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The Coming Brandemic?

Brands are built based on experiences each of us has with a product or service.  Business school brands are no exception.  Most institutional brands have been built based on stakeholders being on campus on a sunny spring afternoon, bonding with one-of-a-kind faculty, living in a rarified culture, struggling with statistics in the library and tipping a few at the local pub with their classmates.

In many cases, this annual cycle of activity has gone on for generations, creating concentric circles of alumni that go into the world to spread the good news of their institution’s value and differentiation, sharing the folklore, achieving the success, pouring the Kool-Aid. Word gets around, rankings get achieved, brands get made. The critical importance and long-term value of this ritualistic experience, of course, is the main reason why business schools have busted the bank to build bigger and better business school buildings. They’re temples to the brand.

At Eduvantis, we know through working with a large number of business schools that the acceleration of online learning had already started to evolve how institutional brands are increasingly experienced. But most institutions have still had most of their brand equity invested in the “place and space” experience.  Online delivery and degrees could easily borrow from this hard-earned brand equity bankroll.

It’s been a serious question though, as the market got deeper into online delivery models, whether this expansion of online real estate would slowly erode brands through decreasing the depth of direct stakeholder experience. We’d concluded that as long as an institution continued to deliver at least 90 percent of its engagement with stakeholders through the world of physical experience, this “brand erosion” would play out over an extended period of time, and could likely be mitigated through a variety of potential means. It’s a longer conversation regarding how the “rate of decay” might vary between “elite” institutions and all others.  Suffice it to say it’s likely slower at the top.

Now with Covid-19 and its unprecedented impact on the traditional brand experience, the brand building model has been turned on its head. Business schools are changing rapidly into a more predominantly online industry – and it’s likely to stay that way for quite a while and perhaps for the long-term. See recent WSJ article During Covid-19 Era, Online M.B.A.s Gain Traction

Here is why I think this is potentially a very big story for business schools.

  1. Much of the online learning experience is the same across programs and institutions. Yes, of course, schools are investing in better video production, technology platforms, instructional design and faculty training, big video monitor walls and something else new every day. But it’s just not nearly as differentiating, affinity creating, personal, connected and reflective of an institution’s unique culture as the in-person deal. In other words, nearly every institution has lost or had significantly reduced the tools it has historically had to build and differentiate its brand, the basis of its competitive advantage and assigned ROI.
  2. Marketers will tell you, and I am among them, that the website is absolutely key to brand-building and it is time to double-down on how we communicate about our differentiation, culture, and brand value through digital means – to revolutionize the user experience. Absolutely, but that will not replace the real deal. Further, you can tell the best story in the world about your enterprise to attract enrollments, but how do you deliver the product online so that deep, lifelong brand affinity can be built?
  3. Here is the punchline. Without the traditional tools to build, grow, maintain and perpetuate a distinctive institutional brand institutions lose the means to pricing power, authentic differentiation, brand-based competitive advantage and most other things that make most online programs perceived as more or less valuable – and having a greater ROI – than the next institution’s online programs.

No institution is immune from this hazard.

Look only at recent news coverage of the outrage and brand damage – and the rabidity of customer criticism – of even some of the world’s top business school brands as they were forced by the pandemic to move to online or predominantly online delivery. Remember, this is not going away anytime soon.

Ultimately, this mass move to online delivery may lead to a reshuffling of the brand hierarchy and general competitive landscape as we now know it. The entire approach to business school brand building, marketing and selling will need to change in many ways — to build brand affinity and sustain the perceived ROI growing from brand that drives prospects – all stakeholders, including employers – to make choices, assign value and generate lifelong affinity.

I’ll be exploring this issue ongoing and welcome observations, examples, ideas, innovations and commentary, which I will share regularly. [email protected]

Tim Westerbeck, President of Eduvantis