The independent schools sector has faced challenging times over recent years. Affordability issues with regard to fees has seen competition increase and the market consolidate. Rising costs in many areas have placed greater emphasis on the need to generate income over and above fee income.
Schools who traditionally had to do very little in terms of marketing to ensure a steady stream of pupils have had to become more commercially minded, adopting smarter marketing approaches.
Against this backdrop, the importance of establishing a strong brand for your school has never been more important.
A strong proposition
Ensure there is real clarity about your brand. The best brands tell a story and, whilst often re-invented to keep appeal alive over generations, the story doesn’t waver. The answers to a strong proposition will often lie in the past, in the foundations of your school. Think about how your school’s story best resonates with today’s audiences and their needs. Ensure you are leveraging the potentially strongest aspects of your brand.
Dr John Percival founded Clifton in 1862 with Bristol businessmen. Social elitism played no part in his educational philosophy, he believed in the virtues of hard work, service to the community and social responsibility. He welcomed day boys alongside boarders – unheard of at the time – because he wanted a school that served the city.
Diverse and rich experiences, aiming high but staying grounded, and connectivity with the city and the wider world, all form part of Clifton’s brand strategy today.
Your brand story should be the same no matter who tells it. Spend time internally getting everyone on the same page and honing how all staff tell the story and how they bring the brand to life through actions and touchpoints.
For the Clifton brand refresh, we invested a lot of time in consultation, discussion and presentations internally to ensure staff at all levels felt that the direction was a true representation of the brand they loved, was exciting, and was presented in a way they felt comfortable engaging with.
Focus on a ‘pull’ not a ‘push’ approach to marketing
A common mistake made by schools is adopting very traditional marketing methods, pre-deciding who gets what in terms of information, and typically relies heavily on advertising and print. A brand approach focuses on getting things right internally, on fine-tuning all customer touchpoints, on communicating all that you do creatively and on maximising and controlling word of mouth.
Prospective parents will already know, through their social information networks, the shortlist of schools they are considering. The role of marketing is no longer to persuade people in order to be part of that consideration set, but to validate what the customers think they already know about your brand.
Mobilise your biggest salesforces
Staff, parents, pupils and alumni are your biggest salesforce – invest time in delighting them with your offering, your service and your brand and you will succeed in creating a ‘magnetic’ pull field around your school as your current customers sell for you, with a consistent story. This in turn diminishes the need for traditional marketing activity which can make schools appear desperate for pupils and have a negative impact.
Some of the projects we focus on as a team may not always appear to be marketing in the traditional sense, but reviewing your communication journeys for prospective and current parents, for example, is vitally important.
Don’t limit your marketing to ‘best in sector’
Many schools make the mistake of just looking for best practice within the sector in terms of marketing as opposed to within the wider commercial world. Schools are vital brands in people’s lives, dealing with their most precious commodity, their children, and competing for a large amount of disposable income. Prospective parents want to feel as proud of their school brand choice as they would holidays, houses or cars.
During our brand re-fresh, we spent time considering how our brand stacked up in our customers’ lives. As a result we made some changes to elements such as the coat of arms to ensure we had the right ‘premium’ feel.
Don’t be scared to take risks and surprise your audience
Strong brands need to be consistent visually and in terms of delivery, but don’t need to be bland and corporate as a result. Questioning how you do things and looking for opportunities to surprise your customers will provide talking points that reinforce your brand story and strengthen your word of mouth.
Events and partnership marketing are a great way to delight and surprise audiences within your brand strategy. Changing formats, increasing hospitality levels, creating magic moments.
Pay attention to detail
Getting the little things right can make a huge difference when it comes to maximising and controlling the word of mouth about your school. The smallest details can become the biggest talking points. Staff involvement here is key in bringing your brand to life on the ground.