C-Schools: further thoughts on branding, creativity and education

Dsc00079 My post on Friday brought some interesting comments, on line and off. Vincent LaConte chasened me for ignoring his program and I stand corrected. 

IIT was quietly initiating this d-school/b-school/c-school "experiment" in a Mies-ian basement in the 1950s.  […]  [W]e’re still the only place in the US where you can get a double masters in design AND business, not some watered-down hybrid of the two.

Katarina Graffman pointed out the St. Martins College "design laboratory," which is described as 

a creative bridge between education and the commercial agenda of industry, consultancy and business.  It is a design studio housed in the busy and vibrant atmosphere of Central Saint Martins Innovation. The Lab draws on some of the most able and multi-talented of recent graduates from University of the Arts London courses at all levels.

Graduates are employed as part of a creative team of designers in a managed, project-orientated, studio environment.  They work on commercial briefs with real deadlines, real fees and a wide range of clients with whom to negotiate and inspire.

Projects are in key areas such as branding & communications, product design, interiors and trend forecasting, or any combination of these.  Designers work in collaboration with clients as enablers, strategists, leaders, implementers and team players.  They are employed as creative thinkers who can translate concepts into realisable solutions while challenging and initiating change in the real and digital worlds.

Charles Kouns described his Creative Brand Management program at the VCU. Kouns did a review of MBA programs, discovering that creativity was un(der)represented in the curriculum, that marketing profs did not grasp the concept of branding, and that programs treated branding in an old fashioned way.  He says, "I came away thinking that most mba programs taught students how to be mechanics, not inventors." 

Kouns is too diplomatic to put it this way, but I couldn’t help thinking that the problem here is the David Aaker model of branding which continues to hold sway in the b-school world.  What is missing in the b-school approach to branding is a feeling for the real sources of innovation: culture, trends, meanings, new markets, shifting concepts, new patterns.  There can be no real creativity in the corporation without a mastery of the creativity in our culture.  For most b-schools, this culture might as well be on Mars. 

Three things about Kouns’ approach impressed me. 

First, he cares about politics.  He struggles to teach students how to "manage idea through many layers, steps, political landmines, etc. in order to protect the integrity of the idea and thus give it the best chance of having an impact in the marketplace."  My hero here is the now departed Geoffrey Frost, the man who could play the culture at Motorola like a violin.  Let’s face it, being creative in a  Left Bank, cold water, 5 floor, walkup, garret is easy compared to being creative in a group, to a strategy, on a deadline, within constraints.  Too often we sneer at politics as something that is done by handlers after the fact.  Why not build it in to the moment of inspiration?  (For the ethnographer this means being as much attention to the client and the corporation as the consumer.)

Second, Kouns cares about financial education. This is another place that creative types are inclined to treat market, corporate and investment realities as someone else’s problem.  It feels good to sneer at these issues as somehow beneath us, but it is largely because creatives don’t "get" business, that they are marginalized in the corporation and excluded from the C-suite (as in CEO, CIO, CMO, etc.).  Says Kouns, "it would be great to turn out students who had a balance of creative driven brand experience as well as financial know-how."

Third, Kouns comments on the skunk works approach to creativity, where a group inside a corporation works according to its own agenda, communes with its own gods.  He notes the case of AXE deodorant team which became a "renegade group" inside of Unilever.   We need to know more about how skunk works are created and protected. 

And this raises an interesting problem.  Some of the best "schools"of creativity, strategy and innovation are inside the corporation.  If someone were just finishing an MBA or a design program, and looking for "higher education," he or she could do worse than to spend a year or so at a corporation that really knows what innovation is. 

Graduate education in the corporate world: the good "programs"

Axe team at Unilever
Wieden & Kennedy
Dove team at Unilever
IBM (Gaven Heaton, nominating)
Jones Soda
Motorola (in the Frost era)

[what others?]

Graduate education in the corporate world: the struggling "programs"
Motorola (in the post Frost era)?

[what others?]

I would love to hear your suggestions, online or off.

Clearly, this is a job for someone with lots of time and data. BusinessWeek rates B-schools program, and it cares about the innovation economy.  I wonder if it would take a whack at this problem, and identify the best corporations that do what b-schools now fail to do, teach the art and science of creativity and innovation in the branding world. 

Find more on the St. Martins’ program here.


Ville directed me to the Lockheed Martin page on Skunk Works.  Here’s a passage from the section  "How the Skunk Works Got Its Name."

When Kelly Johnson brought together a hand-picked team of Lockheed engineers and manufacturing people at Burbank in the wartime year of 1943, each team member was cautioned that design and production of the new P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter must be carried out in strict secrecy. No one was to discuss the project outside the small organization, and team members were even warned to be careful how they answered the telephones.

A team engineer named Irv Culver was a fan of Al Capp’s newspaper comic strip, "Li’l Abner," in which there was a running joke about a mysterious place deep in the forest called the "Skonk Works." There, a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes and other strange ingredients. Johnson’s organization operated out of a rented circus tent next to a plastic manufacturing plant that would produce a strong odor which permeated the tent.

