Are MBAs Brandwashed?

I had the pleasure of attending a talk at the business school a few weeks ago by Martin Lindstrom, an advertising guru who was discussing ideas in his new book, Brandwashed. Martin lifted the lid on the subtle ways that advertisers use to embed images, sounds and even smells into our subconsciousness in ways that will ultimately help to sell their products.

What piqued my interest was whether I could apply some of the ideas that Lindstrom mentioned to assess the state of MBA marketing. Flipping through the pages of the Financial Times’ annual MBA rankings supplement, I counted no fewer than 3 ads with pictures of snow-capped mountain peaks and clouds, and that’s just in the last 8 pages of the magazine. I don’t know about you, but picture of heights and treks fill me with intense dread, especially if, as one ad suggested, I will land on my feet if I have knowledge and experience as my parachutes. Note to self :- when jumping out of a plane, it is better to have a parachute than either knowledge or experience. Bottomline is I found all the ads underwhelming, and I just couldn’t imagine anyone feeling inspired enough to start researching a school’s MBA based on any of these ads.

There are those who think that MBA marketing is a waste of money because the market is dominated by brands that have been built over decades, and in some cases centuries. Even before someone does any research on MBA programmes, they would have heard of Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard etc, brands built largely on the strength of their undergraduate and post-graduate programmes. This perception of quality is reinforced when they enter the workforce and find out that many of their colleagues or supervisors studied in these universities.

But even among this group of top university brands, there is a need to differentiate between themselves. Many schools don’t feel the need to articulate their uniqueness although over time, there are certain qualities that are built about various schools. In many cases, it is their location that sets schools apart. So Stanford is always associated with sunny Californian weather and Silicon Valley; Cambridge with the Backs, the college chapels and 800 years of history. However, just as Lindstrom argues that consumers should not allow themselves to be brandwashed, I would argue that MBA candidates should think deeper about the values that each school brand embodies.

One failing associated with MBA teaching is that many MBAs graduate with the idea that strategies and values are pre-planned. This has largely to do with naive students assuming that the world can be understood through the lens of case studies where all the information is neatly condensed and assembled for one to analyse. One only has to spend a week in Cambridge to realise that the notion of several university dons hammering out a mission statement, vision, values and a unique strategy for Cambridge is quite preposterous. Nonetheless, the unique fundamentals of Cambridge’s success can be sometimes difficult to decipher or understand because there is no plaque hanging on every department building that proudly distills the values that underpin Cambridge’s brand.

At the Business School, we have identified being “at the heart of Cambridge” as a brand quality that is central to our existence and to our future success. I have to confess that it struck me as strange, when I first joined the school about two and a half years ago, to hear that this was our brand value. I mean, none of the Colleges have to repeatedly declare that they are parts of the University.

However, over time, I began to understand that there was more to this phrase than a mere reaffirmation of our position within the University. To me, being at the heart of Cambridge means that everyone in the school has to uphold and build on the foundations of Cambridge’s success. We have to create an environment where we value individuals and challenge them to develop exciting ideas. These ideas can only get refined if our individuals collaborate with diverse groups and learn how to apply these ideas into practice.

I have seen how we live by these principles at the business school, but I will leave that to a subsequent post. Instead I want to end this post with some thoughts of how difficult it is to convey these intangible brand qualities through advertising. We knew that most ads in the FT MBA supplement would play it safe, rely on stock photography (I really don’t think any MBA jumped out of a plane or hiked up a mountain for these ads) and say basically nothing. We wanted to try some bold and exciting new ideas and we chose one of a series of ads that we hoped would convey the different qualities of the Cambridge MBA. Suffice to say that the reactions from students and alums were not what we had expected but I am proud that we had the courage to try something new, and we will learn from the comments and reactions that we received. While we will continue to test new ideas, I don’t think we will be brave enough to try something like this college ad.

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10 Responses to Are MBAs Brandwashed?

