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Texas schools have won the competition six times -- more than any other state -- but a small college in Florida is trying to win an unprecedented three times in a row and four times overall.

If that's not enough drama for you, here's more: This year's sponsor of the 25th annual National Student Marketing Competition, Hallmark Cards, gave its ad agency, Leo Burnett USA, the same assignment as the college kids. The challenge -- if they should accept it, and 140 chapters across the country have -- "is to develop a new strategy and campaign that is even stronger than our current approach -- that goes beyond brand awareness and brand preference to brand insistence," said Mark Schwab, Hallmark's VP-strategy marketing.

What happens if the Hallmark people like what they see in Minneapolis better than what they've seen in Chicago?

"If there are compelling ideas from the students, then Hallmark would indeed incorporate those into current programs," said VP-Public Affairs and Communications Steve Doyal.

Hallmark is ponying up $200,000 to sponsor the competition, as the American Advertising Federation likes to say, less than it costs to produce a 30-second spot.

In addition to honing their skills under actual battle conditions, the college students involved in the competition rub shoulders with client and ad agency recruiters. And the students and their teachers know it's a seller's market.

"This is the first year I can say to my students, `Demand higher salaries,' " George Washington University professor Lynda Maddox told The Washington Post. "Usually I had to tell them to be prepared to take a second job." Some of her top students are being offered salaries over $30,000 a year, a big improvement from other years.

The winning team for the last two years has been the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Last year the UWF team fielded an agency called HotShop to come up with an ad strategy for competition sponsor Pizza Hut. The team used all the elements -- focus groups, psychographics, consumer profiles, megatrends -- to conclude: "Brand Pizza Hut is more than pizza. It is the pre-eminent mark. It is family, friends and good times around a pizza pie." The team noted that Pizza Hut is on its way to becoming a "Power Brand" like Nike or Levi's.

"A `Power Brand' is not a product," the UWF team stated. "It's a brand that has a relationship with its customers. The customer has an emotional attachment with the product. They know the brand conveys much more than the product it represents.

"The University of West Florida's plan creates such a relationship between Pizza Hut and its customers -- an emotional attachment that conveys much more than the product it represents. Pizza Hut is a symbol, an American icon."

To me, those are very welcome words. It's gratifying to know that tomorrow's advertising people understand the important position great brands play in consumers' lives. Too much of today's advertising does nothing to reinforce what's been built over the years; in fact, too many of today's ads are destructive, and nobody seems to care what great harm has been done.

Tom Groth, UWF ad professor, told me he spends "an inordinate amount of time on branding -- matching the product to the prospect." Consumers are "overwhelmed by information. . . . I spend a ton of time on how to get in the prospect's head."

Tom has not only won three times in Florida, but he and his students also won when he was teaching at Iowa State University in 1986. So what's his secret?

"I don't treat it as a competition. There are 20 pages of rules, and I don't bother with them, except for what will disqualify us."

In the last analysis, it's the quality of the creative that wins, Tom believes, and his students try to create advertising that "disrupts expectations" -- that poses a mental question, then resolves it. And after that they overpower the field by producing more ads than anybody else, the good professor revealed.

The 14 finalists make their pitches June 18 at the AAF annual conference in Minneapolis.

Be there or be square.

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