Why Business Schools Need Branding Now to Reach Future Students

Now is the time for business schools to build on the momentum they’ve gained during the recent economic crisis. Specifically, it’s time for them to lean into branding initiatives that will help drive awareness with future students before they start thinking about applying — well before most schools are currently doing it. No longer a “nice to have,” these brand-building initiatives are becoming necessary investments for business schools’ long-term success.

Why now?

Business schools received a needed boost from the economic challenges that arose out of the COVID crisis. While the pandemic is ongoing and there may be additional economic challenges ahead, things are looking up relative to where we were in 2020. And when the economy is looking up, interest in business schools declines because there is less immediate pressure for people to improve their employability and earning potential. That’s why business schools must take action now to prevent backsliding.

Who needs to be most concerned?

The top-rated business schools are somewhat insulated from these economic fluctuations due to the importance of rankings and reputation in students’ choice of where to apply. But “even the top-ranked U.S. business schools…reported a substantial decline in MBA applications” in the years before the pandemic, The Wall Street Journal has reported

Additionally, the least expensive schools may fare better than others in an economic upturn, as the cost of education is also a key driver in where students will apply. 

It’s the majority of schools that are neither at the top of the rankings nor the cheapest options which will feel the bulk of the pressure from challenges such as:

  • Declining interest in US schools from international students
  • Increased competition from non-US business schools 
  • Loss of prospective student data from traditional sources due to evolving testing requirements for admission
  • Increased competition from an explosion of master’s level degree program options1 
  • Nearly all schools are targeting the same subset of prospective students, while students overwhelmingly make choices based on rankings, reputation, value, and convenience

This set of business schools will face unprecedented competition as they all vie for attention from the same group of students. That group is more likely to shrink than it is to grow. And these challenges will be particularly acute for schools located outside of an urban center without a significant local market to tap into. 

What is the threat, and how do we prevent it?

Many business schools will be faced with hard choices as they struggle to attract the students they want in adequate numbers. It may force them to compromise on admissions standards, cut programs due to under-enrollment, and other decisions that undermine program quality and reputation. For some schools, it will be the start of a death spiral. But it doesn’t have to be. 

There is a different path. One that requires business schools to take a new approach, starting now. Namely, they should stop orienting their efforts around purchased lists that lead them to the same overfished ponds as all competitors. It’s not just about reaching people on those lists earlier. More importantly, business schools need to start thinking beyond the pond.

Thinking long-term instead of short-term

Your school might spend a million dollars recruiting a new class of 100 every year, reaching just 1,500 to 2,000 students with that budget. (And by all means, if that is working, continue doing it.) But you should also be thinking about how to layer additional strategies on top of that and spread your budget wider to reach more people earlier on. 

Think about attracting prospective students as a long-term investment and not just a recurring year-to-year expense. This long-term investment is about brand building. It’s about generating positive affinity, word of mouth and awareness about your business school. 

If successful, you will reach future prospects’ managers, colleagues, friends, family, and other influencers who can recommend your school and get it into consideration earlier on when prospects start making decisions about their schools of interest. 

Reaching “pre-prospects”

The idea is to get on prospective students’ radar before they officially indicate their interest in business school and start showing up on every business school’s lists. Ideally, you can make an impression before the marketing flood ever hits them, and you will already be on their shortlist of schools. 

Your school has to be top of mind for prospective students before they officially become prospective students. These “pre-prospect” stage students are where the future opportunity is — especially for the majority of business schools that aren’t in the top-ranked tier and can’t offer the lowest price for a master’s degree. 

What does brand-building look like?

Tactically and strategically, reaching pre-prospects is quite different from marketing your business school to later-stage prospects, who might get things like mailers, emails, invitations to events, and informational content. 

To build your business school’s brand and reach people at the pre-prospect stage, we might expect to do more SEO, content marketing, thought leadership, digital marketing, and outright brand advertising. But more importantly, it consists of taking research and faculty out of the ivory tower and making them more accessible and relatable. That might mean connecting research to pop culture, real-life implications, or explaining what it means for specific industries. It could mean translating it into key takeaways to help people be better at their jobs. 

Ideas generated by your school might be shared on social media, the local news, or through a professional event in the community. Or maybe by a professor authoring an article for a mainstream publication like Inc. or FastCompany, instead of just writing to peers in academic journals. 

Think about what you can do to make your school (and its ideas, programs, and people) more connected to more people outside of academia — especially those high achieving thinkers and doers that you want to attract. The goal is to get your school’s name out there and associate it with helpful, interesting information that people want to consume. It’s elevating that unaided awareness of your brand, which plants a tiny seed for the future. 

Long-term brand-building is quite different from reaching out to a small group of people in a very short window of time with messages about why your school matters and why they should go there. A lot of those efforts get lost amid the noise. It’s only going to become more difficult to reach people that way. And then you have to start all over again with an entirely new group of people each year. That’s why business schools must diversify their approaches to attracting students and find new ways to reach people earlier on.

What now?

In the evolving landscape, with many factors conspiring to create challenges for business schools, marketing and branding investments can no longer be seen as a luxury. Competition is fierce, and schools must find new ways to break out of the pack. 

Building a brand is an ongoing investment that will continue to pay off and create momentum year after year. As increasing numbers of business schools latch on to brand-building to create an advantage, those that opt-out risk being left even further behind.

As an early implementer of branding tactics for business schools, Lipman Hearne views branding as a survival strategy for business schools today. Let’s talk! 

1 According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’ October 2021 Business School Data Guide, there are 8,478 master’s degree programs offered by AACSB-accredited institutions.

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