‘An awesome opportunity’

The University of Minnesota marketing team, which included Marshall High School graduate Kate Merna, recently took fourth place in Ford’s 2013 College Ambassador Challenge.

The unique national competition proved to be an incredible experience, said Merna, who is set to graduate from the U of M Friday.

“It was such an awesome opportunity,” Merna said. “It’s not very often that you get the chance to participate and take away such great knowledge and practical experience that you can use in a real business setting.”

Ford and Lauren Berger, the nation’s internship guru, teamed up for the competition, offering college students valuable skills and experience to use upon graduation. Participating university teams reportedly gained experience through three social media-driven challenges that were geared toward helping them build their resumes and making them more employable.

“The competition was really great,” Merna said. “They really geared it towards college students. I’m excited about the future. It’s a big opportunity and a really rewarding experience to work with a nationally-known company like Ford.”

The first part of the Ford’s College Ambassador Challenge involved making a one-minute video introducing Ford’s super segment – the subcompact and compact cars, small utility vehicles and midsize sedans that represent nearly 50 percent of total new vehicle sales in the United States.

“Since one of our team members was really into multimedia presentations, he was really helpful in writing a script for a one-minute long commercial,” Merna said. “Another member added the music to the commercial. I was really impressed with it.”

For the video portion of the challenge, Ford representatives helped put Merna and her teammates in touch with a local Ford dealership. The team chose to go with a vintage-themed commercial and ended up placing second overall in the nation.

“We shot the commercial on-site at the Midway Ford out of Roseville,” Merna said. “They were a great resource throughout the competition. We got second place for that part, so we were very excited about that.”

A blizzard certainly didn’t help the U of M team with the second part of the competition, which involved marketing and promoting Berger’s cost-free speaking events through flyers, social media and other means. Berger, a best-selling author and entrepreneur, shared her expertise and experience with the students to give them insight into what lies ahead of them after earning their degrees.

“We were in charge of promoting a book for Lauren,” Merna said. “She had a live event where she spoke on campus. Reaching out to peers was actually a challenge. A lot of it was just learning what did and didn’t work to get people’s attention.”

Despite a blizzard the day before, Merna said a fairly good number of people still turned out for the event. The team finished in fifth place overall for the second aspect of the challenge.

“We were judged on how many people showed up,” she said. “For the video, it was how many peers would vote for it online. It’s about reaching out to people.”

The final part of the competition was to promote test-driving Ford cars. The team was charged with creating and implementing a marketing plan to get 120 drivers over the age of 25 to test drive a super segment vehicle at the local dealership. The team placed fourth overall in the “Race to 120” part of the competition.

“Ford has a new lineup they’re trying to promote to college students, so we came up with advertising and reached out to different social media platforms,” Merna said. “We were really into putting things up on Facebook and sending out e-mails and texts to contacts. But at the end of the day, the best way was to pick up a phone and call. We definitely did a little bit of everything.”

Despite all the different options available today, getting people to respond and participate was more difficult than she imagined, Merna said.

“The biggest thing, when reaching out to our generation, is that you’re not really sure if something is young and hip or whether you’re pandering and trying too hard,” she said. “It was definitely a challenge, even with the stuff Ford sent us. Ford gave us some really good ideas. They were so supportive.”

Berger had positive things to say about the U of M team, saying that they demonstrated excellent leadership skills.

“They did a great job playing off one another’s strengths,” she said. “They were original, creative and understood the importance of delegating when working on a big project.”

The University of Pittsburgh won the contest, earning the highest compositive score of all the teams. Winning team members earned $500 each, the opportunity to drive one of Ford’s best-selling vehicles – Focus, Fusion, Fiesta or Escape – for a month this summer and an additional marketing experience with Ford.

Other teams finishing in the top five included the University of Michigan, University of Illinois and University of Louisville.

“It was just a great opportunity,” Merna said. “It was neat to see how students in different parts of the country dealt with the challenge as well. I will take away so much to use in future jobs.”

Merna, who is graduating with a degree in economics, has excelled academically the past six years, completing high school in three years and college in three years as well. But she admits that she is ready for a change of pace.

“I graduated (from MHS) with the class of 2011, having done a four-year PSEO (Post-Secondary Enrollment Options),” Merna said. “So I’m graduating college a little ahead of the curve. Financially, I’m glad, but it’s been a hard six years. I’m excited to have a little break.”

The commencement ceremony for U of M graduates is on Saturday. The day before, Merna will be in Marshall, supporting her younger brother Daniel, who graduates from MHS Friday evening.

In June, Merna will begin a new chapter in her life as she moves abroad and begins working for an international law firm.

“I’m headed for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates,” Merna said. “I’ll be working as a paralegal. I’m very excited.”

To view the top five videos created, including the one by the U of M team, go to www.internqueen.com/ford.