Brand & Deliver

A business school’s brand may say, “This is who we are,” but not necessarily, “This is what we do.” For the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, this realization sparked an effort to translate its ethics-based reputation into a concrete call to action.
Brand & Deliver

A business school can spend years establishing and reinforcing its brand. But a strong brand may not be enough. A school also needs a clear statement of purpose—a meaningful touchstone—to lead its community in a single direction and lend new significance to its teaching, research, and overall mission.

Several years ago, educators at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana faced this dilemma. They understood that Mendoza was known for its emphases on ethics, corporate responsibility, and values-based business practices, but they realized that they lacked consensus on how to translate, communicate, and represent that identity on a daily basis.

 “We hadn’t asked ourselves the question, ‘What do we mean by ethics?’ We had not yet determined our definitive point of view,” says Carolyn Woo, Mendoza’s dean. Without that set standard, different departments used different styles in their communications. Faculty carried out research that, while often centered on ethics, did not share a common vision.

In January of 2008, Woo and Edward Conlon, the Edward Frederick Sorin Society Professor and associate dean at Mendoza, began to discuss how the school could better clarify its objectives when it came to teaching business. They convened a task force that examined the school’s offerings, spoke with faculty and administrators, conducted focus group discussions, and interviewed communications professionals from other business schools about their approaches to communicating their own schools’ values-based efforts. Their goal was twofold: to craft a statement of purpose that Mendoza’s community could follow and translate that statement into action.

Making It Real

The task force first gathered different focus groups of staff, faculty, alumni, and employers to discuss what they thought drove the school’s ethics-based mission. The challenge was to analyze these diverse conversations and identify the common ideas that emerged. Participants returned to three themes again and again, says Woo: the integrity of the individual, the ethical systems within effective organizations, and the belief in business as a force for the advancement of society.

The school now includes all three ideas as the pillars supporting its activities. “This wasn’t a branding issue—it was a call to action,” Woo says. “It was about taking what was implicit and making it explicit.”

The next challenge was to brainstorm a concise message that would encompass these three themes and express the school’s new strategic approach in a fresh way. “We deliberately banned the words ‘leadership’ and ‘excellence’ from our discussions,” says Woo. “We felt that business schools now use those words so readily that they don’t mean as much anymore.”

One phrase, “Business for Good,” won the team’s approval, but it was trademarked by another organization. Several meetings later, the team came up with a message that they unanimously liked even better than the first: “Ask More of Business.” They began a complete redesign of the school’s Web site and marketing materials and rethought the way the school would communicate to its internal and external stakeholders.

The final challenge tuned out to be greater than any of them had expected: In late 2008, when the school planned to roll out its “Ask More of Business” campaign, the financial markets crashed. “We wondered if people would think we were crazy to ‘ask more of business’ at a time when the business markets were so wounded,” says Woo. “But we weren’t asking people to work harder or put in more hours. We were asking them to pay more attention to the systems in which they worked. It was the lack of this kind of attention that caused the crash in the first place.

Making It Dynamic

Before the school developed the “Ask More” message, its Web site suffered from a lack of clear direction, says Woo. “It looked like every other business school’s Web site,” she says, with a photo of the school, a navigational menu, and a handful of links to brochure information and news items. Its design was simple and clean, but the information most important to the school’s central mission was mixed in with other, less focused material—or worse yet, buried within the internal pages of the site.

“That site was seven or eight years old—we recognized that it was not reflective of us as a leaning community,” says Bill Gangluff, director of marketing and Web strategies, who participated in the initiative.

Sixteen staff members worked to redesign the site to reflect the school’s new-found direction and strategy. Today, visitors are met with an interactive series of colorful boxes—one large box in the center contains the “Ask More” message, while three others each contain phrases that describe one of the school’s driving motivations: individual integrity, effective organizations, and the greater good. Other boxes highlight images selected to represent the school’s more defined sense of identity.

