The WHY of Schools MarketingWhat I have learnt about marketing schools today! – By Grant O’Hara – Director Strategy1st

So many schools are taking the plunge into the crazy world of ‘marketing’ these days?

What is happening out there to make school leaders feel the need to advertise in spaces that were essentially the domains of business and other not-for-profit organisations? And I am not just talking about the private independent schools either; state schools are getting in on the act too!

I was at the movies the other day and saw a ‘brand’ commercial for the local state school. Gee… now I can’t even go to the movies and be immune from this ‘new’ invasion on my senses. (Footnote: the commercial was good and shed some light on what the school stood for, which isn’t a bad thing I reckon.)

Maybe it is just me, but having been a school teacher in a past life and now a marketing specialist for the past 20 years, it could be that my senses are more ‘attuned’ to all the activity going on this space.
Now I must confess, I love the thought of schools knowing who they are, what they stand for and for taking risks and marketing their brands in the market place. Who knows next our state schools will be competing against each other heaven forbid?

Clearly, schools are facing an increasing level of scrutiny these days. Mums and dads prize publicly available information from websites such as My School and newspapers run ‘league tables’ on academic performance.
Is it any wonder that the status of marketing schools is shifting in Principals’ minds? Really, there is nowhere to hide, so why not control the message and tell them WHY!
I really do feel for school Principals these days.

On top of the demands of running a school, now they are also meant to be marketing gurus. I have even heard of one school Principal whose contract was not renewed because of … their inability to market their school.
When was Marketing 101 a ‘core’ or even an ‘elective’ subject in your education degree course? To the best of my knowledge it isn’t, surely wasn’t an option when I did my education degree, I had to do a business course for mine. Given the added expectation on school Principals these days maybe a, How to market your school? Subject isn’t a bad option.
For the past seven years, I have had the great joy of combining my love of marketing and education working with schools to produce their marketing strategy.
So what have I learnt when dealing with schools from all three systems in Queensland?

Firstly, my observation is that marketing isn’t a dirty word anymore, and people don’t look at you funny when you use the word ‘brand’ within a school setting.
It wasn’t that long ago that one of my favourite school clients had a previous Headmaster that quite clearly stated… “I don’t care how bad enrolments numbers get, we will never do any marketing because they will think we are desperate.”
Thankfully, this attitude is changing and soon it will be the schools that don’t do any marketing will be the odd ones out. And besides, what is wrong with wanting great kids coming to a great school anyway?

Secondly, I have learnt that schools are developing marketing strategy and creating environments that support the role out of marketing tactics. This is being done via creative Open Day concepts, Experiential marketing opportunities, Community Strategic Partnership developments and fund raising. These concepts are designed to enhance the visibility and creditability of their schools. But when it comes to explaining how good the school is, the one BIG mistake many schools make is to sell their school on a functional level i.e. we do ‘this’ great, rather than on an emotional level i.e. Why our school will be great for your child? Knowing how to express the WHY is the key to marketing your school.
Here in lies the Principal’s biggest mental hurdle. When one works in the marketing space we are dealing in creating, even manufacturing, perception. It is this notion of dealing ‘in perception’ that can give marketing a bad name.
Dealing in perception really this isn’t too hard to do, BUT there is a catch, if you believe your school is a great school and your say so, the school must be able to back up its claims. Just as a coffee shop will go broke if it doesn’t sell good coffee, so a school that doesn’t live up to the marketing ‘hype’ and deliver on its promise will soon see enrolments drop and have people talking.
But hey, over time, the more the concept of marketing is understood in the school setting, the more there will be acceptance that we are now playing in the emotional space. There is one given and it is a well-worn one … A person’s perception is their reality. The famous marketing saying that … Your school’s brand is not what you say it is, but what they say it is … surely rings true.

