Wharton Crowdsources Its Branding Message

A faculty committee had spent a year working on a branding campaign for the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania but had come up short. “Transforming the World Through Thoughtful Leadership” was the best of three taglines that surfaced in the process.

But few insiders felt very passionate about the positioning. “It didn’t differentiate us and it didn’t capture anyone’s attention,” recalled George Day, a Wharton marketing professor who led the branding effort. “It sounded ambiguous, and a lot of other schools were touting leadership. We were a year into the process and nothing was really coming clear.”

All told, it would take three long years and an unusual crowd sourcing effort and innovation tournament in which thousands of students, faculty and alumni were consulted for Wharton to come up with something that rang true: “Knowledge For Action.”


The tagline can also be completed in as many as six other variations, ranging from “Knowledge for Innovation” to help apply the brand messaging to its research centers and “Knowledge for Life” to promote and market its executive education courses.

The new branding campaign, which debuted last week, is now being rolled out on the school’s websites with a supporting video that also uses the metaphor “Knowledge is the muscle of business.”

Wharton joins several other B-schools, including Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, to have gone through a massive effort to rebrand itself. Last August, Kellogg launched the tagline, “Think Bravely: We believe that business can be bravely led, passionately collaborative and world changing.” At Harvard, the “mission” or brand comes down to one simple sentence: “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” At Stanford, it’s “Change lives. Change Organizations. Change the World.”


Some business school branding experts are already weighing in on the new Wharton campaign. Tim Westerbeck, founder of the Chicago-based consulting firm Eduvantis, calls Wharton’s effort “a sensible attempt to draw an even closer association with the idea in the mind of the marketplace. What remains to be seen in all of management education is whether these kinds of efforts ultimately matter.”

Wharton certainly thinks so. The school started on the branding journey in the fall of 2009. Wharton Dean Thomas Robertson wanted to both clarify the school’s brand and deliver more consistent messaging about it to the marketplace. “It was a matter of finding a shared understanding of what the brand is all about,” he told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview. “One of the challenges was to look at (the websites of) the top 20 schools, take off the brand names and see if you could tell which school was which. Even putting Wharton in there, they all look very much alike.”


Just as troublesome, however, was the belief that Wharton hadn’t done a very good job at branding itself. “Past branding efforts were really dispersed and confused,” concedes Day. “Everybody had his own approach. Every time we got a new communications director, we had a new campaign and they all tended to be derivative. The brand was muddled and it didn’t stand for anything outstanding other than a clear recognition that we are the best finance school.”

To attack the problem, Dean Robertson turned to Wharton’s faculty, asking Day to chair an 11-person committee composed of members of the school’s finance, marketing, accounting and management departments. Robertson believed that a rebranding effort would only have lasting impact if it was driven by the faculty who, he believed, essentially owned the brand.

  • “Scholarship by Schuykill”?
    “Not Your Grandfather’s MBA”?
    “Wharton: The “h” is silent”?
    “Your Safety School After Harvard”?

  • A Anthony

    I disagree slightly. A tag line our USP is not the whole brand, but it is certainly a part of it. Its also much deeper than corporate identity (though that is a part of it as well; the representation of the brand yes, but not the brand itself). A brand is an experience. Starbucks. Apple. Zappos; and it is that experience that actually lends power and relevance to things representative items like the corporate identity and tag line/USP.  BMW is clear on the experience that you get from its brand: the ultimate driving machine. Zappos is just as clear: happiness. Stanford nails it with “change lives. change organizations. change the world”. And each of the aforementioned brands have live experiences that are consistent with their words; and their tag lines ring true because of the consistency of that experience. An organization that struggles with its tag line is an organization that is not 100% clear on its own brand experience and how that should be expressed; and for a business school, that’s pretty sad. 

