Brand dilution at IIT/IIM

At the Aditya Birla Scholarship party on Saturday, one topic which a lot of people spoke about was about reservations at IITs and IIMs, and the consequent increase in batch size. The general consensus was about reservation being a bad thing and about the strain that is being put on the faculty at IIMs because of the sudden increase in batch size.

As the discussion continued, one popular thread that emerged was about “brand dilution”. About how with people with significantly inferior credentials getting degrees from IITs and IIMs, the brand of these institutes was getting diluted. At that point I disagreed, and I thought I should blog what I said.

The brand of a college that you go to, I said, is useful only for those people who lack a personal brand, and instead try to lean on to brands of institutes they are associated with as a crutch. If you want to really make a name for yourself, I said, you should let go of your institutional crutches and build your own brand. And if you have the self-confidence to do that, the brand of the college you went to shouldn’t matter.

That pretty much ended that discussion right there. What do you think about it? Should we be unduly worried about the “brand value” of the institutions we went to? Or of the companies we work at? Where does leaning on to our “portfolio of brands” stop and creation of our own brand begin?

Coming to think of it now, you can define the brand value of an institution as some sort of a weighted sum of the brand values of people associated with that institution. Right now I’m not bothered about the distribution of those weights. However, irrespective of how the weights are distributed, unless each and every person associated with the institute has equal brand value, there exists at least one person whose brand value is higher than that of the brand value of the institution, and at least one person whose brand value is lower than that of the institution (I’m not bothered about a formal proof of this now, but I guess it is intuitive. Section formulae and all that).

Without loss of generality, we can say that in the universe of people associated with an institution, there is a non-zero set of people whose personal brand values are superior to that of the institution and a non-zero set of people whose personal brand values are inferior to that of the institution. Now, which of these two groups, do you think, would be more likely to want to use the institute’s brand value as a crutch? And which of these two groups would be more concerned about “preserving the institute’s brand value”? I guess that explains why the discussion ended when I said what I said at the party on Saturday.

PS: my apologies if that last bit sounded arrogant.


9 thoughts on “Brand dilution at IIT/IIM”

  1. Duh, you need to have a smarter group. Your last para feeds right back into the problem. As you say, there are two groups, now what do you think reservation and large batch sizes does to the relative size of those two groups? Personal brands, even though they may not be because of the institution and may be purely born out of personal talent and effort, are not divorced from the institution brand because there is a feedback loop.

    That said, your point that an individual should not worry about the brand value of his/her institutions is perfectly fine. This is something that should worry the institutions. An institution’s brand is composed of the aggregate of individual brands, all of which may or may not have been created because of the institute, but does benefit the institute.

  2. To frame this in the context of a recruiting decision – Your argument assumes that it is effective or valuable investment in a hiring institution’s time to seek out knowledge of the individual’s personal brand.

    Why? Sometimes the stereotype that is the university / college / high school’s brand is a very useful method of working through and deleting a large number of applications in an efficient manner.

  3. The objective of the IITs is to train excellent engineers (apart from the social objective of training engineers from less-privileged communities, say). If IITs can train 10,000 engineers as opposed to 5,000 engineering, it should take the option. Yes, the “value” of individual engineers reduces as a result, but the objective of the IITs is satisfied. Of course this may conflict with the personal objective of a student of being seen as an elite member of the society, but IITs should not care about that. With the talent pool present in India, going from 5,000 to 10,000 or 20,000 students does not reduce the quality of engineers from ‘excellent’ to ‘very good’ (as long as the training infrastructure is present). So I see no problem with increasing the intake. That’s what India and the world need; excellent engineers.

  4. This whole thing about brain dilution is a manifestation of a scarcity mentality that Indians are used too. We are not used to seeing surplus of anything and we become nervous when we see something where supply is close to or more than demand. I am sure people who worry about brand dilution are those people for whom the only that differentiates them from the masses is their IIT/IIM degree. Infact now that there are more people graduating from IITs and IIMs, it is upon the individual to differentiate himself on the strength of his own merit. People who don’t have much merit to differentiate on will obviously cry hoarse about brand dilution etc.

  5. Wow ! I loved this post and your analysis.
    Never thought about it that way, but the “law of averages” point is so true…

    If it doesn’t put a strain on resources, I support increasing batch sizes and more “elite” institutions. USA is one-third our population, but look at the number of “elite” universities they have – at least 50 ?! How come they don’t complain about brand dilution ?

