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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.”

‘KNOWLEDGE FOR ACTION’ IS THE UMBRELLA TERM

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.”

‘A SENSIBLE ATTEMPT’ TO DRAW A CLOSER LINK TO WHARTON’S EXISTING IMAGE

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.”

‘PAST BRANDING EFFORTS WERE REALLY DISPERSED AND CONFUSED’

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.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.