  1. Hi Conrad
    Thanks for the interesting post. ‘At the Heart of Cambridge’ grew on me too and made more sense after I arrived in CB. As *one element of* the brand essence it works – using it as such in marketing applications makes it a bit more tricky IMO.
    Where can I see the bold ads you chose?
    Warm regards,

  2. No expert in marketing here, just an average MBA grad with an opinion – but the cartoon on the ad left us cold. You didn’t elaborate on the reactions you got from students, just guessing maybe they were similar to ours. Focusing on the negatives of what the other guys do is what desperate politicans do (the current GOP Pres nomination in the US is a prime example). And all those little cartoon dudes are dudes. Even if the message is that the “other guys do it that way” it may not be so well received by a female audience.

    Anyway, your ad is certainly different, and creative, and you get major points for that, because you’re right, most MBA advertising leaves a lot to be desired (two unfortunate examples: and )

    Would really like to hear more about the “brandwashing” thing – your post was tantalizing but left us unfulfilled – what is Martin Lindstrom’s message about it? Unfamiliar with his work, does he see it as a positive or a negative? Seems positive for the brand – is he saying it’s bad for consumers? And what can bschools do in response? Also raises questions about the “brand” of the MBA degree itself and the reputation etc., just as you referenced in your New Year’s post about the risks of schools reducing selectivity.

    Glad to have discovered your blog – will definitely be coming back for more!

    • @Essaysnark

      Thanks for the comment. You are right about the “dudes” part — one of our students thought it was a reflection on the gender balance on the MBA, which at almost 30% is not that bad for a European MBA. The interesting thing was that most of the people in the school who worked on the ad are women so I don’t what that shows about us.
      We had our own post-mortem about the ad, looked at all the comments and agreed that it was not clear that the picture depicted what we are not, and we had to think of a better way to reflect how we are different. But we always run into the opposing school of thought, which is that most MBAs don’t want a school that is “different” and we have to tread a fine balance between being seen as “unique” without being seen as so different that we look wacky.

      In any case, I guess you have one more example of MBA ads for your next post 🙂

      I don’t want to give too much away from Martin Lindstrom’s talk as I imagine he would want you to buy his book:-) I did buy it off Amazon.

      His basic message is that brands are using ever more sophisticated techniques to manipulate consumers without us knowing it. This could range from the fairly basic targeted ads based on web tracking that you mentioned in your blog, to subtle things such as using muzak in a supermarket store to produce positive emotions which lead to more purchases. My favourite example from his talk was how supermarkets regularly change their layout to confuse male shoppers, like myself, who typically work off a shopping list. But there is hope for the consumer because technology and social media allow consumers to turn the tables on brands. Before, brands controlled the message, the medium and consumer trust. Now, the consumer controls a brand’s message, their medium and are central to developing trust in a brand. So, the oft-cited example is Domino’s although in the higher education field, I can think of the Penn State episode as an example of how a school’s brand was completely destroyed by consumers through social media.

      In the MBA market, as you yourself mentioned, there is not much sophistication in marketing, because most schools don’t need to do it. From young, we are already exposed to the brands of the Ivy League, Stanford, Cambridge such that by the time we think about applying as undergrads or as MBAs, there is very little thought given to why we apply to certain schools. Also, just as the rankings systems on iTunes or Amazon can create a certain homogenity (the most popular songs are listed first, which makes them more popular), MBA rankings reinforces the position of certain brands to the extent that most candidates don’t really ask what are the underlying strengths of a particular school, they just look at its rank. People like yourself can play a role in broadening people’s appreciation of the strengths of different schools, so keep up the good work.

  3. Really enjoyed this post and couldn’t agree more about the mountaineers and skydivers. The image on your ad did strike me as slightly odd, but it did mean it was one of only two or three ads that stood out in the supplement. While schools probably have to appear in this supplement, the large amount of advertising saying the same thing means it is very difficult to stand out. To my mind one of the best advertisements last year for an MBA programme was placed in the run of the paper by Chicago Booth who took a full page with the line ‘You are reading our alumni newsletter’ followed up with a small amount of copy in the bottom right hand corner.

