Can you differentiate a business school?

28 July 2022

Andrew Crisp examines some of the challenges of business school branding in the light of initial data from The Business of Branding study.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by Deans and senior leaders in business education is ‘How can we differentiate our business school?’. Leaders surveying the business education landscape see many institutions offering the same broad programmes, delivered in similar ways, with the same career support for candidates and often at similar fees.

Yet the data from the next round of CarringtonCrisp’s soon to be published Business of Branding study suggests that students may see things differently. Across five questions, business school students were asked to rate 25 options on how closely they associated them with their business school.

Eight different options were scored as having a strong association with a business school by 45% or more of the respondents, suggesting that different students see different strengths in their business school. The options most likely to have a strong association with a business school are a reputation for high quality academic research, followed by strong connections with business and industry, good availability of careers advice and is internationally recognised.

Careers, reputation and internationalism often rank highly when students are asked what they want from a business school, although research, while an indicator of academic strength which is also often important, tends to be less important among prospective students. Making research part of a differentiated positioning for a school can be difficult, but one school that has embraced such as approach is Rotterdam School of Management. The RSM website has a page titled Discovery, dedicated to research and with a host of content, both written and video, which highlights research from the faculty and its wider application.

Building a differentiated business school brand is not easy, but it can be done. Part of the key is understanding the audiences that are the target of the brand, their expectations and desires. In another part of the Business of Branding study, respondents are asked how they would describe themselves with ‘I am a creative person’, ‘I like to challenge assumptions and seek alternatives’ and ‘I am a highly analytical person’ topping the poll. While there may be crossover between some of these options, creative and analytical are rarely put in the same pot, suggesting that different students may choose schools for different reasons.

Writing in the Times Higher Ed magazine back in 2013, Ian Pearman, then CEO of advertising agency, summed up the importance of brand as follows “Wherever the target audience of an organisation faces a choice of alternative competitors, branding is incredibly important for justifying price, avoiding commoditisation, attracting and retaining talent and ultimately, resisting rivals.”

Growing a differentiated business school brand may not be easy, but the benefits are substantial.

The Business of Branding report will be published in August when further details will be published on the CarringtonCrisp website.

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