Owning a word in the business school market.

November 1, 2004

In its October 18th issue, Business Week published its rankings of the top business schools in the country.

No. 1: Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

What’s interestin

g about the list is not the selection of Kellogg. This is the fifth time that Northwestern’s pride and joy has headed the list, more than any other business school. No, what’s interesting about the list is that all of the leaders benefited from the most important principle of marketing: Own a word in the mind.

The top five business schools are: (1) Kellogg, (2) Chicago, (3) Pennsylvania’s Wharton, (4) Stanford and (5) Harvard.

What does the average knowledgeable person associate with each of these five business schools? Ask anyone and I think you’ll get the following five answers:

Kellogg . . . marketing.

Chicago . . . quantitative analysis.

Wharton . . . finance.

Stanford . . . high technology.

Harvard . . . management.

But, of course. Everybody associates management with Harvard, high tech with Stanford, finance with Wharton, quantitative analysis with Chicago and marketing with Kellogg. What’s new about that?

What’s new is that none of these schools specialize in their specialties. Harvard is just as much a marketing school as Kellogg and Kellogg is just as much a management school as Harvard. The truth is, that all of these business schools teach a full range of courses. They would be upset if anyone suggested otherwise.In our consulting work, we repeatedly recommend that clients try to own a word in the mind, which we consider the most important principle of marketing. Volvo owns “safety.” BMW owns “driving.” And Mercedes-Benz owns “prestige,” which they seem to be trying to get rid of by introducing cheap cars.

But what’s a Chevrolet? A Chevrolet is a large, small, cheap, expensive car and a brand in trouble.

Kellogg (the business school, that is) is no different than Chevrolet. It’s a business school that’s all things to everybody. Then how in the world did Kellogg get associated with marketing, an association that propelled them to the top of the business school list?

From a marketing point of view, it was fortuitous accident since Kellogg never calls itself a marketing specialist. Kellogg benefited from a handful of nationally-recognized marketing professors, most notably Phil Kotler.

There’s a tremendously important lesson to be learned from this list of business school leaders. And it’s lesson that has importance for whatever you do, whomever you work for and whatever your goals are in life. You can’t make yourself successful; others have to do it for you. You can’t make your business school successful either; others have to do it for you.

To achieve success in marketing yourself, your brand, your company or your business school, you have to get into minds. And to get into a mind, your prospect needs a place in his or her mind to put your brand.

Where do I put Chevrolet into my mind? An American Revolution? Is there a secret compartment under a Chevrolet chassis where I can hide an AK47, so

when we’re ready to rebel against the government, our weapons will be handy?

Chevrolet could get lucky like Kellogg, but it’s unlikely. The average car buyer already has many other automobile brands tucked away into his or her mind. Expensive Japanese car (Lexus). Expensive American car (Cadillac). Small, ugly, reliable car (Volkswagen). Sport-utility vehicle (Jeep). Minivan (Chrysler). Getting another brand into an overcrowded category like cars in going to be difficult.

(There’s a big difference between knowing the name of a brand and having a position in the mind for the brand. Everybody knows Chevrolet, but few people tuck the brand into a position or slot in their minds, in spite of the fact that Chevrolet spent a billion dollars on advertising last year.)

On the other hand, the average business school buyer has nothing but empty slots or pigeon holes in his or her mind for the names of business schools. So he or she actively looks for clues that will help them file the names of desirable schools. One or two mentions of Kotler and his achievements and bang, Northwestern’s Kellogg is a marketing school.

(A handful of business schools have marketed themselves quite successfully with a single word or concept. Thunderbird (international studies) and Babson (entrepreneurs) are two that come to mind. But most business schools school themselves after the Chevrolet model, all things to all people.)

Just because you do nothing to position yourself or your business school doesn’t mean that your prospects won’t do the job for you. They will. Unfortunately, how they position you might not agree with how you would want to position yourself.

Look at the vast number of lists of one thing or another. The Fortune 500, The Forbes 400, Letterman’s top ten, weekly rankings of movie grosses. All of these various lists play into the need for people to have a simple, easy way to file names and ideas in their minds.

Your business school, your product, your brand, your company and you yourself might have a wide range of attributes and capabilities that you’d like your prospects to file away in their minds, but unless you can supply them with a single word or concept, they are unlikely to do so.

Or they might do so in a way you’ll live to regret. Flip-flop Kerry, for example.