The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Shifting Brands: Business School Relatability in the Post-hustle Era

Shifting Brands: Business School Relatability in the Post-hustle Era
What was known as hustle culture is over. Today’s business leaders and professionals are seeking more inclusive, authentic experiences and business schools are having to respond by presenting more nuanced, human-centric approaches. We examine the current shift from assertive messaging and visual identities to more approachable and aware business school brand marketing. We’ll look at the cultural contexts driving it and the schools that have successfully responded so far. Lastly, we share a strategy you can use to update your school’s branding to align with today’s new audience demands.

‘No prizes for second best’

Many will be familiar with the clichés of business school branding: stock photos of business people shaking hands and strident headlines such as ‘ready for launch?’, ‘accelerate your career’ or ‘state-of-the-art learning for world-class careers’. This style of creative reflected the hyper-competitive hustle culture that was popular during the late 2010s. And although it can still be found in the business school sector, it is rapidly losing currency. Times have moved on, and audiences with them.

Sustainability, including concern for social impact and inclusivity, has become a key yardstick by which students and stakeholders judge the legitimacy of business schools. Attitudes towards leadership have also undergone a sea change; ‘authentic leadership’ today is based on honesty, integrity and responsibility (Lindauer Global, 2024).

When it comes to branding, many business schools need to start catching up.

Time to reflect

Since 2020, a series of big cultural shifts have occurred. The pandemic, obviously, has changed the way we work. During those long, locked-down months, many suddenly found breathing space to step back and take stock. Upon reflection, high-stress, long-hour work schedules weren’t delivering the type of ‘have it all’ success they’d initially promised. Work-life balance was ripe for redress. Demand for flexible working has subsequently skyrocketed, feeding into the newly pervasive desire for greater authenticity. Recent findings from the Harvard Business Review reveal that 75% of employees (Buote, 2016) want to experience more authenticity at work, and that desire is something branding teams can’t ignore. The sweeping away of hustle culture has also been paralleled by the demise of social media influencers on platforms like LinkedIn, who 61% of Brits say they can no longer relate to (West, 2022).

Technological revolution

Similarly, Zoom was a niche technology before 2020. Fast-forward just a few years, and it’s ingrained in everyday vernacular. The rise of remote working has been so meteoric that almost a third of Brits now work from home at least some of the time, up from just 4.7% in 2019 (Hooson, 2023). But for all its benefits, remote working, and even more recently, AI, have diminished everyday human connection. And by doing so, underscored its irreplaceable appeal.

This is likely to have helped drive modern workplace considerations such as diversity, DEI and sustainability to the forefront of collective consciousness. According to Cone Communications’ Millennial Employee Engagement Study, 75% of Millennials – the generation that makes up the majority of MBA students (Stapleton, 2023) – would accept a lower salary to work for a more socially responsible company (Engage for Good, 2023).

In a few short years, we have redefined what we value. Brands are built on values, which begs the question: are the two still aligned?

A new approach

Relevance relies on keeping up with changes in audience attitudes, and that explains three big trends emerging that brand strategists have recently identified:

1. Keeping it real: Brands that present a perfect ideal in 2024 are seen at best as unrealistic and at worst as disingenuous. Authenticity is the order of the day. Fallibility, imperfection, and even emotional vulnerability have never been so integral to building trust.

2. Taking a chance: Uniformity is out, calculated experimentation is very much in. A space has opened up between crumbling certainties where new ideas are being tested, and it’s these new ideas that are turning heads.

3. Showing awareness: Audiences are more diverse than ever. Brands that want to connect need to show they’re sensitive to social, cultural, and a range of other differences.

A handful of business schools are reacting to these new branding trends and the audience shifts mentioned above, and it’s helping them get ahead of the rest of the sector.

Real leadership

IESE Business School was among the first to realise that a move away from hustle culture is overdue. Their Real Leadership brand campaign playfully mocks stale business buzzwords of yesteryear. The campaign takes a humorous approach, which before its launch had seldom been tried in the business school sector.

Along with tapping into the zeitgeist and holding true to the school’s fundamental brand values, this novel approach takes a big share of the credit for the high engagement the campaign has achieved. Its flagship video alone has attracted almost two million views.