  • jmco

    This article is off a bit. The thing Wharton worked on was the tag line. Not the brand. Brand is much more complex and can involve the corporate/organizational identity in the form of a symbol (Apple), logotype (type and image blended – Amazon), a signature (type only – Sony) or some combo use of one or all of these. Universities also might add on an academic/presidential seal for diplomas and academic recognition. Add to all of that a color system (think Coke red, Stanford red, Yale blue, IBM blue, et al although, they no doubt have other colors in the palette to draw on for other uses) plus a type face system for various uses, other graphics, signage and way finding, and a manual to show how to use all of that (UConn has one of the very best identity systems and identity manual I have seen from a university).
    All of that should be done by a professional design studio and not the one the university normally works with that maybe does the catalogs, brochures, web site or the athletics logos (which are a whole other secondary brand and another comment). This is your identity. Hire the absolute top firm you can find. Probably one HQed in NYC, Chicago, LA, Minneapolis, Bay Area, Seattle, or other major urban design area and, they probably will have offices in various cities nationally or internationally. 
    Oh, and that is NOT the advertising and marketing agency! Brand and identity design is like the foundation and building. You want something that will look good now and 100 years from now. The idea is to architect your brand. Indeed, the result of this sort of effort would then be used in the separate advertising campaign. Think how the Apple brand (or any brand) is then used by dozens of ad agencies on TV, print, etc. The identity and its system has some kind of consistency. A constant. (Even the name! It is Yale, Harvard, etc. The one word schools have an advantage in this even though Yale is actually Yale University and probably even longer than that in the legal books.)
    Everybody gets the idea of good design. We see how Apple did it with products. But the brand itself is also critical. It should be gotten right the first time. It should not change on a whim or a new CEO making his mark. It is critical. The tag line, meh, it is nothing. A cute thing to use in the advertising. But it is not The Brand!
    BTW: often schools already have good identities. A good designer will not change a good design, they will just clean it up, improve the type use, improve the color palette, and generally just make it look a whole lot better. There are many diamonds in the rough that are tragically destroyed by a bad firm or a fanatical rebrand initiative by the president. The result: ugliness for the next 25+ years. Would you rather be part of an ugly university brand or a well thought out and well designed brand?

  • Markedwards10

    I wonder what the motto for the physics, or math, or biology, or chemistry, or English, or medicine, law, etc, etc, graduate departments are in these universities.  Maybe a comparative lack of substantive subject matter forces business schools to play the spin game to compete for the best students.  You know “Things go better with Coke”  vs Pepsi beats the others cold” .  What do you think? 

  •   Good catch. Perhaps you have a budding career as a copy editor.

  • Monsieur Nuclear Option

    Alex, “one of the things that Wharton REALLY excels at more than any other school are two things”?

  • A Anthony

    This is also a prime example of why many entrepreneurs look down on/make fun of MBAs. This sort of thing should be basic knowledge to someone who claims to be “a business expert”.

  • I actually like INSEAD’s. “…for the world” is a phrase that has been used in other non-business contexts, and the phrase “the business school for the world” has a real openness to it (as you read it or say it out loud, the imagery that comes to mind is a person with arms outstretched). Not only that, it hits home exactly what INSEAD is all about: that its community comes from all corners of the earth moreso than any other b-school.

    LBS – not so much. “London experience” is too dry and vague because “London” as a city means too many things for it to mean *one* thing. It’s not like Hawaii where visually most people instinctively think “blue skies, beaches, vast ocean, palm trees…mmm”. London could be “Big Ben, those guards in the tall silly fur hats, binge drinking at pubs, etc”. “Business” is not really the first thing that comes to mind instinctively even for business people because the imagery of “business” isn’t emotionally strong or connected. “World impact” doesn’t work because “impact” isn’t really an emotionally loaded word. Also, “global” would’ve been a better word here (conversely for INSEAD – “world” is the perfect word because “the business school of the globe” doesn’t have that same resonance).

    Of course all of this is subjective, as it should be. But it’s this sort of fuzzy, intuitive, imaginative stuff that will result in conveying something that resonates with an audience.

