I donít drive a BMW, but I can guess why people do

Line of BMW cars

It’s all about brand.  Few people sit around waiting for a ranking to be published on a certain day of the year and then make up their mind to buy a BMW.  Few BMW adverts tell you that their cars are ranked among the top 1% worldwide.  Instead, BMW has a strong brand, built around quality German engineering.

And why is this important?  In the UK, universities have recently been told by the advertising regulator that they need to be careful not to mislead potential students with claims about their positions in rankings which only cover a small subset of global universities.

But this is not a tirade against rankings.  Instead it is a plea for business schools to think seriously about their brands.  Study after study consistently indicates that business school Deans put differentiation of their offer high on their priority list.  In the UK the latest annual survey of Deans from the Chartered Association of Business Schools, placed differentiation as the fifth most important issue, ahead of engaging with business, delivering a viable MBA and school finances among other things.

Almost 14 years ago, CarringtonCrisp was set up following a presentation at a Chartered ABS conference covering marketing issues.  What struck Mary Lou Carrington and myself that day was the naivety of some of those in the room, attitudes that were the inspiration for The Business of Branding study that we now publish with EFMD each year.

However, at the time of the conference, business school marketing was largely dependent on what a previous member of staff had left in a filing cabinet taking no notice of how things were changing in the wider world, there was little or no data to support marketing decisions and the notion of brand was almost unknown.

Today things are better, but there is still a long way to go.  The notion of brand is too often confused with marketing.  Brand identity should be built around a strong set of core values, what the business school stands for, what it wants to achieve and what it means for its key audiences (not only students).  It’s more than just a clever slogan and a nice logo.

A strong brand will smooth out any year to year fluctuations in a ranking result, it will help potential audiences understand why they should choose an institution.  I’ve quoted Ian Pearman before but it’s worth repeating.  In 2013 as CEO, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Ian Pearman wrote in the Times Higher Ed, “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.”

Of course, rankings play a part in student decision making and results should be part of the conversation between a business school and a prospective student, but a well-thought through and communicated brand can do so much more. Branding works, just ask BMW.


(Photo by Torsten Dettlaff from Pexels