Thirdly, I have heard some people say … We need to run our school as a business. But DO we?
Whilst there are definite similarities between the imperatives of a business and that of a school, I am not sure that I agree. Often ‘business’ produces and sells widgets, but in sectors such as health and education our commodity is ‘people’. Purely and simply we are in the business of people, in the service of people, working with curricular that help to shape lives. What other sector can really claim to have such a specific purpose. There is no doubt that the school sector is so thoroughly unique, to make the claim that we are now going to run the school as a business is a little too simplistic and might I say risky. Generally speaking businesses are ‘for profit’ entities, some have investors, some have stakeholders but ultimately businesses are built to make money and return a profit.
Schools are built to educate, create opportunity, enhance and embellish lives and whilst extra funding can improve the level of resourcing that is available, at any schools’ core is its capacity to service people. So I see that you run a school- as a school- and allow marketing to identify your school’s uniqueness, unify your messages and tell people about the great job you are doing. Schools’ marketing efforts needs to have a singular focus and that is not just to tell parents about the great things that you do, but we must be clear about ‘WHY’ the school is great for their child. In such a homogeneous space WHY would a parent select your school above another. The marketing challenge begins.

Fourthly a word on school values.
Your school values, if constructed correctly, can identify what it is that makes your particular school unique. This is essential to a marketing process, because it is this uniqueness that defines a brand’s position in the market.
Across the last seven years I have read hundreds of schools’ values and I must say that they are practically all the same. No distinction, nothing that I would say is unique about any one school, nothing that could align with the school’s reputation and ultimately its selling proposition, nothing to ‘shout out’ about. This is essential to developing a marketing strategy.

The reason for this lies in the fact that when values are being constructed two critical mistakes occur.
Firstly, they are developed via an ALL of community consultation process. WRONG, I am all for buy-in and consultation (hey I am a consultant) but NOT when it comes to values. The values of any organisation should be set by a small group of leaders that know the brand and what they want as its ‘beliefs’ and ‘standards’. I have seen consultative ‘values’ workshops ‘railroaded’ by people whose hidden agendas are not in the best interests of the school. Therefore, ultimately the responsibility for developing values should lie with a small group of informed leaders that set the values agenda, establish the values, present and sell the school’s beliefs and standards.

The second common mistake that I see is the values are set ONLY with the students in mind. WHY? We do advocate the importance of the school as a community- don’t we? That is made up of a number of stakeholders from the students to the teaching and non-teaching staff, to the parents etc. Surely what is good for the students is good for everyone else, as well. Surely!

I believe that a school’s values can be established in four categories – Core, Aspirational, Minimum Standard and Accidental. It is the list of the school’s core values (maybe three) that will make it unique and truly inform the marketing strategy of your school. Further exploration of these concepts will be well worth it.

Fifthly, schools are generally becoming less conservative in their outlooks and less risk adverse when engaging with 21st communication tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Based on research, I have learnt that ‘what parents want’ from their children’s school are homogenous motivations which basically boil down to the following three things:

  1. 1. Preparation for my child to fulfill their potential later in life;
    2. That the school seems right for my child’s individual needs; and
    3. Strong academic performance outcomes.
    (Dr Deirdre Thian – An Independent School’s Queensland Survey sample size 2,292 – Wednesday 24 March 2012)

There are at least 37 others, but these three outcomes are essentially what parents are looking for from their schools across the board.
For this reason, I also think that marketing strategies can be homogenous as too the objectives. What distinguishes any brand is its unique selling proposition (via its core values), which leads to position the school clearly in parents’ minds and the tactical executions that can really make the difference to the way the school presents itself in the market place. This is where the marketing process starts to take shape.
Armed with this information, I have developed a Ten Point Marketing Strategy – summary for schools that can be customised to each school, as follows:

