In a class of its own

| Updated on January 20, 2011

Prof. Bakul Dholakia, Director IIM Ahmadabad.   -  Business Line

M S Banga   -  Business Line

C.K.Prahalad   -  Business LIne

Dr. Mallika Sarabhai   -  Business Line

The golden jubilee celebrations of IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA), which are under way this month, give us opportunity to reflect on how great academic institutions, including universities, colleges and schools, transform themselves into powerful and timeless brands. IIMA is an excellent illustration of this phenomenon – it commands universal brand recognition and top-notch brand preference scores amongst all stakeholders, including corporates, government, faculty and students. Like the best brands, it is highly aspirational, and its name evokes widespread awe and admiration.

Brand IIMA has achieved somewhat iconic status. It has a formidable academic reputation, built over half a century. It tops virtually every ranking of Indian business schools today. The Economist's Survey of Global Business Schools 2009 points out that it is the “toughest in the world to get into”, with over 600 students competing for every seat. Its alumni occupy some of the most coveted positions in Indian industry. Like Harvard and Oxford across the oceans, it has developed its own distinctive culture which sets it apart.

In summary, IIMA is as powerful a brand as some of the best known trademarks in the FMCG, durables, media or financial industries. Admittedly, only a few academic institutions make this transition to becoming big brands in their own right. What triggers this big leap?

At the core of any reputed academic brand is excellence in education. This is derived from a sound and proven syllabus of learning that constantly evolves to meet the demands of the present and future, the ability to attract and retain brilliant and committed faculty passionate about teaching and research, and, of course, excellent physical infrastructure and facilities including laboratories and libraries. These constitute the foundation for any academic institution aspiring to greatness, and IIMA scores high on all of them. Unfortunately, not many universities and colleges in India can claim to possess these essential building blocks, in sharp contrast to their counterparts in the US. This explains why America boasts so many globally respected Ivy League academic brands – Harvard, Wharton, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, Princeton and so on – while India has so few that make the global cut.

Excellence in education is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a great academic brand. First amongst other factors which count is the heritage of the institution. Great academic brands should have necessarily stood the test of time. Several batches of students should have successfully graduated from its portals. The institution should ideally have been spawned or nurtured by great names in education, arts or the sciences, whose creative vigour, wisdom and vision would have helped shape its canvas. For instance, IIMA has completed 50 immensely successful years, and was also built in collaboration with one of the world's finest names in management education, the Harvard Business School.

Yet another important factor are the alumni of the institution, who serve as ambassadors of the brand. An academic brand grows greatly in stature when its alumni reach important and well-regarded positions in the world at large. The achievements of its alumni are seen as a strong vindication that the academic institution has excelled in imparting relevant knowledge to its students, in creating champions and winners who serve as role models to future generations of students. Brand IIMA has greatly benefited from distinguished alumni such as C. K. Prahalad, K.V. Kamath, M.S. Banga, Jerry Rao, Raghuram Rajan, Kiran Karnik and Bhaskar Bhat (Managing Director of Titan Industries, where I work), who are greatly admired for their success in the world of business, economics or finance. Alumni who have struck out and made it big in non-mainstream areas - such as danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle and author Chetan Bhagat – have also given the brand an edge and energy which helps break the clutter very well.

Equally important in today's competitive world are the ratings obtained by the college or university each year, in internationally and nationally reputed compilations. These rankings are a surrogate for the aspirational appeal of the brand, and also an important yardstick by which students decide where they will pursue their future studies. Therefore, they help academic institutions attract the best and brightest students, which further strengthens the brand and protects its future appeal. A top rating also adds greatly to the halo effect surrounding the brand. Undoubtedly, the fact that IIMA obtains the numero uno rank in virtually every rating of Indian business schools adds greatly to its lure.

Every great brand has its legends and mystique, and this is equally relevant to academic institutions. Such legends can spring from many sources – they can emanate from the founders, from professors whose stature and lectures evoke immense admiration and special respect, from researchers and students who win celebrated awards, from famous campus rituals which leave a mark. At IIMA, many such legends have their origin in great faculty – to name just a few (from my time at the Institute), Pradip Khandwalla, Indira Parikh, V.L. Mote, Abhinandan Jain, T.V. Rao, Bakul Dholakia, N. Ravichandran and Samir Barua – the manner in which they taught, guided and tested their classes, and brought out the best in their students. Several years after graduation, many of us who have studied in IIMA continue to discuss these legends, and we will perhaps remain in awe of them for the rest of our lives. That's what legends are for.

Finally, every great brand rests on its key differentiators, or unique selling points (USPs), which set the brand apart from competition. For academic institutions, such differentiation can arise from areas as diverse as the syllabus, the mode of instruction, undisputed prowess in a specific (sometimes even narrow) functional area, strong links with industry, or even the location of the campus. Brand IIMA has built itself a strong differentiator through its case study method of learning. Lessons in marketing, finance, strategy and the behavioural sciences are taught and learnt not merely through text books and theoretical questions, but through study and discussion of evocative case studies drawn from the real world of business. Despite many contrasting views on how well this works, the institute has remained steadfastly committed to the case study methodology, throughout its existence. This is certainly one of the key reasons why brand IIMA has such distinctive appeal today.

In conclusion, students of marketing as well as aspiring builders of academic institutions would do well to remember one of the fundamental tenets of building great brands – you have to fulfil all key points of parity in your category (such as an excellent academic reputation, and very good physical infrastructure) and also build important points of differentiation (such as a distinctive method of instruction, or heritage and legend). These make all the difference between the many mediocre colleges and schools we see all around us, and the few truly great academic brands.

Published on December 22, 2010

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