15.Feb.2018

Libby Morse
SVP, Creative Director

Go Global: Tips on Cross-Cultural Marketing

A must-read for recruiting international executive MBA prospects

There is no one-size-fits-all way to market your continuing education programs to the international community at large. In Europe, attitudes vary from country to country toward education and amassing degrees; new government policies in China create pricing issues for prospective students; and motivations (rankings, reputation, etc.) for prospective students differ from India to Australia to Germany. Successful international recruitment of Executive MBA prospects depends upon higher education marketers staying on top of the changing climate in every target market.

We sat down with Bill Kooser, interim associate dean for executive education at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, for his take on the challenges and opportunities inherent in recruiting students in today’s multinational markets for U.S. based Executive MBA Programs. Bill is a Booth alum and has spent many years running the School’s executive MBA programs. In his previous role as associate dean for global outreach in Asia, Bill was responsible for developing relationships with key government, business, and media leaders to promote the School and for identifying ways to further raise the school’s stature and increase regional job opportunities for graduates. Minesh Parikh, chief executive officer, and Libby Morse, senior VP and creative director, engaged Bill in lively, insightful dialogue on the subject.

Bill Kooser, Associate Dean for Executive Education at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, at TEDxHong Kong in 2013.

Lipman Hearne
Bill, from your vantage point as someone who’s spent a considerable amount of time in Asia recently, can you help us look beyond the U.S. bubble and get a sense of what’s going on in the larger executive business education landscape?

Bill
One thing that stands out in my mind is the whole impact of the Chinese government’s policies on management education and executive MBA programs, in particular—which has implications for full-time MBA programs, as well. If your school is thinking about doing something on mainland China, there are a variety of issues you’ll need to deal with.

A few years ago, the Beijing government said, “Employees of the government or employees of state-owned enterprises can no longer get funding for executive MBA programs,” for example. There are rules for schools who want to do business in the mainland to have a partner of some sort. And there are just increasing conversations around the significance of Western values and where up and coming executives ought to be getting their education.

Having said that, there is still great interest in Western business schools. A number of organizations throughout China are very eager to send their top talent to the United States or the UK or elsewhere for short courses. So dealing with China, is a big issue across the board, both for U.S. schools that are trying to operate there, as well as schools that might be thinking about recruiting students from mainland China back to the United States.

Lipman Hearne
What factors should U.S.-based programs consider, as it becomes clear that China is not going to be that pot of prospect gold that just keeps on providing you with candidates for executive business programs?

Bill
You have to be very clear about who your market is, recognizing that, particularly in China, the government and state-owned enterprises, which are still a big piece of the economy there, are not going to be prime candidates for executive MBA programs. This creates a price issue on two different fronts.

While the costs of an executive MBA are still largely corporate funded, financial support from state owned enterprises has gone down; and more and more students are self-funded. This creates a variety of issues, in terms of how many people can attend, and how do you support people and help them find the funding. If they can’t write the check for whatever it is we’re charging, how do you help them find sources of loans or grants or what have you?

And when an audience becomes price sensitive, the expectations are pretty extraordinary on the back end. How do you help them move along in their careers? What support do you provide from a recruiter services standpoint to make sure that they’re going to get the return on the investment that they’re making?

I think you also have to be very clear about what your value is. And the rankings continue to be a major factor—for the executive MBA side; a lot of people ask us “Where are you in FT?” 

Lipman Hearne
We’ve talked about China, but the other big audience in Asia is India. Give us the sense of similarities and differences in these audiences, and how schools should think about them.

Bill
Clearly, operating in those two countries is very different in terms of the rules and regulations. But the prospects share an eagerness to get an education that’s top-notch, whether that’s UK, the United States, Australia, wherever. Most of our students are coming from multi-nationals, whether that’s India, China U.S. or UK. So if in terms of “Is someone from India looking for something very different in their executive MBA program than someone from China?”—They’re not. They’re looking for the best school that they can get into, that they can afford, and that is going to help them launch or further their careers. That’s the same pretty much worldwide. Some places are a little more attuned to rankings. Some people are a little more attuned to cost issues. But fundamentally, people are trying to get there first. 

Lipman Hearne
Say you’re a prospect who gets accepted at two or three of the best schools you can get into, how do you decide which one to attend?

