Business schools take their own branding advice

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 | 8:58 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Two years ago, Joseph Stephens was vying for the position of director of graduate studies at MU's School of Business.


As he worked his way through the MBA faculty and students on interview day, Stephens asked all of the school’s stakeholders the same question: “Why are you here?”


He got too much information.


"Everyone had great things to say, but they were all different things," Stephens said. "We didn't necessarily know who we were, and we had to figure that out to know where to go."


Stephens' revelation helped win him the job, and he focused the next two years on giving the program a defined, unified voice to sell.   


Earlier this month, the Crosby MBA program launched its new brand campaign, "Choose to Thrive." The logo is the result of two years of strategic planning with local ad agency Woodruff Sweitzer and interviewing around 70 students, faculty, recruiters and prospective students.


“When we looked at the current students’ courses and sequences of courses, no two were alike,” Stephens said. “We looked at that fact, and along with the tone and feel of the program, created the new tagline.”


MU's Crosby is one of many MBA programs working to carve out its niche in a saturated market. There are 596 accredited business schools in the world, 478 of which are in the U.S. To maintain rankings, recruitment numbers and student selectivity, business school administrators need to lay out what defines their program in a sea of homogeneity.


“If you start to look at the websites of the top 75 business schools, you’d begin to see a lot of similar phrases: diversity, leadership, real-world experience,” said Maurice Harris, associate dean of graduate programs at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management.


Syracuse's MBA program is tied with Crosby for No. 59 this year in the U.S. News and World Report ranking.


“Eventually, they all start to sound alike," Harris said. "As a customer, how do you wade through that?”


Carolyn C. Wise, senior education editor at, a career intelligence website, said mid-tier MBA programs like MU's in particular need to define themselves in the marketplace.


“The top schools are top schools because they’re well known,” Wise said. “When you get to schools on a smaller scale in terms of rankings, you need to help define what you’re good at.”


Marketers at rebranded schools admit many students choose an MBA program based on more practical logistics such as cost, scholarships, ranking or proximity to family. But if schools like MU want to continue to attract students on a national and international scale,  Stephens said they need carve out their niche.


"The University of Missouri's program is probably best known for its value," Stephens said. "We must deliver on expectations."

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