The Zen of B-School Branding

Establishing a brand identity for a business school is not about what its students, faculty, and staff can do, say branding experts. It’s about how they think.
The Zen of B-School Branding

Zen practitioners often ask the enigmatic question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, does it make a sound?” The elusive answer may be best left for Buddhist mystics and acoustical scientists to ponder. A more straightforward question to ask might be, “If a business school offers educational programs and no one identifies with its offerings, does it matter how good they are?” Here, the answer is unequivocal: No.

Yet, business school marketing programs often confuse the quality of their programs with their identities in the marketplace. That can be a mistake, says Tim Westerbeck, executive vice president of Lipman Hearne, a marketing consulting firm with offices in Chicago, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. Creating a recognizable name that resonates meaningfully in the public mind—that is, a powerful brand—is not about a school’s characteristics, he says. A brand is less about a school’s rankings and test scores, and more about its culture and mindset.

“When you pick up a school’s view book or look at its Web site, it’s almost always focused on product characteristics. That’s sales,” says Westerbeck. “Branding is based on who you are, not what you do.”

A business school brand should also take into account its hopes for the future, adds George Sopko, vice president of New York City’s Stanton Crenshaw Communications, “As we put it, branding should capture both the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’ It should describe not only who you are, but also what you aspire to be.”

Increased attention to business school branding has led to much soul-searching within the administrations and faculty of individual schools. Branding is an art, both Westerbeck and Sopko admit, but it isn’t rocket science. Rather, it’s a culmination of discussions that start with business school staff and students asking and answering one single question: “Who are we, really?” To develop a distinct brand, say consultants, business schools must look at their histories, their legacies, and their ambitions to uncover what it is they truly stand for in the business school market.

“Your Brand Is Not ‘Excellence’”

For decades, business schools have banded together to explain the value of the business degree to the public. Now that the MBA and other business degrees are better understood, the drive to differentiate has come once again to the forefront.

“Branding will become one of the most prominent drivers of value across the increasing number of business schools in the next decade,” says Martin Roll of VentureRepublic, a Singapore-based strategy consulting firm specializing in branding. “The branding strategy and program need to go far beyond the product portfolio and embrace the whole offering from the business school, including products, people, price/value, and place.”

Even so, when asked what makes their schools special, many deans will point to their “commitment to academic excellence,” says Westerbeck. By touting excellence as their main distinguishing characteristic, many business schools have unintentionally mired themselves in a sea of sameness.

“There has been a shocking degree of similarity across the board in the way business schools position and market themselves. I do brand presentations for business schools and say, ‘Your brand is not “excellence”—that brand is already taken,’” says Westerbeck. “Nor is it ‘global education,’ nor is it ‘teamwork.’ Those buzzwords have already been used.”

The problem, submits Sopko, is that being classed as “different” has not always paid off for business schools in public venues of evaluation, such as the rankings. On the one hand, business schools want to differentiate themselves. On the other, they all want to be part of the same club.

“For the most part, business schools want to produce students who have all the qualifications and expertise that companies hiring MBAs want,” says Sopko. “Employers aren’t looking for ‘radical’ or ‘unique’ institutions. Those words scare businesses, at least when they’re hiring MBAs.”

That mindset seems to be changing though, says Sopko, as businesses seek more innovative ways to master their individual markets, while addressing prominent issues such as ethics, entrepreneurship, and competitive strategy. As a result, they’re looking for business schools with distinct and identifiable cultures and brands that best coincide with their own.

A Reality Check

Because a brand refers to a school’s identity, however, it cannot be forced. A brand should be based on the reality of a school’s present situation and culture. And above all, says Westerbeck, it must be believable.

“Schools are notorious for ‘deciding’ what the school’s brand is. The deans, administrators, and faculty sit around the table and follow a basic ‘we make it, you take it’ psychology. They’ll decide what their brand will be, then they’ll go out into to the marketplace and figure out how to make everyone believe it. That simply doesn’t work,” says Westerbeck.

What a school’s culture and brand truly are can come as a surprise, even to those most closely involved with a school’s inner workings. “I’ve done many focus groups to ask people what they thought of a business school. I can’t think of a time when school administrators weren’t shocked to hear what alumni and corporate leaders think of them,” says Westerbeck. “Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re pleased. Almost always, what people think is very different from what the administrators expected.”

