A Rebrand Gone Wrong: Wharton’s One Word Problem


Does that word grab you? What do you think of when you hear it? Do you associate any person, business or organization with it?

Wharton (as in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) hopes so. They want to stand out from their competitors. To judge for yourself how they’re doing, see the chart below:

Chart showing taglines of Wharton, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and Kellogg

Rebranding is never easy. Even the best organizations can flop at it. Remember Gap’s failed attempt? Now, Wharton, one of the best and smartest institutes in the world, is struggling too. Not sure they recognize that yet though.

According to Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal:

The Philadelphia business school’s new advertising tagline, “Knowledge for…” will be completed with a variety of words, such as “action,” “global impact” and “life.”

With 20 research centers and initiatives scattered about, Wharton faces a problem. As Thomas Robertson, Wharton’s dean and marketing professor, puts it, the previous brand was inconsistent and the research centers “weren’t immediately identifiable as Wharton.”

Makes sense, right? Their reason for rebranding is a good one.

Wharton also made a good decision to target their so-called “quant” audience. As Korn reports:

The new marketing materials rely heavily on charts and graphs, including an infographic with concentric circles to show how far students travel to study at the school and another with colorful vertical bars to represent finance professors’ years of experience.

Smart. So far, so good. So what went wrong?

Clearly, they want to woo potential students with knowledge. But, they forgot the most important part—the differentiator.

Sure, Robertson talked about it in the WSJ interview. He even cited differentiation as a reason for the rebrand. And if you’ve read the interview, maybe you’ve even spotted the problem in Robertson’s answer to one of the questions:

Why a Wharton undergraduate degree? Why should a 17-year-old want to study at Wharton rather than be a math or economics major at Penn or elsewhere?

Answer: You could get an undergraduate degree at Harvard, Yale [or] Princeton. A lot of these students would then compete with our students for jobs on Wall Street or with consulting firms. At Wharton, it’s half liberal arts and half business, and we think that’s a pretty good mix.

Lame. I expected to hear a strong differentiator there. Instead, we got a half-assed hint of “half liberal arts and half business.” And if the school overall thinks that, why did they just decide on “knowledge”?

Wharton is a top-three business school known for its strong finance programs. Living outside of Philadelphia most of my life, I can tell you that you have to be smart to go to Wharton. The best and the brightest want to go there, and the school has strong entrepreneurial ties.

Where is that in the new brand? What attempt did they make to shift promotions toward this new generation? (Besides just charts and infographics?)

What would make you choose Wharton over Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia?

The One-Word Problem

Wharton is like Cher—recognizable in one word. As Olivier Blanchard said in comments on Google+:

See, I thought Wharton’s single word would be “Wharton.” Why? Because it’s Wharton. What other word or brand do they need? It’s kind of like Harvard or Yale. There’s no need for a tagline.

“Knowledge” is not like Cher. Rebranding around one word is not a good idea. Even if it’s a great word, it can get stale pretty quickly. You’ll see Wharton taglines like “Knowledge for action. Knowledge for global impact. Knowledge for life.”

Doesn’t every school impart knowledge?

In the interview, Robertson talks about how Wharton is investing in:

  • Innovation
  • Social impact
  • Global presence

Notice, he didn’t say “knowledge.”

Innovation, social impact and being global are important current focal points for schools and for businesses. These are factors Gen Y look for. Where are these in the new brand?

The economy has sucked for the past 10 years or so. Take students with exceptional minds and add Wharton’s strength in finance and global reach and the result is leaders who can make a strong global, social impact and solve these economic problems.

You want to change the world? Wharton can give you the tools. Who wants pithy little knowledge when they can have gravitas?

Brainstorm taglines that mean something:

Wharton. Shaping leaders who change the world.

Wharton. Your first step toward leaving a legacy.

Wharton. Giving you the power to change the world.

Wharton. Transform the future of business worldwide.

Innovators, difference-makers—Your home is here.

Knowledge for Action.

Did you feel that dip? That blah at the end?

Check out Wharton’s new video. There are plenty of directions they could’ve gone using the words and ideas in this video, yet they still chose knowledge.

Knowledge only gets you so far. It’s the application of it that breeds success, and that comes from wisdom.

Don’t believe me? Wharton gained plenty of knowledge from all the data they collected from their crowdsourcing efforts—really good data. But they chose Knowledge.

Wharton. Wisdom is your window to the world.

Get students excited about being there.

Yes, use the charts and infographics, but also keep the testimonials. Get good ones. Why not get alumni, especially famous and successful ones to say why they chose Wharton over Harvard and the like. Get alumni to share powerful stories of how they’re making a difference now.

Do it in the format of Fast Company’s 30-Second MBA videos.

That’s smart! And I’m not just saying that because these are my ideas. C’mon Wharton, your knowledge tagline just makes you sound like the 131-year-old you are.

And you’re welcome for the free advice. Feel free to contact me if you want more.

By the way, Wharton, if you don’t want to listen, maybe one of the other schools will. Kellogg’s message is so long you can’t call it a tagline and has “we believe” in it—a major mistake. I’m sure they’d be happy to change to: Kellogg. Because wisdom takes you further than knowledge.


For an in-depth story of how Wharton went through this 3-year rebranding effort, check out Poets and Quants’ Wharton Crowdsources Its Branding Message.


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