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?


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?


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.


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: