The U.S. college admission scandal: when brands, brand equity and status "break bad"


Can there be another notion in the IP lexicon that has taken on more faces that “brand”? One starts with the fact that “brand” is not a statutory term, but a descriptive term of art that has become part and parcel of the trademark discussion. On this basis, a useful definition has been offered by Jeffrey Belson, who described a brand in his article, "Brand Protection in the Age of the Internet," thusly—
[A] brand is the resultant of the attributes of a product and the way it is advertised, its name, packaging, price, history and reputation, all of which act together to generate affect in consumers.
Key to understanding a brand is that it creates an emotional connection between the mark identifying the brand and the consumers for whom the brand is intended. David Aaker extended the notion to “brand equity”, which includes the following features: (i) brand loyalty; (ii) brand awareness; (iii) perceived brand quality: and (iv) brand associations. Taking these notions together, connecting to a brand means creating an emotional bond with what the brand is believed to embody.

But over time, the notion of a “brand” extended beyond the commercial context and become a synonym for virtually any sign that creates an emotional connection between it and some real or imagined good or service. How far this process has gone can be seen with respect to the well-publicized scandal over alleged criminal actions in the U.S. college admissions process.

The often-cut-throat competition by high school students to secure college admission in the U.S., especially to the elite institutions (such as to the so-called Ivy League and its ilk), is probably sui generis. But at least, with all its imperfections, the belief was that the process is not tinged with illegality.

That belief was shattered last week when U.S. federal prosecutors announced the filing of criminal charges against 50 people, including high profile figures in the entertainment and business worlds, alleging mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in connection with illegally securing college admission. The alleged scheme focused on two main schemes. First, there was out-and-out bribery of athletic coaches at various universities, who would then seek admission for a student based on athletic prowess, when in fact the student had no such athletic skills. Second, there were arrangements by which a prospective student’s college admission test scores would be illegally secured.

OK Kat, but what does this have to do with IP? The answer is in what appears to have been the major motivation for the alleged illicit actions taken by these parents, namely, how far some are willing to go to pay for the status connected with being identified with such coveted educational brands. The feel-good narrative about the U.S. system of higher education is that it enables the bright and ambitious to climb the ladder of meritocracy and enjoy the fruits of financial success that follow. To some extent, this is true. As mentioned on a recent edition of The Daily, a podcast presented by The New York Times, for students from the lower and middle class, admission to an elite university is significantly correlated with enhanced earnings potential over their lifetime.

But students from these rungs of the social ladder are less likely to attend these elite universities than do the sons and daughters of the (much) better-off financially. However, for them, the prime motivation has less to do with enhancing one’s earnings potential, and much more with being associated with an elite university “brand”. This means, at the most basic level, being able to wear a sweatshirt that announces to the world-- “Parents of [choose the university] student", together with the university motto [the better to be in Latin]. It was for these identifications and the emotions that they create that the bribes and other acts of fraud allegedly took place.

Seen in this way, the scandal is perhaps the low point of how aspirational brand goods and services can corrupt and corrode. An aspirational brand can be defined thusly:
[A] large segment of its exposure audience wishes to own it, but for economic reasons cannot. An aspirational product implies certain positive characteristics to the user, but the supply appears limited due to limited production quantities.
We are accustomed to thinking about such aspirational products in terms of an expensive watch or luxury car. But it need not stop there. Being able to identify oneself with an elite institutional brand is a way of validating one's social status and who "one is". This was well-said in the subtitle to the March 15th piece by New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, writing about the scandal and the plague of “status envy”—
“In a stratified society, people will do desperate things to seem successful.”
What could be a better symbol of success than having your child accepted at an Ivy League college (and being able to wear that oh-so-special sweatshirt)?

By Neil Wilkof

More on “Breaking Bad” here.

The U.S. college admission scandal: when brands, brand equity and status "break bad" The U.S. college admission scandal: when brands, brand equity and status "break bad" Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, March 18, 2019 Rating: 5

2 comments:

  1. Interesting post. Particularly the transition from brand as conveying useful consumer information to brand for a braggart right of association, or perhaps a kind of virtual exclusionary zoning. If the "Harvard" label won't have value to its owner for future earning potential (and I'm sure that the celebrity children in the scandal aren't interested in working) then it turns into a piece of art for the collection. Art too has no intrinsic value yet rich people need it because it has no defined or intrinsic value (the ultimate brand) which makes it easier to manipulate the market for art through a club/gallery/farm system that decides which artists will be special and which won't. At some point all this just becomes the Emperors New Clothes and will begin to lose value. Or worse a return to a world of idol worship. Whatever became of valuing modesty? I can understand Ivy's in California or New York abandoning modesty, but Ivy's in Puritan New England?

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