One day, Culver’s phone rang and he answered it by saying "Skonk Works, inside man Culver speaking." Fellow employees quickly adopted the name for their mysterious part of Lockheed, where the new jet fighter program was brewing. "Skonk Works" became "Skunk Works." The once informal nickname is now the registered trademark of the company: Skunk Works®.

Find more from the Lockheed Martin web here

7 thoughts on “C-Schools: further thoughts on branding, creativity and education

  1. Vincent LaConte

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Grant. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past several years working at the intersection of “business” and “design”, it’s how passionate people on both “sides” of this Venn diagram feel about these issues. At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel that their expertise, their profession, and their hard-earned, heavily mortgaged degree(s) are special and irreplaceable. Nothing new there. To feel otherwise means, ultimately, to feel lay-off-able. Welcome to the psyche of the American factory worker circa 1982.

    This is scary stuff. Just read Stuart Elliott’s report last year for the NRC:


    predicting that by the year 2030, 41% of managers will be replaced by a computer. And I wonder if deep down, the recipient of an “average” cookie-cutter MBA can sort of sense this.

    Lest the design/creative types get too cocky, though, their/our turn will come soon enough. The post-human workforce is not as far away as we’d like to think.

    BTW, speaking of skunkworks, my colleague and friend Jeremy Alexis had a nice article on the topic in the winter issue of Stanford D-School’s “Ambidextrous”. Unfortunately not available on-line, but posted as a PDF here:


    The money quote: “I have always been skeptical when clients or managers claim they
    want to set up a ‘skunkworks’ for product development. What they generally mean is: ‘We want to move to a location separate from the corporate headquarters, spend a lot of money, tell no one what we are doing, and have no real accountability.'”

    (He goes on to say how he changed his mind about this opinion.)

  2. Gavin Heaton

    Great post! I would add IBM to the list. While they are a tech company, they are also a great marketing company with a big focus on innovation (they generate the most patents of any company every year). For every year I worked there I learned more about innovation and business than I did during my entire university degree.

    Of course, now when I hire graduates I don’t look for what they have achieved during their studies. I look at what they have learned. I look at how they have learned. And I try to understand whether they have a flexible mind, a focus on outcomes and an ability to achieve despite roadblocks. Often the best graduates dont come top of class, but somewhere in the top 20%. They need to know what its like to overcome obstacles.

  3. Martin Bishop

    Great post. One comment and one question.

    Comment: It’s interesting that you select the Axe and Dove teams at Unilever as good programs. They’ve been innovative, for sure, but the fact that they’ve operated so independently has created a brand/corporate reputation issue for Unilever.

    When Dove launched its campaign against beauty ads, critics pointed out that this message was absolutely incompatible with Axe’s misogynistic ads.

    To quote from an op-ed: “A Company’s Ugly Contradiction” in The Boston Globe: “Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads exhort boys to make ‘nice girls naughty.’ … Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems.”

    I think this is a cautionary tale suggesting that renegade activity should have limits and that some corporate oversight is essential.

    Question: David Aaker seems an unlikely or at least an unexpected person to single out to represent all that’s wrong with the business school model of branding. How so? What has he done to deserve such singular attention?

  4. srp

    The intersection of design, marketing, and operations, along with an understanding of the competitive environment, should pretty much be the core of positioning strategy. That’s all good. I applaud initiatives like the ones pioneered at IIT.

    Let’s not pretend, though, that the branding issues for Axe deodorant have a great deal of similarity to the branding issues for, say, GE’s MRI machines. From 100,000 feet, sure, it’s all marketing, but the importance of agile cultural surfing compared to getting technical trade-offs right is entirely different between the two.

    An analogy: Houseflies and people are each subject to friction and gravity, but friction is way more important for housefly locomotion than gravity is and gravity is way more important for people than friction is. Both factors matter for each, but a climbing race between houseflies is mostly about overcoming friction and a climbing race between people is mostly about overcoming gravity.

    Possibly we should have more institutional specialization, with some schools focusing on industries where the Axe-issues predominate while others look at MRI-issues. And B-schools probably do underweight the Axe-type markets, and their specific cultural concerns, in the curriculum. What’s funny is that our students tend to have a natural tropism toward thinking that marketing is about coming up with clever advertising, and our marketing faculties try to beat it out of them by talking about targeting, positioning, etc.

  5. Jared

    The Central St. Martins College business programs specialize in the management of performing art businesses. I’m sure they do the best they can with business fundamentals, but none of these graduates will end up in C-suites anytime soon.

    IIT’s MDes/MBA program looks more relevant. But it takes longer than doing the two programs sequentially! So who knows how much synergy is actually happening in the program, but it’s awesome that they’ve at least recognized the potential.

    VCU’s Creative Brand Management is a specialization for the Master of Science in Mass Communication/Advertising degree: it appears to be a professional degree for account execs.

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