With an established school, with all it’s heritage and standing in their community, it can be challenging to consider the school as a brand in the traditional sense; however using some techniques that brands adopt is a great way to stand out from the competition and give yourself a sustainable advantage.
1. First do your homework
There are two main areas your research should consider:
a) the Customer or Prospect. What is important to them? Whilst this is likely to be a number of things it is useful to speak to current parents (and prospective if possible) to see why they chose your school over others. This is useful in terms of ascertaining current strengths, but also consider trying to find out why parents did not choose your school.
One thing is certain is that parents and pupils talk to other parents and pupils. It is extraordinary how mis-conceptions or myths about a school can be established ‘outside’ of the organisation itself. It is better to know that people think you’re a hot-house for exams or that you don’t appear to consider pastoral care as important; it is never comfortable to learn such rumours and the reality is most probably very different. However in knowing people’s perception you can address it head-on through the website, social media and public presentation. Learning about mis-conceptions surrounding your school is often the most useful information that you may hear.
b) The school ‘brand’. Try to be as open-minded as you can, and endeavour to establish where your school’s strengths lie; and then look at the converse of these strengths and list the weaknesses. It can be a challenge to do this and be honest with yourself; one option is to open it up and seek various group opinions from within the school for their views. Possibly identify a number of hand-picked sub-groups (Alumni, Parents of recently left pupils, Pupils themselves across various year groups, key teaching staff, and support staff (the Deputy Head and the Groundsman will both have a valid view), and possibly even go wider - community figures and geographic neighbours.
At Wild Dog we have run a number of such focus groups, and the value of information received was beyond anything we could have imagined. Not only do people feel rightly flattered that you have sought and value their opinion, but the reality is their views do have immeasurable value. In one school review, we found that there were visual assets within the school heritage and brand that had fallen into disuse (thought to be an anachronism), but when shown and explained to the youngest pupils, they were immediately embraced and thought to be incredibly ‘cool’. Similarly, we asked each group for their feedback on all the competitor brands and schools; such rich pickings indeed to learn how the other places were considered by the pupils' peers (old and new). This instantly gave us a wealth of information from which to address the school brand’s strengths, and perceived weaknesses, in order to weave them into the marketing approach.
2. Be specific
Once the research is complete, the next step is to develop a school brand positioning statement (not to be confused with an advertising tagline). Such statements are easy to deride and be considered too commercial or corporate. However any good Head has a vision for their school, and it is that vision which needs to be distilled down and encapsulated into a single positioning statement. They are incredibly useful. Useful to convey instantly to all those involved in the school, from pupils to teachers, and future pupils what drives the school and reassure them.
In many ways a School’s positioning statement of today, has routes in the original latin school motto of yesterday. The statement of today will, most likely be less boldly succinct than the motto; but rather it might well complement it (if your school has a motto) and put in clear terms who, what and why. By way of example, Amazon's positioning statement from 2001 when selling books on-line is a useful example of how one might be structured.
For World Wide Web users who enjoy books, Amazon.com is a retail bookseller that provides instant access to over 1.1 million books. Unlike traditional book retailers, Amazon.com provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices, and comprehensive selection.
It’s easy to see how this positioning statement has guided not only their marketing, but also their product and service development. Also having driven them so very, very successfully, that positioning statement has evolved greatly today to encompass so much more in terms of what they sell.
3. Use it
Having gone through all this work; spoken to parents and pupils, sought the staff’s opinion, considered the competition, developed a positioning statement, don’t then simply file it and not integrate it. Use the positioning statement when briefing your agencies or working on a School Open Day. It should help give focus to communications, and if used correctly will empower rather than constrain.
Clearly we have tried to apply lessons learned from big brands; and we believe they really can bring value to the school marketing strategy. However, we have a lot of experience working in the the Education sector and we know and respect that it has it’s own set of unique rules and ways of doing things. Heritage, legacy, passion, uniqueness all play an incredibly important role in how a school brand positions itself. We do understand this. Each school is unique, not unlike one of your pupils. Each one has a path to follow - but as with the school and pupil analogy, at Wild Dog we can help guide and light that path for you.
Main image copyright Michael C Hughes