Wharton Crowdsources Its Branding Message

“Tom assured me at the outset not to worry,” laughs Day. “‘Hardly anybody spends much time thinking about branding,’ Robertson told Day. ‘You’ll only get 20 faculty who are really concerned about it.’”


A year later, when the effort had stalled, Day went back to Robertson to report his lack of progress. “’I have news for you,” he said. “We have 240 faculty members, but we now have 262 branding experts.’”

Some professors weighed in several times, says Day, even changing their opinions during the process. But the committee found it a formidable task to rebrand the school. The professors ultimately hired a consulting firm, Prophet Consulting, to help it with 40 in-depth stakeholder interviews and 800 online surveys with current and prospective students, faculty, alumni, employers of Wharton graduates and some 50 human resource executives.

Befitting Wharton’s culture, the process was data-driven, analytical and filled with rigor. “In our culture, people say ‘defend that choice.’ That’s just who we are,” explains Day. “It’s all about the rigor. It had to be a huge data exercise. We had to be as rigorous as our colleagues would expect us to be. Our colleagues are a very tough-minded bunch.”

The group reviewed all of Wharton’s branding efforts over the past 20 years, did competitive benchmarking against peer schools and performed direct comparisons of its branding with Harvard Business School, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School.


“We found out our branding was indeed muddled but also all the stakeholders said the school is characterized by intellectual curiosity, depth and rigor,” says Day. “But one of the things that struck me was how entrepreneurial and risk taking the school is. We have 20 research centers and each of those has to find its own funds and create its own agenda. There is a risk-taking climate to it.”

The aim: To come up with a resonating brand statement that would be as good as the American Lung Association’s “Improving Life, One Breath at a Time.” Says Day: That really resonates and that is what we were looking for.” Yet by the fall of 2010, the tested taglines led nowhere. “Nothing really jumped out.”

At the same time, Wharton was in the midst of an MBA curriculum review. So Day in October of 2010 decided that his committee should feed the data it amassed to that other review committee and then took a seven-month hiatus. It wasn’t until the spring of last year that the committee turned to an idea suggested by finance professor Michael Gibbons. He recommended the use of crowd sourcing and an innovation tournament in which stakeholders would be asked for their ideas and then vote on the best of them.


Using proprietary software to elicit the opinions of several thousand stakeholders, Wharton went the crowd-sourcing route. “To get people to participate, you have to frame the problem correctly and then give them a mechanism for suggesting resonating themes or taglines and then evaluate them,” says Day. “Our criteria was, 1) Does it differentiate us? 2) Is it compelling?, and 3) Is it credible and authentic?”

What Wharton got back from its experiment astounded the committee: Some 260 tagline suggestions. One participant put in ten different positioning statements alone. Several alumni later sent in emails after thinking through the project.