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.