Who do you think you are?

07 July 2023

Andrew Crisp looks at how business schools are seeking to differentiate themselves from the competition.

What do 25 aspiring Deans have in common? Apparently, almost everything. Well, at least their business schools do.

At last week’s Chartered ABS development programme for aspiring Deans, the first exercise was titled, ‘Who do you think you are?’ The opening paragraph (or similar) from the business school websites were displayed on a wall and the aspiring Deans were asked to spot their school.

Only 8 out of 20 paragraphs specifically used the word ‘teaching’ which is surely at the core of any business school. The same number mentioned ‘research’. Six statements have ‘inspire’, ‘inspiring’ or ‘inspirational’ and the same number are ‘leaders’ or ‘leading’.

Many referenced place, but when large numbers of learners are online, place becomes less of a differentiator. ‘Ethical’, ‘environmental’, ‘society’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsibility’ appeared nine times in total, a trend that wasn’t present when CarringtonCrisp started 20 years ago.

Yet, the overall sense with one or two exceptions was that it was difficult to tell the schools apart, and only five or six of the aspiring Deans were able to recognise their own school.

It made me think of the words of Tom Peters when he was writing about what makes a product or service different and encouraged readers to try and write it down in 15 words or less. Taking his words and adapting them for a business school, he might have concluded if your answer wouldn’t light up the eyes of a prospective student or command a vote of confidence from an alumni, or - worst of all - if it doesn’t grab you, then you’ve got a big problem.

Why does this matter? Writing in the Times Higher Ed a decade ago, Ian Pearman, the CEO of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, then the UK's largest advertising agency, commented “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.”

Knowing your target audience is a key part of getting the messaging and brand right, and that is complicated for business schools with so many potential stakeholders. In a project with 15 of Europe’s business schools, CarringtonCrisp found that across 5,000 prospective students in 42 countries, 42% describe themselves as creative, while 38% as highly analytical. Devising a brand that works for audiences who may appear to be opposites can be difficult.

Indeed, some reading this article may think that it’s almost impossible to differentiate one business school from another, but listening to the aspiring Deans last week, it’s clear they are passionate about their institutions. Taking that passion and turning it into a clear message for prospective students, parents, academics, professional staff, alumni, employers and many more may not be an easy task, but it is certainly valuable.


Working with Roe Communications and EFMD, CarringtonCrisp is about to launch the second round of a survey for MarComs professionals in business schools. If you would like to take part, the survey can be taken by clicking here. All participants will be offered the chance to receive the report later this year at no cost.

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