Olympian Madmen

Olympian Madmen

“Citius, Altius, Fortius.” When Dominican priest Henri Didon came up with these three words as the motto for the modern Olympic Games in 1894, he got little more than a polite thank you for his trouble. Which is a lot less than the 2012 London Olympic Committee paid the Mad Men of Charlotte Street, London’s advertising equivalent of New York’s Madison Avenue, to come up with “Inspire a generation”.

Sebastian Coe, the organising committee chairman, might say the recently unveiled motto reflects the promise he made seven years ago to capture the “heartbeat” and “the very DNA” of the organisation. But how many of his fellow citizens would agree? In the current economic climate, more and more people in Britain are questioning the cost to the taxpayer of hosting the summer games, and have responded to the new slogan with an underwhelming “is that it?”

So what are the guidelines for coming up with an effective slogan? The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School could be well placed to comment, having spent the last two years undertaking a comprehensive “brand and identity initiative”, that has led to its new message of “Knowledge for…”, completed by various subjects that include “action”, “innovation” and even “life”.

George Day, the chair of the project’s faculty steering committee, says the first step was to define the essence of the business school, and what differentiated it from other top schools: “While Wharton is undoubtedly recognised for subjects like finance, that doesn’t capture the breadth of the place. We are also the most widely cited research business-school across all managerial disciplines, and very entrepreneurial.”

The committee undertook a competitive analysis, including interviews with faculty, students, administrators, alumni and recruiters, and an online survey sent to more than 4,000 stakeholders. To find an expression that would capture the Wharton experience, students and alumni were asked to submit taglines and themes using a crowd-sourcing tournament developed by Karl Ulrich, the school’s vice dean for innovation. Not surprisingly, the submissions were diverse, but one idea stood out: “Wharton knowledge creates consequence in the world.”

However this is hardly the memorable stuff of Coke’s “The Real Thing” or Apple’s “Think Different”. Mr Day, who prefers to think in terms of a resonating theme rather than a slogan or motto, acknowledges that Wharton is a complex institution, and therefore needed an adaptable and enduring message that would set it apart. He argues that, as with any brand, the key is to create a meaningful promise, and then be able to deliver against it.

The next step will be to bring the slogan to life by building a consistent brand identity, and getting everybody in the organisation on board. Marian Moore, a professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, points out that advertising agencies can come up with great slogans, but if people cannot relate to them with both their head and their heart, then the slogan simply doesn’t work: “It is important for all the stakeholders, whether staff, customers or anybody else in the supply chain, to say ‘yes, that is what this organisation is about’.”

Ms Moore believes the jury is still out on London’s Olympic slogan, but that the British public may simply need more time for the message to make sense. She says that “One world, one dream” made immediate sense for Beijing in 2008 because of China’s entrance onto the world stage. (She tactfully passes over Atlanta’s “The celebration of the century” in 1996, which fell flat from the very start—another case of over-reaching and under delivering that adds to the pile of quickly forgotten slogans in the marketing dustbin.)

If nothing else, both Wharton and the London Olympics have followed the unwritten rule for a good slogan, according to branding consultant and UK taxpayer Duncan Owen. “All the best tag lines or slogans have three words,” he says, citing Nike’s “Just Do It” and Adidas’s “Impossible is Nothing” as examples. Dominican priests might agree, but for a substantially lower fee.

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