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Brand Crossovers and Education

In their December newsletter, University Ventures declared Bridgepoint's licensing of Forbes' brand to create the Forbes School of Business to be education's "Mickey Mouse moment". The letter compared the deal to Walt Disney's creation of high-quality, branded theme park experiences that out-competed the questionable and unreliable carnies of decades past. Brand crossovers in education have happened and will continue to happen. But this trend won't result in high-quality experiences any more than blockbuster movie crossovers create high-quality video games.

From the letter:

For in a world where universities take centuries to establish themselves and their brands, there are myriad brands that currently have nothing to do with higher education but that could be very useful for higher education institutions interested in developing high quality programs that produce higher ROI for students and that clearly communicate those values to the marketplace. These brands could provide prospective students with shorthand information about the value proposition in a market where prospective students are crying out for better information about the likely return on their investment in a degree program.

Unfortunately, "quality" and "value proposition" are not unidimensional metrics that translate across industries and products. Brand crossovers in this industry have made a splash when education meets the self-help aisle but rarely beyond this. Think Tony Robbins and the Learning Annex; The Apprentice and Trump University. In those cases, students are looking not for a long-term skill set but for inspiration and a silver bullet, for which brands that communicate "immediate success" are highly valuable.

Unfortunately, licensed brands are often used as a stand-in for product quality rather than an indicator of it. The games industry offers a cautionary tale. For years, TV/movie/event IP was licensed to create new game titles, generating a bunch of famously terrible games.

Eventually, the tide turned. Games journalists looked for reasons to attack the next big-budget shovelware, framing the entire category as corporate garbage. Today, the entertainment-crossover-into-games genre is effectively dead, with interactive studios investing their biggest budgets in game-specific IP rather than licensed brands.

Education offers an even harsher environment for brand crossovers. Unlike games, education is typically viewed as an investment rather than consumption expense. Customers -- especially those precious 10% whose tickets aren't subsidized by the federal government -- are suspicious and discerning. And unlike the late-90s gaming industry, the education space features hundreds of existing brands specialized in a variety of learning outcomes.

There's value to the Forbes/Bridgepoint deal and think it will quite likely work out well for all parties involved. But brand crossovers are hardly a new thing, and it's far too early to claim a watershed moment. The for-profit education theme park is still run by the carnies.

UncategorizedBrad Hargreaves