setting where all their category assumptions are wrong, and forces them to see through the eyes of consumers that have a different perspective.” She feels the case also succeeds by assisting classroom dynamics and fulfilling concrete theoretical learning objectives: “The case provides a starting point for an interesting discussion on the promise and challenges of working in developing countries, while inviting students to wrestle with the financial implications of their decisions.”

Cultural relevance

While teachers seek cases about companies and situations that will capture the interest of their class, the importance of finding cases that relate to the cultural diversity of students should not be underestimated. Rian Beise-Zee, Assistant Professor, School of Management, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, has also used Unilever in Brazil several times. The relevance of the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ subject matter to the experience of many of his students makes the case uniquely useful: “Most of our students are from India, Bangladesh and other developing countries with a large share of low income population. The case shows that such groups have distinct needs, and that value means creating benefits that match these, not selling aspirational products and services attuned to higher income levels.” He highlights the need for more cases dealing with different countries and backgrounds: “Teaching marketing with US textbooks can be exciting for our students, but we learn from our graduates that they are confronted with markets in which it is difficult to transfer Western consumer products.”

For historical reasons, management teaching materials have long been dominated by cases about US companies. ‘What drives case sales?’ showed the relative lack of choice from other cultures. Stuart Read sees this as a crucial learning point from the research: “The world is globalizing, and instructors clearly want global cases. Yet what we still seem to be creating is predominantly North American cases. This is probably the most glaring example, but in virtually every variable category, from industry to functional area, there is a mismatch between what we are writing and what we want. The overall message is that this information really should help case writers (suppliers) better meet market (instructor) demand and generate impact if that is their goal.”

Why some cases are more popular than others is clearly a multifaceted and complex issue, but perhaps the last word should go to Michael Hay, who sounds a pragmatic note: “One reason why cases get reused is that so much preparation is involved in teaching them in the first place,” surely an observation most case teachers can relate to.

 1 View more information on this research project

2 Overall winner of the 2009 European Case Awards

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