Managing Perceptions is as Important as Managing Reality

Marketers have learned over the years that products and services cannot usually be positioned on more than three or, at most, four differentiating perceived attributes, since the human mind has trouble balancing any more factors than that at one time.

In the late 1980s, the Wharton School MBA Program was not among the Top 5 in the BusinessWeek rankings (the only major rankings of the time period). To address this, Dean Russ Palmer established a committee, headed by Professor Jerry Wind, to recommend changes that would make the MBA Program “preeminent.” The committee surveyed all of Wharton’s major stakeholder groups—students, faculty, staff and alumni; global business, government and nonprofit leaders; entrepreneurs, etc. They found four major areas that were very important to these stakeholders, and that MBA programs (including Wharton’s) were not handling well: globalization, leadership, cross functional integration and leveraging technology.

Professor Wind’s committee developed a new curriculum to integrate the above areas into the core MBA curriculum. At a very raucous faculty meeting, the new curriculum was approved for a two-year test with 20 percent of the MBA student body. What happened next was amazing in its impact.

A public relations opportunity was evident. Wharton was the first major business school to change its curriculum (even only on a test basis) in many years. This was real news. Only three people—the Dean, Professor Wind and Professor David Reibstein, who was then in charge of the MBA Program—were allowed to speak to the news media. All three agreed that they would only speak about the four areas that were very important to Wharton’s stakeholders: globalization, leadership, cross functional integration and leveraging technology.

Every major business periodical—The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, BusinessWeek, the Economist, CNBC (then FNN), etc.—had major articles about Wharton’s innovative new curriculum that handled issues important to managers globally: globalization, leadership, cross functional integration and leveraging technology. Even though the curriculum had not even been implemented yet, the perception of Wharton was significantly altered by the PR blitz. Wharton came to be perceived as “preeminent” in globalization, leadership, cross functional integration and leveraging technology.

A year and a half after the PR blitz, Wharton was rated number one in BusinessWeek. It retained that ranking for a number of years into the late ’90s—all because its perception had changed.

The reality was different, however. After the two-year test, a number of the innovative elements of the new curriculum did not work well in practice, so a much “watered down” new curriculum was rolled out to all students. Did Wharton do another PR blitz? Obviously not. The perception of Wharton as “preeminent” on the four areas—globalization, leadership, cross functional integration and leveraging technology—endured for many years and was the basis for the fundraising that led to many of the School’s more recent initiatives.

The above case demonstrates how all venture leaders need to manage perceptions at least as well as the reality of their organizations. If Wharton had not done the PR blitz as well as it did in the early ’90s, we would be in a much less secure leadership position today.

As I write this, the School has just overwhelmingly approved our next “new curriculum.” The initial reaction has been extremely positive—especially in the areas of lifelong education, flexibility and innovation. I hope the current blitz will be as effective as the PR blitz of 20 years ago. If so, the School will only fortify its leadership position—until the perceptions are changed again by someone else’s PR.

Wharton Magazine - Background

Type to Search

See all results