Should You Care That an MBA Program is Good at Marketing Itself?

This post is going to feel like its about Wharton, but its not - not really.  

I'm prompted to write it because of Wharton, but it is about a larger issue, which is whether or not you should have a takeaway when you see that a program is going all in on its marketing.  Should you read into it or ignore it?  And if you do search out some meaning, is it is good or bad thing when a business school suddenly seems to have hired a new marketing whiz who knows how to game the headlines?  Let's dive in. 

For starters, let me clarify that I am not talking about your garden variety marketing efforts.

Every business school has a marketing budget and an admissions staff that functions as recruiters just as much as gatekeepers.  When I used to help put together an admissions office budget, marketing was almost the whole thing: events, travel, guidebooks (back in the old days!), videos, websites, you name it.  But these are all pretty standard ideas that didn't involve a lot of next-level marketing efforts, such as PR, press hits, and deep industry networking.  Yet every so often, you start to see a school really pull out all the stops on those second-level ideas.  I remember when Chicago Booth suddenly seemed to be everywhere - quotes in every article, banner ads on every site, press pieces in a range of publications.   Not long after that, I was on campus having a round of meetings when I met a man with the title of "Executive Director of Marketing."  I had never heard of that for an academic program and was intrigued.  He walked me through the whole thing: how Booth had recruited him away from a big Silicon Valley company to come and be a steward of their brand.  And it seemed to work: Chicago Booth started shooting up the rankings and hasn't stopped since.  

All of this brings me to Wharton.  

I don't have inside information and certainly no access to their budgets, but I would guess Wharton has both spent more on their marketing mix while also bringing in more personnel (obviously there would be some overlap between those ideas).  I am basing this not on any sort of traditional marketing volume (email blasts, ads, SEO, etc.), but on the narratives they are shaping - the way they seem to be shaping perceptions.  In less than a year I've seen Dean Geoffrey Garrett do more press than a movie star, their employment numbers shoot them up to the top of the rankings of U.S. News and World Report, the introduction of an early entry program, and even a somewhat ludicrous repackaging of letters of recommendations as "essays" (they are basically just like all letters of recommendations throughout history, with new branding and an over-the-top backstory).  These, to me, are all signs of marketing folks pushing out ideas to try to win the perception battles.  

Am I right?  Who knows.  More importantly, if I am right, should you care about it? 

I would say yes, for the simple reason that if a school is putting money, time, and brain power into tending to its brand, it seems to portend good things to follow.  

The case of Chicago Booth is a one-off, but the logic backs up what I saw with my own eyes - the school had a lot of money, it invested a chunk of that in marketing, and the perception of the b-school improved by virtually every measure (in some cases dramatically).  It is easy to feel cynical about things like b-schools trying to game their ranking or puff up their press - especially when it seems transparent or heavy handed.  And there is part of me that rolls my eyes at a lot of this.  But if I am an applicant trying to decide where to go - and part of my calculation (as it should be) is which schools are on the rise - I'm going to try to spot the schools spending money and trying when it comes to marketing.

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