  •  Well, it’s kind of like being an expert marriage counselor struggling with his/her own marriage. Giving relationship advice to others is far different than following that advice for your own relationships haha

    Language works on a conscious (intellectual) and subconscious (emotional) level. In creative writing, words get chosen very carefully not only for their dictionary meaning, but for their tone, rhythm, cadence, and context (how emotionally loaded or the inferences one makes based on other words), so it affects the audience on both levels (head and heart). That’s why novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, and yes even ad copy writers slave away at carefully choosing the right mix of words.

    Wharton’s approach here unwittingly reveals how flawed an approach it is: it was so methodical in trying to come up with something that is inherently creative (a tagline).

    In a way I’m not surprised that the profs and focus groups had a hard time – because the overwhelming majority of these MBA types are VERY “left brained” people (analytical, methodical, rational), whereas to come up with a strong tagline, you need to lean more on intuition and imagination to open up the language.

    I mean, if b-schools were to teach people how to write novels or screenplays, they would focus on market research, focus groups, committee meetings and an analytical step-by-step process to come up with what will result in a paint-by-numbers, uninspired, or incoherent story — when instead what makes for a great story usually comes from an author’s intuition and imagination.

    “Knowledge for Action” is fine and dandy to build a better mousetrap, but I would much rather take “Imagination and intuition to realize what was once never possible” any day of the week.

  • R710

    To give a more international perspective to this article, here are the branding messages of the 2 most famous EU (INSEAD & LBS) and the most famous Asian b-schools (INSEAD):
    INSEAD “The Business School fo the World”
    LBS “London experience. World Impact.”

  • A. Anthony

    I tend to agree. Not only should the tagline elicit an emotional response but it should do so largely by letting the reader know exactly what they are going to get as a result of interacting with brand. “What do I get/What do I get to do?” is the question that needs to be answered; and answering in a way that is compelling and concise is what brings about the emotional connection.
    IMO, Stanford’s tagline does the best job of this by far. It also speaks to a particular kind of student–who can vividly  imagine the exact experience they will get. The ones for Harvard, Berk and Kellogg talk about them instead of what you actually stand to gain as a student in their programs. Luckily, neither of these programs need to rely on a tagline because their brands are well formed and world renown. However, the test of great marketing is how well it works for an organization that does not have an established brand. I doubt anyone would get excited about any of those 3 taglines if they were not attached to institutions that were already well recognized.  Of these 5 I would actually put Wharton’s second to the GSB’s, but that isn’t saying much because 3 of the 4 could use some work. Wharton’s could use a bit more specificity so that it does a better job of A) differentiating Wharton and B)targeting the kind of student that Wharton wants. I think a big part of the challenge for Wharton is not wanting to be seen as “just a finance school”.
    From a positioning perspective, however, focusing on that would be a much better differentiator than trying to be general. Ironically, I bet each of these schools has a marketing class that teaches against the very thing many of them are doing in thier own positioning strategies: being too general in an attempt to not be pidgeon-holed. In marketing being typecast is a wonderful thing. Its what makes some people only buy Ford trucks or Nike tennis shoes. Its why Shannon Doherty (sp) can always get a job as a bad girl. When people know what they’re going ot get they come to you for it. I think Wharton would have done better with something along the lines of a themes that allude to power/quant/joining a great tradition – something that will actually mean something to students. I find it peculiar that top B schools are so adamant about wanting applicants to “know themselves” yet they seem to fumble almost across the board with clearly and succinctly expressing who they are and why you should want to go there–possibly to get a degree in marketing, no less; ironic hilarity at its best.

  • To add: from the article, I think an underlying problem was that the profs/admin/students had a hard time figuring out what makes Wharton stand out or unique.