While it may be nearly impossible to change perceptions that are based on what the school actually is and on the product it offers, this doesn’t mean that a school is limited by the public’s current perception of its culture. Rather, it should base its brand on what it already does well, or alternatively, what it has the resources to change.

“Sometimes people believe they can achieve their aspirations through marketing alone, by going out and telling people that we’re no longer regional, we’re a national player,” says Westerbeck. “It makes much more sense for a regional school to build a brand on the aspiration to be the best regional provider and to build the scope of its product in its region than to decide it’s going to be in the oranges business after it’s been in the apples business for years. You have to decide that it’s OK to be what you are and become better at that. Or you have to be willing to change your product offering.”

The common mistake among brand marketers is to try to embrace too many messages in brand-building efforts. The messages are diluted because the audience finds it difficult to get an idea of what the business school’s brand is all about. – Martin Roll, VentureRepublic

Sowing the seeds of branding where a school already is makes eminent sense, agrees Sopko of Stanton Crenshaw. “Many business schools fall into the trap of thinking they have to have a national or international reputation, when they should really start at home, looking at the impact of their brands locally and regionally,” he says. “Business schools often aren’t as defined as they should be in their local markets, especially those that are part of a larger institution.”

AACSB International’s recent mission-based accreditation standards have gone a long way toward allowing schools to be true to their own strengths and aspirations, Westerbeck adds. Mission-based standards allow schools to create a brand that truly illustrates where they fit in the marketplace.

A Single Message

Branding, say these consultants, is only effective when it infiltrates the mindset of an entire organization, from the person who answers the phone, to the marketing departments, to the librarians, to the upper management. It’s not enough to get everyone on board with a business school’s brand message. It’s also imperative that they communicate it through almost everything they do internally and externally.

Likewise, it is also important to target a brand to each audience a business school reaches. “Imagine how different your school looks to a 24-year-old MBA student, versus a 50- year-old professor applying for a job, versus a 68-year-old potential donor. These are radically different market segments, all of whom are surrounding the same product offering. If your message doesn’t speak to these different markets, your branding won’t be successful,” says Westerbeck.

He adds that many business school departments remain segregated when it comes to marketing and branding efforts, which can sink a brand before it is even launched. “For the vast majority of schools, what goes on in admissions and recruiting is considered their marketing, yet they are only small segments that mark the impact of that institution,” he says. “In business schools, rarely are all of their departments integrated, rarely do all work from the same strategic plan, rarely do all communicate the same message.”

Instead, Westerbeck advises schools to examine every avenue that they use to communicate their messages to internal and external audiences. Business school administrators often forget that their staff, faculty, and students have a great impact on how a brand identity reaches the public, whether through a conversation, an article, or a television interview. When everyone doesn’t just understand the brand, but believes in it and communicates it as “brand ambassadors”—that’s b-school branding at its best.

At a cost of $60,000 to $100,000, an MBA is a very carefully considered purchase. It’s not a $60 pair of shoes or a $1,000 computer. The selection of a business school becomes a part of a student’s personal branding process. – George Sopko, Stanton Crenshaw Communications

A Brand of One’s Own

Even if a school’s academic offerings are excellent, a student may still look elsewhere if the school does not communicate its product in a way that connects to his or her aspirations and individual beliefs. Therefore, when a school focuses too much on product characteristics, class offerings, or academic specialties, it risks missing the point of branding.

“I don’t mean to diminish in any way the huge amount of work that schools put into defining their curricula,” says Westerbeck. “But it’s amusing to me that most prospective MBA students don’t really care much about the details. They just want to know that they’re going to an institution that will be well-matched with their aspirations and that will help them achieve something in their careers.”

Branding goes beyond a product or school, says Sopko, to an individual’s view of the world. “At a cost of $60,000 to $100,000, an MBA is a very carefully considered purchase. It’s not a $60 pair of shoes or a $1,000 computer,” says Sopko. “The selection of a business school becomes a part of a student’s personal branding process.”

Over the long term, the degrees students eventually earn will comprise a much larger portion of their identity than the shoes they wear, the cola they drink, or the cars they drive. Students will identify with the business schools they choose, and so they will choose those schools carefully. It only follows that business schools, as well, must very carefully create their brands.