    Sadly, the lack of differentiation doesn’t apply just to advertising, but is common on websites and brochures. There was a saying in the US in the 1980s about brochure photography, that all brochures either on the cover or inside cover would have a photo called ‘three under a tree’ consisting of three smiling students sitting on a grassy bank under a tree on a sunny day. A review of business school websites today shows much of the same.

    There was a very good book published last year called ‘Different’ by YoungMe Moon, which is subtitled ‘Escaping the Competitive Herd’. Although the book is not about education it makes some references to business schools, but it makes the general point that organisations use market research to understand their competitors and then try to occupy the same space as those competitors rather than a different space where they can become market leaders. I’ve just blogged about this myself at

    Inevitably, given the business I run, I believe that MBA marketing is ready for something different. Those that believe MBA marketing is a waste of money because of the established brands, need only look to Asia and the rise of schools in China, India and Singapore, or closer to home where a number of private institutions are beginning to establish a presence in the marketplace.

  4. Nice post. I remember seeing a new ad for the Cambridge MBA late last year when I first started considering a European MBA, as a US applicant.

    Certainly many other things came into play when finally making my decision to apply, but aligning the program with overall University, Alumni, and resources was a major factor for me at least, whether it was subconscious or not.


  5. What is Judge Business School’s mission statement? Most B-Schools have a mission e.g. Educating tomorrow’s business leaders, or Educating leaders for business and society etc. What is Cambridge Judge Business School’s mission statement and vision?

  6. Hi Conrad,
    Interesting blog post. Just a couple of thoughts on differentiating the Cambridge MBA…

    Being “at the heart of Cambridge” is certainly a differentiator but a few questions spring to mind.

    Is this something that our target market values and if so, will they value it enough to choose the Judge?
    Is the value something that we can and do communicate to our target market before they arrive and experience it first hand?
    Do we truely deliver the opportunities and experience that “being at the heart of Cambridge” implies?
    A student’s college is a major determinant of the nature and quality of their experience. Do we have sufficient control of that factor to risk staking our brand on it?

    As it happens, the school’s integration with the university was one of the main things that attracted me and I loved being part of college life etc. However, I’m not sure I was in the majority. Not everybody seemed to want (or get) as much out of it as I did.

    Being small is certainly another clear differentiator. The thing is, there are pros and cons to it.
    Does our target market understand and value the pros?
    From the perspective of our target market, do the pros outweigh the cons?
    Do we maximise the pros and minimise the cons by the way that we operate (and can we demonstrate that with our results)?
    Do we accentuate the pros in our marketing?

    That last question brings me to the ad. I think it was a smart idea to go for something a little different but it missed the mark.

    The basic problem for me was that the slogan and cartoon did not communicate the message particularly well. To me, “Ideas factory, not sausage factory.” carried a mixture of meanings and associations (primarily creativity and gender diversity) but I wasn’t quite sure what it was driving at. “Small is beautiful” certainly didn’t come to mind.

    If differentiating ourselves on the basis of our size and more personalised programme is what we’re going for, the picture and slogan need to really speak to that.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Keep up the good work!


    • Hugh

      Thanks for the comment and sorry I didn’t have a chance to speak to you at graduation. There were so many of your classmates that day.

      I agree with your views. I am not an internal brand person but I strongly believe in consistency and alignment of the brand so I have suggested that we use the theme of Rhetoric vs Reality during our upcoming MBA planning meeting. I suspect that we will find that in some areas we sell ourselves short, and in others, the rhetoric might reflect a reality that is no longer valid.

      The school has asked some external consultants to look at branding. One of their suggestions for the central theme for the MBA is “transformative”. It is still very much at an early brain storming stage but I am interested to hear people’s thoughts on that. Does it pass the rhetoric vs reality test?