    From my own experience and hearing from many applicants and students over the years, one of the things that Wharton REALLY excels at more than any other school are two things:

    1) Academically, it probably does the best job of really teaching you how to apply what you’ve learned in the everyday real world. It’s like they see “business” and “management” as a trade, and not some hoity toity subject. When you do a marketing class, you don’t learn “marketing principles and theory” but you learn how to actually build, promote and distribute a product. When you learn finance, it’s not just formulas and theory, but you learn real approaches for how to raise money, how to manage it, and so forth. Unlike some case method only schools, there is very little fluffy BS (i.e. Wharton teaches business in a rigorous way and that is rooted in the academic research they’re doing). But unlike other schools on the other extreme, the profs don’t get their heads lost in the clouds of arcane theory. For the most part, the school is really good at translating all that hardcore research and theory into practical, specific and clear terms that you can actually use in your job or business. Now that sounds like what all b-schools should do – but I really do believe that Wharton excels at this more than any other school (including HBS or Stanford).

    2) Culturally, it’s like a trade school mentality in an Ivy League institution (and that’s a good thing especially for a subject like business). Similar to 1), the entire school (profs, admin, students, etc) tend to really focus on the “nuts and bolts” and almost too hyper-aware of pretension (in plain English, they try almost a bit too hard to be even more down-to-earth than maybe they should be). And the culture seems to focus more on “not taking oneself too, too seriously” compared to other schools.

    If b-schools were cars, Wharton is like Porsche: the practical sports car that doesn’t have the flashiness of the Italian exotics (Stanford) or the pretensions of the British luxury marques (Rolls Royce, Bentley).

    In short, Wharton more than any other school is about a no-nonsense nuts-and-bolts approach to business.

    Quick analogy of how Wharton teaches finance: a Booth grad and a Wharton grad walk down the street. They spot a $20 bill on the ground. The Booth grad will argue that the $20 bill is a mirage, because efficient markets theory would assume that free money like that could never exist. The Wharton grad simply picks up the $20 and puts it in his pocket.

  • Byrne332

    Thanks very much for that thoughtful response.

  •  If it’s executed poorly, no.

  • The problem they have had trouble is their overall approach: trying to intellectualize it. Ironic considering that the initiative is being led by marketing professors.

    A strong tagline elicits an EMOTIONAL response or connection – either a call to action (verbs, verbs and more verbs!) or to generate a human connection with the reader (pronouns). That’s what branding is about: eliciting an emotional response.

    “Knowledge for action” is generic. It’s like a watered down version of “I apply what I know.”

    HBS is good. The “we” makes a huge difference because it establishes the WHO and “make a difference” has a lofty, aspirational tone (but in plain English) – it makes the reader respond emotionally.

    Stanford’s also is strong. A call to action (“change”) that escalates in magnitude (individuals -> groups -> the whole).

    Kellogg’s is horrible. Way too wordy and muddled. Trying too hard to be too many things.

    The big problem is that you have professors who are doing this. Professors use language in an intellectual and cerebral way. They don’t understand (or know) how to use language in an emotional way, which is why some of these taglines suck.

    Consider the following:

    “Think Different”
    “The king of beers”
    “The ultimate driving machine”
    “Like a rock.”
    “A diamond is forever.”
    “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is here.”
    “The few. The proud. The Marines.”

    And so on. Language isn’t just about conveying information (which is what profs do), but eliciting emotion. Some words simply have stronger emotional connotations or triggers than others. Even with these list of company taglines, you can either strongly agree or disagree, but you’ll rarely have a neutral, cerebral response. That’s why so many ad copy writers have liberal arts and creative writing backgrounds — and why they do a better job with using language this way than super analytical professors.

    When I see or hear “Knowledge for Action” — it only creates a WTF? response or a shoulder shrug. “Knowledge” doesn’t have strong emotional connotations. “Action” is a generic, abstract word for doing something, which again has no emotional connotation.

    The school had given out these surveys to alums, and I found so much of their suggestions to be horrendous. They simply don’t get it.

  • RC

    Do any of these marketing campaigns really make one iota of difference to potential students?  Seriously.

  • Mosieur Nuclearoption

    A lot of these b-school admins and faculty don’t seem capable of shame or embarrassment. It’s worse in this case because Robertson is putatively a marketing guy.

  • Maki

    And Wharton’s new tagline isn’t that good either…. sorry….

  • Freder89

    Really, three years and hundreds of world class professors and thousand of students and stakeholders just to come up with a slogan