  1. Word of mouth strategy- this is determining and clearly articulating the three/ four reputation messages that you want for your school and pushing these messages through-out the community and market place. Once these messages have been established they should be communicated consistently at every significant school occasion. (E.g. School Speech Night/ Open Day etc.). Clearly word of mouth (or word of mouse as it is sometimes know these days), is still the most important form of marketing and this strategy demands the school to understand what they stand for to communicate and build its desired reputation. Ultimately the successful marketing of your school comes down to answer to this critical question Is your child happy at …. So regularly a parent’s answer to this question can make or break the reputation of your school. Additionally, once the reputation messages have been developed our axiom is … The role of the Principal is to put the school into words, because these are the words that will come back to you to describe the school.
  2. School community staff morale – inclusion in the marketing concept- embedding your school’s key marketing reputation concepts and messages throughout the school community and achieving buy-in from the staff is essential. This needs to be to the degree where marketing of the school becomes everybody’s responsibility and evolves organically and then towards a more theory based ways.
  3. Product and service standards and behaviours- effective marketing is not possible without an effective product. We must deliver on our promise, to be great and continue to drive for optimal results. There are few things that will market your school better than a school ‘making forward progress’ or achieving a ‘higher ranking’ on the ‘league table.’
  4. Brand Integrity tone and culture- give a small team the responsibility for brand and marketing within your school and even consider out sourcing it -if necessary- just to get you started. This team should set and communicate the tone of the brand and attempt to get the whole school community involved in its development and in support of its focus. Often I call this group the Brand Leadership Team (BLT), who are given a specific charter and KPIs. Often this doesn’t mean much more work but allows for a focus on further developing the image of your school and importantly monitoring what the other schools are doing in the marketing space. To assist the team a summary of the school’s brand could be presented on a brand wheel. This is a one page summary of the 13 core elements of your school’s brand including its values, personality, functional and emotional benefits and essence i.e. what the brand stands for in its purest form. All summarised on the one page. This is a great resource.
  5. Experiential marketing-/ own your own territory – offer the capacity for as many young ‘external’ people (as young as pre-school age), as possible to experience your school and the opportunities that exist within it. This strategy is linked to a positioning strategy and could morph into a Festival of Science and the Arts (for example) to reinforce the school’s reputation messages. This will attempt to cultivate the ‘known-for’ factors in the Arts and Sciences (for example) should this be the aim. This works extremely well in the secondary school settings.
  6. Event engagement- all events should be planned with the intent to ensure they have a purpose and an outcome. School events can play an invaluable marketing purpose such as:
    1. a. community engagement purposes,
      b. brand enhancement,
      c. to position the school favourably in the minds of the local community,
      d. to place the brand within the local business community or
      e. to raise money in non-traditional ways, Each activity should be justified strategically and backed up with a solid tactical plan and benchmark measurements. OR you could just ask the question … how well did that event do as far as marketing our school is concerned?
  7. School placement and community strategic alignments- this means exposing or placing the brand both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of context within the school’s community, ensuring people feel as though they know something about the school even before the initial engagement process begins. This could be done via the use of a signature image (one singular image that best represents the essence of your school) on a billboard or poster placed within the school catchment and seen by the school community. The ability to immerse the school brand within the school community is the essential element of this strategy and begins the process of establishing external relationships.
  8. New media and website strategy- embracing the opportunities for new media and adopting the position that the website “As the Hub” for all communication of the school. The school should be a role model for ‘best practice’ communication in new media, and the website should be utilised such that 50% of its use is for general communication and operation of the school and 50% as a valuable marketing tool.
  9. PR/ publicity/ promotions- this is about having an understanding of what makes news and leveraging off the media relationships necessary to portray the school positively in the local press and more widely. This is also about positioning someone within your school ‘normally the school Principal’ as an authority on education. Choose up to four ‘thought leadership’ topics annually and push information on these topics into the market place.
  10. Advertising- now considered a more traditional form of mass communication, there is still a place for the launching a campaign and / or sales message using mediums such as billboards, radio and cinema. This can give your schools brand the exposure it needs but ‘caution’, this strategy needs to be supported with all the other activity or it could just end up a big waste of money.

Knowing that these are strategies is a good start and now matching the right tactics to strategy is where all the work begins. But hey at the end of the day this is the fun part.

Good luck with marketing your school, get a head start on your opposition and get to know its brand elements. It doesn’t mean you are desperate, it just means you are proud of your school and want it presented in an optimal light. Who knows what might happen from there?.

Grant O’Hara
Director – Strategy1st
(Not to be reproduced in any format with the expressed permission of the author).