  6. @Kandarp There you answer yourself. USA has 10+ ivy leagues and 30 odd other “elite” institutes but they did not just name the existing colleges as “ivy” league to expand their “elite” college base. Each institute in US has its own USP and the reason for it being called elite/ivy.

    Also, it is diametrically opposite to increasing the batch size argument. It rather focuses on restricting class size to a threshold so that there is no undue pressure on “infrastructure” (no. of profs, labs, library, etc.)

    Contrary to this what India has been doing is, can be best termed as “free-riding”. Politicians observed which univs are doing better and then one fine day decided to name all the existing/planned univs as IIT/IIMs (I dont even have a count of them now).

    This is the bone of contention and is the classic example of brand dilution. Its similar to calling a micromax/lava mobile as Galaxy S4 or something. When an inferior product is clubbed with a market darling; its bound to dilute the brand equity.

    The focus should be on improving the infrastructure and not on free-riding. Also, to highlight and give a context, “brand-dilution” is also similar to “snob-value” and hence by definition is bound to be scared of surplus.

    My two cents!

  7. Also, you don’t increase the “elite” instis but you “create” them. The US univs dont complain about brand-dilution because nobody is stealing it. They have been creating more brands. As also in real life business – Apple, MS, Oracle! Count me one Indian brand there!

    1. Oh, they do worry about maintaining a brand. Reminded me of this article by Malcolm Gladwell on how admission policy evolved in Ivy League universities:

      The article points to studies that show that personal brand is more important than institution brand. That point is fine, but it does not negate the fact that the issue of brand dilution is an issue for the institution, not for an individual.

      “As a hypothetical example, take the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, which are two schools a lot of students choose between,” Krueger said. “One is Ivy, one is a state school. Penn is much more highly selective. If you compare the students who go to those two schools, the ones who go to Penn have higher incomes. But let’s look at those who got into both types of schools, some of whom chose Penn and some of whom chose Penn State. Within that set it doesn’t seem to matter whether you go to the more selective school. Now, you would think that the more ambitious student is the one who would choose to go to Penn, and the ones choosing to go to Penn State might be a little less confident in their abilities or have a little lower family income, and both of those factors would point to people doing worse later on. But they don’t.”

      Krueger says that there is one exception to this. Students from the very lowest economic strata do seem to benefit from going to an Ivy. For most students, though, the general rule seems to be that if you are a hardworking and intelligent person you’ll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school. You’ll make good contacts at Penn. But Penn State is big enough and diverse enough that you can make good contacts there, too. Having Penn on your résumé opens doors. But if you were good enough to get into Penn you’re good enough that those doors will open for you anyway.

  8. I would like to present a very practical (though one might say narrowly focused) approach to this topic.

    My observation is that over the past few years, the gap in avg salary levels between the top IIM A,B,C and other institutes has gradually eroded, especially vis-a-vis IIM institutions.

    Corporates are also pretty savvy. If they paid top dollar for IIM grads, it was for a reason. They got the top notch talent from there. That’s not to say that there is a lack of talented people at other insti’s and all of them abide in IIMs only. But given a sample of students from each .. the quality and consistency of quality of caliber of IIM grads outweighs others, and its for this reason corporates pay more for them. Its the same case when one buys a Branded product instead of an ordinary one for a price far higher. The higher price is for the absolute increase in level of quality plus a promise of consistency in quality.

    Now, my sense is, and I could be wrong here, is that this consistency in quality that they searched for in IIMs has proven to be a non-starter over the past few years. The patchy quality of the candidates picked up by them has led many to question their previously held faith in IIMs quality of output, and as to whether its justified to pay the premium for non-consistency in quality. And which is why over time many have felt that it might not be a bad idea to hire from other tier 1 or top tier 2 institutes at a relatively lower cost.

    Over time, this has led to the decrease in salary gap between them.

    And this I have no doubt about, that the patchy quality has to do increased reservations. For I firmly believe that the biggest USP of IIM grads is that they are the best, the topper from a tough exam which is a stamp of brilliance, and when all these brilliant people are put together for 2yrs their capabilities are honed further. I don’t think the academics contributes much to their final capabilities. Its what else they do in course of these studies which hones their talents.

    So, the point isn’t about some xyz caste is allowed or not allowed, but the fact is that the undisputed top notch mental acumen that cat toppers bring with them is definitely lacking in other whose scores are not so high. This is not to say they shouldn’t be studying together. If the idea is to make a more equal society than at some level maybe its required. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is bringing down the overall quality and more importantly, consistency of quality. And corporates are over time recognizing this with lower pay differentials as compared to other b-school grads.

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