What Business School Leaders Can Learn from the Dairy Farmers

What would a unifying "Got Milk?" campaign look like for graduate management education?
Illustration of giant purple megaphone with several small people working together around it

In this era of declining applications and shifting demographics in graduate management education (GME), it’s incumbent upon business schools to leave no stone unturned in their search for creative solutions that support recruitment efforts.

Such a process includes looking at the methods that other industries have used to overcome their defining challenges. In that regard, today’s business school leaders should borrow a page from the playbook of the American dairy farmers of the 1990s.

In 1993, the Goodby Silverstein & Partners agency created an advertising campaign for the California Milk Processor Board that sought to stem the tide of declining milk consumption in that state. (See the first television ad in the campaign, known among many Americans as the “Aaron Burr commercial.”) By 1995, the campaign’s “Got Milk?” slogan had been licensed to the National Milk Processor Education Program, which in turn licensed the slogan to dairy boards and dairy farmers across the United States. During that phase, some of the campaign’s most well-known ads featured various celebrities sporting a “milk mustache.”

How are MBA programs faring internationally?

Fast forward to the present, and the shrinking market for GME mirrors the plight of dairy farmers in the 1990s. International student applications to U.S. business schools are down 13.7 percent this year, revealed the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) 2019 Application Trends Survey Report. GMAC also found that 73 percent of two-year, full-time American MBA programs reported declines in total application volume, while 47 percent of programs reported a decline in domestic applications.

Business programs around the world are generally faring better than their U.S. counterparts, although the GMAC report documents a 3.1 percent year-over-year decline in global applications to business schools.

The outlook for GME programs is particularly positive in the Asia Pacific region, where GMAC reports that the percentage of business school candidates who planned to apply to a business school domestically rose from 41 percent in 2017 to 47 percent in the first half of 2019. During the same period, the percentage of GME applicants from the Asia Pacific region who said their preferred study destination was their home region grew from 24 percent to 29 percent, with 41 percent of those candidates citing improved access to jobs as their rationale for preferring to enroll domestically. Two-thirds of Asia Pacific programs reported growing (48 percent) or stable (20 percent) domestic application volume, while about one-third reported growing (37 percent) or stable (32 percent) international applications.

Meanwhile, in Europe, 56 percent of GME programs surveyed by GMAC reported increases in international applications. Canada also saw an increase in international applicants, outperforming domestic ones, 54 percent to 46 percent, respectively. According to the survey, the largest number of international students are coming from Asia Pacific.

With fewer candidates in the Asia Pacific region, in particular, applying to U.S. schools, the applicant numbers globally are redistributing across Asia Pacific, Europe, and Canada. This redistribution is strengthening those markets while simultaneously contributing to weaker international pools of applicants to U.S. programs.

What else is behind shrinking applicant pools?

Yet regardless of a school’s geographic location, the vitality of GME is particularly threatened by alternatives to traditional MBA degrees. In AACSB’s 2018–19 Business School Questionnaire, 69 percent of schools responding to the survey indicated that they offer non-degree options such as open enrollment or custom executive education programs.

Further, financial firms are increasingly recruiting their employees straight out of college and preempting the possibility of MBA program enrollment. Business schools outside the top tier of widely respected rankings face an ever-steeper uphill climb because they lack elite brand recognition, leaving them wondering how they’ll meet their ambitious enrollment targets during a time of declining applications.

What should business schools do next to work toward a brighter future?

The power of storytelling

The solution begins with the same question that an advertising or marketing executive would ask at the beginning of their creative process: What story are we trying to tell?

For instance, at University of California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management, we’re telling the story of how our graduates are making a concrete impact on the local and regional economy. During the last 10 years, 88 percent of the companies started by Rady MBA graduates remain operational, while 15 percent of our MBAs are operating successful startups. Rady students and alums have launched more than 200 startups to date, and those businesses have raised a total of US$2 billion in the last decade.

Another chapter in our unique story is how Rady is one of many business schools where students are enrolling with the specific objective of launching for-profit companies that address social issues. Students at these GME programs are building the networks and communities that will enhance the impact of their pro-social ventures.

At Rady, we are amplifying our narrative by moving more toward a digital media strategy using keywords, geographic locations, and specific audience types based on demographic data. Our goal is to obtain and tell the stories of successful Rady alumni that will resonate with potential candidates.

Stronger together

Nevertheless, the inspiring stories of GME students in local markets aren’t receiving the attention they deserve from the media, the rankings, or employers. And that’s precisely where the accomplishments of individual business schools can be collectively amplified by a discipline-wide initiative that mirrors the dairy industry’s famed “Got Milk?” campaign.

Just as small-scale dairy farmers don’t possess the power to move the dairy market, today’s individual business schools in any country don’t have the resources or influence to reverse the migration away from traditional MBA programs among the entire population of prospective applicants. But business schools could move the needle if they acted in unison, with an inspired and creative message at the heart of their concerted campaign.

What would a “Got Milk?” campaign for GME actually look like? Here’s a possible blueprint:

  • Much like the dairy farmers of the 1990s, business schools would unite for a broad marketing initiative. The different professional associations that represent the interests of the GME discipline on national levels would also join forces to serve as the glue that holds the campaign together, performing functions like hiring the advertising firm or other creative agency that helps GME come up with its game-changing slogan.
  • Once the marketing campaign’s concept is finalized, the professional associations would pool their resources to fund the advertisements and disseminate them nationally among print, online, and broadcast media as well as other platforms. In fact, GME’s campaign would have a leg up on “Got Milk?” with the advent of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and various other social networks didn’t exist in the 1990s but today would only strengthen the reach and influence of GME’s outreach initiative.
  • Business schools in any nation or region would also use these new materials to market their programs to applicants overseas, supported by collaboration between professional associations in different countries. Would this lead to different nations siphoning away each other’s applicants, amplifying concerns over declining international applications in places like the U.S.? Not exactly. Ideally, the messaging behind the GME initiative would seek to grow students’ interest in the discipline across the board, benefiting academic institutions of all sizes and in all countries.
  • Following the first phase of the national and international campaigns, the participating professional associations would begin licensing the slogan, advertisements, and other forms of creative content to individual business schools worldwide. Each school would have the ability to customize the content for their local market, including by inserting their own program’s story within the template provided by the broader GME campaign.

As a member of the BusinessCAS Advisory Board, I’ve already started the process of brainstorming with my GME colleagues in the quest to discover the next “big idea” that will elevate our discipline and secure our shared future. Just as dairy farmers came to understand, business school leaders will learn in the coming years that we’re stronger together.

Shaun R. Carver, Assistant Dean, Graduate Programs, University of California, San Diego - Rady School of ManagementShaun R. Carver is assistant dean of graduate programs at the University of California, San Diego's Rady School of Management.