“At IESE Business School, we could see that the narrative around business was changing. Hustle culture was falling to the wayside, displaced by a desire for authenticity, emotional engagement and pragmatism. There was still plenty of ambition and drive and an appetite for self-improvement out there, but there was a sense that leadership was becoming more… human.

“Leaders today think more about their impact and their limitations, and they’re willing to express themselves more candidly. Real talk from real people. It was clear that we should adapt our brand and our messaging to reflect this, and the Real Leadership campaign was born. It has really connected with our audience and I believe it could help to set the tone for a new direction in business school marketing.”

Itziar de Ros Ravent, Director of Corporate Marketing & Communications at IESE Business School

IESE campaign

An incisive tone

Hustle culture-based copy can still be found on websites, brochures, brand campaigns, and other marketing materials in the business school sector. Many schools make the same points in the same way; few sound truly different.

But that linguistic monotone presents an opportunity and one that WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management has seized upon. In a swift leap into the present, WHU has developed a fresh new brand voice. The school now speaks with the incisive tone of an aware, quick-thinking professor who uses simple, accessible phrasing and the type of buzzword-free business language that resonates with today’s business school audiences. It’s proving to be just what WHU needed to cut through the noise.

“Tone of voice is often overlooked, which is a squandered opportunity because it can make or break a brand. Overhauling ours has helped us speak the language that business school audiences of today are using. The messaging is less formal, slightly less aspirational (some might say less masculine), and much more authentic. The kind of language that you hear in international boardrooms, where sustainability, inclusion and accountability are high on the agenda. Where people are as valuable as profit.

“Our key brand values haven’t changed, but adapting the way we communicate them to sync with the new concerns of our audiences has helped us demonstrate our relevance and build trust.”

Professor Christian Andres, Dean of WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management

One size doesn’t fit all

Through careful planning and considered execution, IESE and WHU have achieved great success by departing from the status quo. Both prove a point made by Max Ottignon, co-founder of Ragged Edge: “Showing up in a way that feels fresh and authentic can be incredibly powerful, particularly when pitched against an outdated, corporate approach” (Nash, 2024).

But care has to be taken, especially considering the highly varied nature of business school audiences. Prospective business undergraduates and people thinking about enrolling on a GEMBA, for example, are likely to have very different motivations and expectations.

It’s alive!

The shortcut to giving a brand the authenticity, distinctiveness, and awareness demanded by the audiences of today? Humanise it. That process is all about giving your brand human qualities. There’s a lot to consider, but here are a few key starting points:

Emotion: Feelings are fundamental to the human experience. Empathy connects us, and emotion gives brands a relatable face in a way that few other things can. A great tool for creating emotion is storytelling. Characters, setting, plot – these are tried-and-true methods for building emotional investment.

Awareness: Understanding builds relatability, and it’s something that’s very much human. You can show awareness by doing things as simple as making sure everyone can understand what you communicate and being mindful of cultural sensitivities.

Originality: People aren’t made on assembly lines. So, if your brand looks and sounds like another, it will lack the originality needed to bring it to life.

Getting this one right is all about taking measured risks and expressing what makes a business school unique: its personality.

Expert insight

If you want to engage with the business school audiences of today, it’s time to humanise your brand. Paying attention to modern considerations like diversity, DEI, and sustainability communicates the kind of awareness that can breathe life into any marketing activity. We’re still waiting for some of the business school sector to catch up with the end of hustle culture, so by getting humanisation right, there’s a real opportunity to get ahead of the pack.

For a free business school branding whitepaper visit:


Lindauer Global (2024) Four Leadership Trends Emerging in 2024,

West, T. (2022) Study reveals 61% of UK public cannot relate to influencers,

Buote, V. (2016) Most Employees Feel Authentic at Work, but It Can Take a While,

Jack, S. (2020) No plan for a return to the office for millions of staff,

Stapleton, A. (2023) What Is the Average Age Of MBA Students? MBA Programs Age Revealed,

Hooson, M. (2023) UK Remote And Hybrid Working Statistics,

Engage for Good (2023) (Even More) Social Impact Statistics You Should Know,

Nash, A. (2024) Five Brand Leaders on the State of Branding and What’s Next,

Shifting Brands: Business School Relatability in the Post-hustle Era

Simeon de la Torre is owner and creative director of SIM7, a strategic creative agency that specialises in creating effective business school brands and campaigns for global marketing teams.

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