Bill
It depends what part of the world you’re in. It largely comes down to reputation, broadly in the marketplace, and what my friends, family, and colleagues in the next office over think. Assuming everything else is kind of the same, if the colleague in the office next to mine or the boss went to Booth, well, that’s going to sway me a bit. It definitely has impact. 

Lipman Hearne
It really points out the importance of cultivating your alumni as brand ambassadors, doesn’t it?

Bill
Absolutely. It’s amazing, and particularly for executive MBA programs, but it’s also true for full-time MBAs. The number of folks that come to us as a referral from alum is very large, and may actually be the single largest source of candidates who eventually end up in the program. Reputation and network are the things that people are buying.

Lipman Hearne
Is that true for executive education as well?  

Bill
Yes, absolutely. One of the questions people will ask about an executive education program is, not just us but other schools as well—do I get alumni status? Do I get a school email address? Am I in the school’s database? Can I have access and send emails to other alums from the degree programs? And some schools, in some of their longer programs, provide that to candidates for non-degree programs. So this whole idea of, who am I going to connect with? And what reputation am I building for me by going to this school? — Is important. 

Lipman Hearne
I wonder if many schools are actually thinking about their executive education in that way, instead of treating those programs as essentially separate revenue centers. Executive education can really advance your brand at a much more rapid pace. You’re talking about 1,000 or so exec ed students in a year, as opposed to a class of a few hundred MBA students.

Bill
Right. Well, that’s very clearly the case for us and I think for a lot of others too. If someone who wouldn’t be able to come to the degree, or doesn’t want to come to the degree, can touch Chicago Booth in some way—and executive education is a very good way to do that. They interact with our faculty, interact with other folks, and have a great experience. Then if someone comes to them and says “I’m thinking about business school,” they’ll say “Oh, I had a great experience from my three days or five days or two weeks at Booth. You should consider that.” So we very much think that way.

Lipman Hearne
So we talked quite a bit about Asia. Let’s talk about Europe. Any major differences? 

Bill

Well, I guess the European market isn’t a market; it’s a bunch of markets. And attitudes toward MBA programs are vastly different from country to country for historic reasons. Programs there grew up differently, typically not affiliated with the university, so it’s just a whole different milieu. And because of that, they’ve had the opportunity to experiment and do some things a little bit differently than we have in the United States.

In many ways, the non-degree elements of those schools drive as much as the degree side; they may be bigger than the degree side, which is not typical. I don’t know if anybody does it here.

Lipman Hearne
So Asia, you can treat it as somewhat of a homogenous market because the motivations are very similar: rankings, reputation and some of the things we talked about. In Europe, you have to localize it, and then almost sell on the value of a business degree (especially MBA), where in Asia, you don’t have to because they’ve gravitated towards a traditional MBA historically.

Bill
Right. There’s a different attitude toward education and earning degrees in Asia than in Europe. And, again, there are certain parts of Europe, in certain industries, where even an undergraduate degree historically hasn’t been necessary. You start out as an apprentice, if you will, not even in the trades, but even in some professional fields—the insurance industry in the UK, for example. Typically people started after coming out of their secondary school, and worked under someone who knew the insurance business, as an underwriter or whatever. You worked your way up. And you didn’t go to a university.

Lipman Hearne
We talked about alumni as advancing your cause. We talked about faculty as advancing your cause. And if we’re talking about experience and being authentic, students have to be a part of that marketing machine as well.

Bill
Students have great credibility. So whenever we have the chance, we try to get prospective students for any of our programs to come to class, to meet with existing students, to talk to somebody who’s had a similar background or similar experiences in life. It’s all a part of reinforcing, “Can I see myself there? Are these people I’d like to sit next to in the classroom?”

One potential area to explore as you market across cultures is to understand what matters to your prospect: Is it more important to understand who am I going to sit next to in class? Or knowing that someone like a Satya Nadella is a graduate of the program? Is it more important for someone to connect with somebody who’s a fellow student or kind of close in age, close in experience? Or is it more important to be able to say “This school has graduated the head of this company, this company, this company” and that’s what I aspire to eventually? Some might say “I want to go to the school that produces lots of CEOs because I want to be a CEO.” Others may say “I want to go to a place where I’m going to be comfortable and learn something and build a network at my own level.” They’re not opposite ends of the spectrum, but there may be slightly different emphases in some people’s minds.