Apart from the IIM Bill, one more issue of strategic significance concerning the Indian Institutes of Management is being passionately discussed these days. In its history of the first 50 years, ‘brand IIM’ has built substantial equity. The questions that are being asked revolve around the possible dilution of this prestigious brand, which is respected the world over. With the six new IIMs likely to commence their activities from this academic season, the count has now risen to 19. It is also heard that with the J&K development package announcements, one more IIM in Jammu would be added soon.
What is particularly worrisome to many is the rapid introduction of new IIMs. A decade ago, there were six IIMs. The number has now tripled. Several stakeholders view the introduction of the “line extensions” of the brand IIM sceptically. The alumni of IIMs’ flagship programme are more vociferous in their criticism. Maybe because they are afraid of losing the exclusivity they have been used to. After all, with 90% applicants not making the rolls of these institutes, there undoubtedly is some elitism associated with the IIM brand. In a typical introduction of a product in a brand portfolio, the primary concern is how consumers would evaluate the newly introduced extension.
But the anxieties in the case of brand IIM are more around what brand management experts call the “revision of attitude towards the parent brand.” Would adding newer IIMs make the parent brand—the IIM brand—weaker, diluted? These fears may be attributed to a possible “quality variance across brand portfolio,” which is generally found to have negative effects on not just the “attitude towards the brand extension” but also the “revision of attitude towards the parent brand.”
However, the practice and theory of brand management also suggest that brand extensions need not only result in negative effects. Such extensions, if successfully managed, may have positive effects as well on the parent brand. These include strengthening of the parent brand by enhanced market coverage and improved generalised preference for the family brand. Thus, thinking a little deeper, one may envisage that the introduction of new IIMs can actually help the IIM brand family emerge as a formidable force in global management education. After all, even centuries-old leading business schools (such as Harvard Business School) cannot boast of an intake of about 3,000 PG students in a batch, over 50,000 graduate alumni, close to 600 faculty members, 19 campuses across the country, with over 1,500 acres of campus land. Older IIMs need to particularly recognise the potential of gaining from these “extensions” of the IIM brand.
The IIM brand may be considered to have two key associations—excellence and, to an extent, exclusivity. With the expanding IIM clan, the brand can be safeguarded and strengthened only by focusing on excellence. The challenge is to make every new IIM a centre of excellence in management education. At the same time, individual strategies, programmes and activities across the board cannot be standardised. Douglas Holt, Professor at Harvard Business School, argues that a brand needs to be thought of as the “culture of the product.” What has contributed to brand IIM significantly is the robust culture in the initial five decades. Excellence in case of brand IIM, thus, needs to come out of a particular culture.
With the brand portfolio expanding rapidly, IIMs need to collectively focus on the culture that can define them as a unified brand. Common purpose and shared values then become critical drivers to create a coherent meaning that circulates among various stakeholders of newer and older IIMs. While the government as the key stakeholder has been following a mentorship approach to establish newer IIMs, collectively all IIMs together are required to guard and spread the culture.
Among several possible ways of sharing values, three are easily recognisable and implementable.
First is codification. Values and fundamental beliefs that have built the equity of brands need to be identified and codified. Older IIMs who have strong institutional values need to codify them. Beyond articulation of vision-mission statements, they need to “author” stories that involve the IIM brand. These stories need to be canned in popular, shareable formats. Books such as ‘Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad (2011)’ and ‘Citizens and Revolutionaries: An Oral History of IIM Calcutta (2012)’ are two recent attempts. The Indian Business Museum at IIM Kozhikode is attempting to assemble such stories that have emerged from more than 50 years of history of the IIM brand.
Second is collaboration. While each IIM would want to evolve as a unique institution, they should not forget that their reputation is influenced by fellow institutions as they belong to the same brand family. Sharing of values is difficult without collaboration. If common platforms are developed consciously beyond the Common Admission Test, collaboration and sharing would follow. Not only would the culture prevail, but the exchange of resources would provide a leverage that few independent business schools could attain. Launched a couple of years ago, the Pan-IIM World Management Conference brings together faculty and scholars from all IIMs. Pan-IIM alumni associations and other similar additional forums can be identified and built upon.
Third is circulation. Stories, images and associations that define the IIM culture have to be circulated actively. All active stakeholders across IIMs, particularly faculty and students, need to propagate the culture consciously. An important contribution in this area can come from the fellows—the doctoral students. The fellows of IIMs, upon completing their doctoral programmes, take up faculty roles. The fellows of IIMs who have observed, experienced and imbibed the IIM culture in their doctoral programmes could be the best messengers, the apostles. IIMs need to realise the importance of strengthening their fellow programmes in an effort to replicate the culture in relatively newer IIMs.
Given that newer IIMs are a reality, rather than lamenting on lost exclusivity, brand IIM should be strengthened around collective excellence. It is up to the IIMs to leverage the brand or allow it to be diluted.
The author is professor of marketing at IIM Kozhikode. Views are personal