The Brand Called U

How do you define a business school's brand?
The Brand Called U

Almost 20 years ago I worked on my first business school brand campaign; the client brief included the following observation about themselves, “It’s a sort of generic world class business school. I would find it hard to articulate any tangible differences that it would have over any of its peers and the image differences are down to nuance.”

At the time, Tom Peters had just published an article in Fast Company magazine titled, The Brand Called You, but it could just as easily have been The Brand Called U(niversity). In his article, Peters wrote “Ask yourself ‘What is it that my product or service does that makes it different? Give yourself the traditional 15-word-or-less contest challenge. Take the time to write down your answer. And then take the time to read it. Several times’.

Ask that question of a business school today and the problem is that too often their 15 words are the same as the next school; the vanilla business school is connected, global, sustainable, entrepreneurial and a host of other adjectives drawn from a list that schools are told they need to highlight to attract students. Instead, schools need to think what makes them different.

Growing international competition, a host of private providers and a raft of online suppliers in the business education marketplace mean a school needs to have a brand that stands for something.

Writing in the Times Higher Education in 2013, Ian Pearman, then Chief Executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the UK's largest advertising agency, stated “Wherever the target audience of an organisation faces a choice of alternative competitors, branding is incredibly important for justifying price, avoiding commoditisation, attracting and retaining talent and ultimately, resisting rivals”.

So, how do you define a business school brand? What is the school’s proposition? How do you develop a clear position in the marketplace? Who are your key stakeholders? What tools should you use to market yourself?

The starting point is to know yourself and know your stakeholders. When we worked with Vlerick Business School in Belgium, their Corporate Marketing Manager, Hilde van Lysebeth put it well, “You are inclined to think you know your school, but your experience is from an internal point of view. It’s important to challenge that and have your view thrown in your face. It’s important to have an objective view.”

In the latest round of CarringtonCrisp’s The Business of Branding research study, fewer than 30% of students definitely agreed that their business school has a clear strategy to differentiate itself from other business schools.

And it’s not just the school brand that is key to building reputation. Sometimes schools have little control over how they are perceived. The Business of Branding study also found that among international students, although the USA and the UK remain the most popular study destinations, 28% are less likely to study in the UK following the Brexit referendum vote to withdraw from the European Union and 40% are less likely to study in the USA because of the conduct of last year’s US Presidential election.

Even when a school gets its brand identity clear, there is still the question of who to communicate with, what to communicate and how. Today that means building a communications strategy that covers diverse stakeholder groups – students aged 16 to 60, faculty, alumni, corporates and all these groups and more, both domestically and around the world.

Thinking internationally, there is good data to drive targets for student recruitment. However, continuing to only recruit in countries where students have come from in the past is somewhat short-sighted; it means competing head-on with other schools who are following traditional recruitment patterns. Better to think where the next market might be for international student recruitment and that means defining countries with rapidly growing middle class populations.

A growing middle class is likely to be a good indicator that the wealth exists to fund international students, but how do you define a growing middle class? One approach might be to examine GDP growth, but an alternative is champagne imports. Look at the countries with the largest percentage increase in annual champagne imports and you will find a list of countries with growing middle class populations.

Beyond stakeholders, there is the question of messages, what can you say that will attract and convince prospective students, what will build reputation? Not every school can be ranked number one nor be the most international in its student body nor have the highest earning alumni nor have the most academics publishing in the top research journals.

More important than anything else is authenticity, using stories to establish key messages about an institution. Often those stories will be told through social media, it won’t even be the marketing department telling the stories, but students, staff and partners who will use their own social media accounts, building an emotional tie with key stakeholders that brings a brand to life.

Finally, there is the question of how to communicate, what tools will be widely used by stakeholder?. Digital is key and increasingly that means mobile devices to consume digital content, whether it’s a school website, a social media account or watching video. Our own research has found that over the last five years, the number of students using mobile devices to access the web has risen from 5% to over 60%.

But head back to 1997, before Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Tom Peter’s article in Fast Company magazine had more to say about differentiation. Adapting his words for business schools, you end up with something along the following lines, “If your (15 word) answer wouldn’t light up the eyes of a prospective student or command a vote of confidence from an alumnus, or - worst of all - if it doesn’t grab you, then you’ve got a big problem”.

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