The Business School Identity Crisis

Why don’t we see a Canadian business school until 21st place of the Financial Times’ annual list of the world’s top business schools? A limited and superficial view of branding prevents them from advancing. Polls are fickle, yet they’ve let the media’s various rankings stand as the most valuable measure of their brands’ value. Depending on lists as a marketing tool only highlights the weakness of their program and organizational identities.

In a world where Canadian business schools are viewed as marginal, there should be pressure to communicate bold identities that differ significantly from international competition. Differentiation comes not from rank but from high ideas. Nurturing and promoting intellectual leadership would help Canadian schools compete with top schools, but no business school in Canada is doing this adequately. Each one seems defeated by the paradox of intellectual leadership: attracted by its accolades but deterred by the imperative of providing tangible proof.

Harvard has no such qualms. It might just be known as an old school if it didn’t nurture its identity as the key purveyor of business ideas. Harvard’s extensive publishing – notably Harvard Business Review and HBS Press books – extends top thinking to a huge non-student audience and advances the entire category by offering itself as a forum for innovative thinking. Their brand is always on, always working, always defensible (and, incidentally, always making money. According to Forbes magazine, publishing generates $93 million annually for the school). Perhaps not always number one in the rankings, Harvard is forever top of mind. It is overwhelmingly considered by the public to be business’s thought leader. Thus it is its expertise at ongoing knowledge product development, and the marketing of these knowledge products – more than any one educational program, more than any ranking, more than the influence of history – which accounts for admission to Harvard as being a perpetually hot ticket.

Listening too closely to polling data stifles innovative thinking about the future and results in fighting spot fires. If our schools want to crack the top 10 they must worry less about the polls and more about communicating their leadership. People want to see proof of leading ideas. Canadian business schools may have inspiring visions for themselves, but they’ve not taken the crucial steps of translating their intentions into concrete actions that fulfill this same promise. It’s time they established the link between intellectual capital, financial impact, and a well-managed identity.

Creating – substantively and tangibly – brands rooted in intellectual leadership will create a preference toward a business education in Canada – and, while we’re on the subject, help our schools do better in the rankings.

Could Ivey’s fall from 18th place two years ago to 29th today have anything to do with downgrading its respected Ivey Business Journal from a glossy printed magazine to an online e-zine? Doing so cut loose 9,000 subscribers who had paid for and received a tangible product. The new form can, in theory, reach a larger audience, but, as a free product lacking adequate promotion, its value has been undermined and no longer creates the same degree of brand equity for the school.

Canada’s top school according to the FT – U of T’s Rotman – seems to understand that people favour brands that lead with ideas. In the fall of 2003, the school published a series of weekly full-page advertisements in the Globe and Mail featuring articles by its professors. Dean Roger Martin told us “for purposes of brand building at institutions of higher learning, proprietary content on topics of public interest is more powerful than advertising.” They have to expand this effort.

The public needs constant reminding that a school has unique knowledge, but not through traditional advertising. And the leading schools, if they are to truly capture the public’s attention, will connect their intellectual leadership resources to the advancement of the whole category, not just their individual programs. Re-enforcing brand identity through the sharing of insightful and substantive communication ensures the school’s claim to be an intellectual leader is legitimate.

This piece was co-written by Jean-Pierre Veilleux.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 1 March 2004)

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