Determined to make their mark

What's in a name? Martin Thompson reports on why business schools seem more image conscious than ever
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The Independent Online

And at first glance, Cambridge University's recently rechristened Judge Business School appears to have everything going for it - a privileged position within a world-class university, an attractive base in one of Britain's most beautiful cities within easy reach of London, a healthy, if small, MBA programme attracting 43 nationalities, a lively research programme and strong corporate connections. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, the school, named after its founding benefactor, businessman Sir Paul Judge, might be forgiven for maintaining a steady course without too much soul-searching.

Yet last July's name change, from the Judge Institute of Management, was the outward sign of an internal process of intensive self-scrutiny, which the Judge has been undergoing for the past 12 months. For a small school which has only been in existence for 14 years, its goal is an ambitious one, namely to be recognised as one of the world's top three one-year MBA programmes. To achieve that aim within a decade means that resting on its laurels is not an option. "Our research has shown that, in international terms, the school is not as well known as it should be," explains the Judge's director, Professor Dame Sandra Dawson. "This recent rebranding exercise - which has produced a new logo, brochure and website - is only one element of a long-term strategic review designed to find out what our unique strengths are. Our task is then to reflect them accurately back to the outside world.

"The idea was to really challenge ourselves about how we were going to fulfil our ambitions. Our strategic review entailed consulting all our stakeholders including students, advisers, faculty and alumni. There was a lot of disagreement and edginess as you would expect from any round-table creative process. The critical factor however was that there was a fundamental shared belief in the purposes and motives of everyone we consulted.

"We have avoided the Big Bang approach which may then go flat. Instead, this is a gradual process of change initially linked to a 10-year plan to expand student numbers, increase faculty strength, and fulfil ambitious plans for growth in the executive education field. Our intelligence tells us that demand in the MBA market may have peaked but there is robust competition for places. In this context, the Cambridge MBA brand has the capacity to grow. We intend to increase numbers from 100 to around 230 MBA students in three streams over a three-year period."

Harnessing internal marketing expertise from faculty members who specialise in this field clearly makes sense, but business schools also need to pull in an objective eye. External professional help and advice is a vital part of the realignment process. In the Judge's case, they were able to call on pro-bono help from major corporates who are represented on their advisory board. These included oil giant BP which provided a team to plan the strategic review while international marketing services group WPP contributed to many aspects of the rebranding exercise.

As Mark Linder, global client leader at WPP explains: "The heart of the challenge was that the Judge has not been receiving the global recognition it deserves as a leading business school. From the many workshops and focus groups we ran with stakeholders, including alumni and potential students, we discovered that the Cambridge University brand was not closely identified with the business world. To counteract this, we recommended strengthening the visual link with the university, making the historic crest a key element of the new Judge logo. We also offered some advice on shaping the direction of the school's research strategy, building upon its inherent strengths."

Durham Business School, attached to England's third oldest university, is meanwhile in the midst of "refreshing" its own brand. Part of its marketing strategy is to capitalise more fully on the strength of the university connection, stressing the contact with leading-edge minds as well as the inherent beauty and history of its surroundings. And like Cambridge, it wants to project its world-class teaching and research strengths more powerfully on the international stage. Durham's marketing and development manager, Claire Roper-Browning has been brought in to inject private sector know-how into this rebranding process. Roper-Browning, who was recruited from Manchester United Football Club where she ran major corporate sponsorship deals, explains: "The secret of making rebranding appear more than a cosmetic exercise is to ensure that everyone within the school from the senior academics to the catering staff believes in the new mission and shared values and will buy into them. At Durham, we have ensured this will happen through an extensive internal communications programme. A new brochure and new website are important tools but no amount of external spin will work if the changes don't come from the heart of the business." Is there one key message she has brought from the world's most famous football club? "You need to listen hard to your customers. Manchester United communicate their brand values well to staff and external audience."

Spain's ESADE Business School has undertaken a similar exercise. Executive director of marketing Colin McElwee explains that they have been mindful of the dangers of adopting what he calls "the iceberg model": "Above the waterline, a new school logo and identity may proclaim an exciting new look. However, business schools run into trouble when they don't project what is happening beneath the surface, in terms of the school's culture, expertise and competence. As McElwee stresses: "no amount of rebranding is going to work unless it changes the perceptions of consumers."