Mark Ritson: Why aren’t business schools marketing their brands better?

Teaching brand management at a business school is one of the great pleasures of my life. Stomping around in front of a room full of smart 30-somethings while we break down case studies is, by anyone’s standards, a great way to earn an income.

But one of the more uncomfortable questions that perennially comes up in class is which business school is the strongest brand.

By most definitions of brand equity there really aren’t many truly strong, differentiated business school brands. Sure everybody has heard of Stanford, and London Business School charges a hefty fee for its two-year MBA programme, but if you believe that brands have to, by definition, differentiate themselves from the other alternatives in the category, then you would struggle to prove any of the top business schools are actually strong brands in their own right.

Most offer the same basic syllabus, structure themselves in the same way (so much so that students can easily exchange from one rival to another for a semester without any problems) and they are all invariably compared to each other in commodifying league tables compiled by the likes of Business Week or the Financial Times. Further evidence of the genericism of these schools can be glimpsed in airports around the world as an identikit series of schools makes the same claims of internationalism, rigour and practical relevance.

There might be slight differences in the costs of their MBA and respective locations, but the dirty secret of most of them is that they are pitifully generic. The exception is Harvard Business School. HBS is not just among the most famous and expensive MBA programmes in the world, it can also claim to be the only one to truly differentiate itself by approach and design. It was back in 1924 that Harvard created its own signature learning approach known as the case method in which lectures are abandoned in favour of hour-long dissections of real business cases to illustrate best and worst practice. The HBS professors take great pride in not being compatible or even interested in the way in which other business schools run their affairs. HBS really stands apart.

And so it is with some fascination that I have followed HBS and its evolving approach to MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. For centuries universities have depended on students physically attending class with other students with a professor at the front. But with the advent of digital communication it is now possible for students to virtually ‘attend’ a class and entirely feasible for a professor to teach thousands of them simultaneously. MOOCs are both attractive to business schools, who see it as a potential source of added revenue, and threatening, because they potentially remove the need for any physical school.

HBS has, as usual, ignored the more traditional shared approaches being followed by other elite business schools and this month launches its own proprietary online programme called HBX. The course lasts nine weeks, consist of three courses and cost just under £1,000. For that you get to learn business fundamentals, including marketing, from HBS faculty in the comfort of your own home.

What makes all this so very delicious is that the two most famous professors at HBS – Clayton ‘disruptive innovation’ Christensen and Michael ‘Five Forces’ Porter totally disagree on whether the HBX strategy is the correct one for HBS. For Christensen the approach is a “sustaining innovation” – a token effort that pays lip service to the digital revolution but leaves HBS vulnerable in the longer term to truly disruptive, newer models of MBA learning developed by more committed rivals.

Porter, by contrast, is thought to be in favour of the more conservative HBX approach, which does not actively cannibalise HBS’s original target segment and protects its traditional business model. “I think the big risk in any new technology,” he recently explained to the New York Times, “is to believe the technology is the strategy. Just because 200,000 people sign up doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

Should HBS have been more disruptive? Or is it right to opt for a less risky model? That’s for time to tell but perhaps one day it will become one of HBS’s infamous case studies.

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