Graduate Management News

Booting Up a Branding Strategy

Branding and marketing are syllabus standards in business schools, but school leaders sometimes don’t apply those principles when marketing their own schools, notes branding expert Elizabeth Scarborough, of Washington, DC. “There is actually a great deal that is taught in business schools that should be taught to business schools,” says Scarborough, president and partner of SimpsonScarborough, a higher education marketing, branding, and research firm. She will address the challenges new technologies pose to branding at Mind the Communication Gap, an October professional development conference in London sponsored by Graduate Management Global Connection, the U.K.-based office of GMAC.

Q: How do you define branding, and why do you think it’s so important to business schools?
A: A lot of times, when people think of branding, they think of a logo ─ of golden arches, a swoosh, or a bull’s-eye. Business schools are just beginning to embrace the idea that a “brand” is the sum total of everything that comes to mind when you think of the school. It’s all of the associations that are made with the institution, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Every organization needs to have a brand strategy to form that desired set of associations. They should research and document those to know exactly what they’re trying to embed in the minds of their key target audiences.

There are two key principles of branding: differentiation and integration. The concept of differentiation suggests that any organization must strive to offer something that is different and better than alternative options. This is particularly important for business schools because their programs tend to be fairly undifferentiated. This forces prospective students to choose a school based on factors such as location and cost. Identifying and emphasizing those attributes that truly make your business school different from others is critical to developing a strong brand.

Q: What mistakes do you see schools making in their branding?
I think a lot of schools have yet to recognize their brand is an asset. And, just like any other asset, it has to be managed. The biggest mistake is ignoring brand management altogether. If the organization is not managing its brand, it tends to be influenced most significantly by the media and by the competition. What we’re trying to do is help institutions manage their identities, to put them in the driver’s seat in defining their brand so others don’t do it for them.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge new technologies pose to branding?
Part of what I’m trying to communicate is that new technology is great, but it’s not useful to chase new technology without a strategic goal for your brand. The challenge is to maintain focus on your long-term brand strategy while taking advantage of new technologies that reinforce that brand along the way. What happens in a lot of schools is that people hear about a new online tool, and they say, “Oh great, let’s do that.” And they constantly find themselves chasing the next big thing. A better strategy is to evaluate new technologies in terms of how they fit with your brand ─ how they help your school reinforce its differentiators instead of hopping on the bandwagon with the newest, coolest idea.

There are all kinds of new technology options that sound really compelling on the surface, and it’s hard to figure out where to dive deeper and what to ignore. Let your brand be your guide. If a particular tool or technique helps you advance your brand, go for it. If it doesn’t, move on.

Q: Are there other ways new technologies make branding tougher?
Yes, and schools have to be ready. A lot of schools want current students to blog, for example. But schools have to be ready to give up a lot of control if they want their students to blog; they have to be ready for students to tell the truth. It’s a huge risk that the school has to accept and be ready to manage.

Crisis communications can also be tougher because a backlash can happen quicker with new technologies, and because of this, we have to prepare to respond quicker. For example, a school recently made the decision to change its name, and a lot of alumni hated the idea. The alumni started mobilizing on Facebook within two hours of the name change announcement. That’s something a school has to be prepared to react to.

Q: Are there specific challenges for business schools regarding what they can expect with new technologies?
In general, I don’t think business schools invest enough in marketing. There are often unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished with meagre marketing budgets. It’s an “if you build it, they will come” mentality that only happens in the movies. Even though most business schools have faculty who know 100 times more about marketing than I do, somehow there is still a tendency to feel that higher education is different, that corporate concepts and practices somehow don’t apply. But they do. There is actually a great deal that is taught in business schools that should be taught to business schools.

It exacerbates the problem that there’s no track record with new technologies. Schools are bombarded with applications for new technologies with no case history. With radio, everybody knows the benchmarks over time, whether we’re doing well, when we’re getting good value. With the profile of online advertising in particular, there are no benchmarks and little trend data. Assessing what is a good deal and what is a rip-off can be very difficult. It’s very hard to get ROI for a lot of dollars going into technology.

Schools have to know what they’re getting into. With the ROI, they are not going to be able to calculate it. They have to be realistic; if it’s on the cutting edge, they are not going to be able to assess that. My advice is to make sure people’s expectations are realistic.

Mind the Communication Gap will be held 23-24 October 2008, at the Imagination Gallery, London. Please direct all enquiries to Simon White at, +44 (0)207 268 3464.

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