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SALISBURY — Cheerwine recently tapped some of the country’s best undergraduate business thinkers to come up with solutions for real-world business challenges facing the company.
For the fifth year, Salisbury-based Cheerwine was a sponsor of a global marketing summit at Wake Forest University’s Center for Retail Innovation in Winston-Salem. The event challenged the top undergraduate business minds in the world to tackle issues facing the soft drink with a cult following as it develops fans outside the South.
While Cheerwine’s association with Wake Forest University is a powerful asset, sponsoring the Marketing Summit was part of a larger strategy, said Tom Barbitta, Cheerwine’s senior vice president for sales and marketing.
Barbitta has been charged with expanding Cheerwine’s footprint outside the South. He’s solicited opinions from colleagues and experts, convinced family-owned bottling companies in the Pacific Northwest to make and bottle the soft drink and used social media to encourage devoted southern fans to send “Cheer Packages” to friends living far away.
Last weekend, he tapped into another source.
“This was about soliciting ideas from college students — our core demographic,” Barbitta said. “We believe companies are missing an opportunity if they don’t invite their fans and potential customers to co-create their marketing story.”
Students worked for 36 hours to develop a presentation for Cheerwine leaders and BooneOakley, Cheerwine’s new advertising agency.
Northeastern University D’Amore-McKim School of Business of Boston captured first place and bragging rights. They placed above teams from Universidad Panamerica, University of California Berkeley, University of Maryland, College Park, Wake Forest University and the University of Pennsylvania.
“Every team took a different approach and exceeded expectations,” Barbitta said. “Each presentation was rich.
“Northeastern won because of their passion. They had real commitment to what they were saying, and they believed in the idea’s ability to succeed.”
Soon, Barbitta and his team will revisit the strategies and tactics presented by all the teams and consider implementing some.
“Many of the concepts were affirming to us,” he said. “We’re doing the right things to speak to this market. Some ideas challenged us, and we’ll think about including those in the future.”
Cheerwine became involved in the event five years ago because the brand considers Wake Forest University a part of the community. The company wanted to be a good neighbor and recognized the benefits of the university’s talent pool, Barbitta said.
Today, Cheerwine stays involved for strategic reasons as well.
The company is tapping its core demographic to mine those marketing nuggets that only come from going to the source — the customer.
“I consider Cheerwine a regional darling,” Barbitta said. “Participating in the Marketing Summit allows us to put the brand on a national and global stage and see how a wide diversity of opinions — and cultures — will react to it and shape it.”
Cheerwine is currently expanding into the Pacific Northwest, working with independent bottlers in Washington, Idaho and Oregon to spread the bubbly soft drink’s popularity to the western United States. By the time the 97-year-old business turns 100, Barbitta hopes to have distribution in all 50 states. 
Cheerwine was launched in Rowan County 1917 by L.D. Peeler. The iconic brand is owned and distributed by the Carolina Beverage Corp. and Cheerwine Bottling Co. in Salisbury.
The 97-year-old company is still privately owned and managed by the same founding family, four generations of whom have worked there. Cliff Ritchie leads Cheerwine as president and CEO.
The Wake Forest University School of Business Marketing Summit is the premier student-run marketing case competition in the world with a record purse of $108,000 awarded to winners.
The first place MBA team takes home $75,000, and the first place undergraduate team takes home $10,000.

Eight MBA and six undergraduate teams are selected each year from the international field of entrants.

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