We deliberately banned the words ‘leadership’ and ‘excellence’ from our discussions. We felt that business schools now use those words so readily that they don’t mean as much anymore.
—Carolyn Woo, University of Notre Dame

When visitors place their mouse arrow over a box, its contents switch to a new message related to a particular ethics-based topic. When visitors click on that message, a new larger box appears with an introduction and link to related articles, research, and information.

The new site builds direct avenues from the home page to information about the school’s focus on ethics and social responsibility, says Gangluff. It also includes an added feature: a commentary section that provides faculty with a dedicated platform to discuss specific current events in business.

The multiple-box format is designed to be flexible, user-friendly, and distinctive enough to have the staying power to serve the school’s needs for years to come, says Gangluff. More important, the new Web site and supporting marketing materials unify departments in a way they weren’t before.

“Although we all had the same DNA, so to speak, each program was allowed to interpret that code in different ways. One degree program might have had a completely separate positioning line from another,” he says. “Now, everyone’s on the same page.”

Making It Meaningful

The “Ask More” initiative has helped the school bring even more passion to its ethics-based curriculum, says Conlon. “Over the last couple of years, we have worked to make these issues even more real and relevant for our students,” he says.

For example, faculty revised the first ethics course that Mendoza’s MBA and executive MBA students take, “Foundations of Ethical Business Conduct,” to expose students to major ethical perspectives that people have conceived over the course of history. They then discuss how these perspectives apply to business. The course also now includes “front-line ethics experiences,” where students submit for discussion ethical challenges they’ve faced in the workplace.

The school’s schedule includes four-day courses in the middle of each semester called “Interterm Intensives.” During these courses, all first-year MBA students tackle a current corporate social responsibility case facing a major corporation. They work closely with company executives to analyze the issue and present their findings to a panel of judges. I fall 2008, students worked with Coca-Cola executives; in fall 2009, representatives from GE participated. Interterm courses for second-year MBAs involve both ethics-based and mainstream business problems; some students participate in two-week immersions overseas.

These and other established courses have taken on new importance, says Conlon. He refers to Mendoza’s outreach course, “Business on the Front Lines,” which sends three teams of six students each to former war zones. Last year, teams traveled to Bosnia and Lebanon; this year, three teams traveled to Lebanon, Kenya, and Uganda. While there, students conducted research and offered recommendations for rebuilding businesses in those regions that have been affected by conflict.

“What we do in courses like this has become more concrete for us. It’s more grounded in the realities of business,” says Conlon.

The “Ask More” message was implemented at a very serendipitous time in history, he adds. “We want to make it real for our students that business isn’t the creator of problems—it’s the solver of problems,” says Conlon.

Making Good on a Promise

Mendoza’s process mirrors that of many companies, says Conlon. He points to Whole Foods’ commitment to promoting healthy lifestyles and to GE’s “eco-imagination” initiatives. “The best companies have a sense of purpose that goes beyond profitability,” he says. He believes that business schools, too, can achieve more by making a public statement of commitment to their ideals.

Conlon already has noticed a change in the way prospective students view the school. When he attends information sessions, he asks each individual why he or she wants to attend Notre Dame. In the past, many have mentioned characteristics such as the university’s location, football team, and financial aid packages. “I don’t hear these answers much anymore,” he says. “These days, 90 percent of them say that they want to come here because of our emphasis on ethics and social responsibility.”

The school’s challenge is to make good on those expectations. “We must stay true to our message and deliver to students what we’ve promised them—an education that allows them to leave here with a unique point of view and a belief that the purpose of business is more than maximizing shareholder wealth,” Conlon says.

Mendoza’s efforts to translate its brand into an actionable set of principles centered on its particular interests, but the process can be meaningful for any business school, say Woo and Conlon. By crafting a precise statement of purpose, a business school gives the members of its community a clear sense of how their efforts contribute to a larger set of objectives. Moreover, it can strengthen their affiliation with—an enthusiasm about—the school and its mission.