Branding gaps are the most likely source of declining enrolment in an independent school. But where do you find them and what do you do about them?
First, some ground rules. For the purpose of this discussion I am using Seth Godin’s definition of a brand: “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” So, you can see that a brand is infinitely more than logo, tagline and ad copy.
Now, to define branding gaps we need to accept that organizations effectively have two brands. One is the promised brand – the one that marketing, communication, mission and other efforts have been designed to convey. The other is the delivered brand. This is the one you find out about when you survey stakeholders and ask them to characterize their experience with and perceptions of your school. In organizations that really have their branding act together (think Apple, Whole Foods), the two are aligned. In most organizations, there are going to be differences between the promised brand and the delivered brand and those differences are the branding gaps.
There are many sources of branding gaps. Most of them can and should be considered proactively. Here are some ideas for where those gaps maybe lurking in your school and what to do about them.
Teachers – There is no one more important to delivering your school’s brand than teachers. For most families, they are the most common point of communication. It’s critical that teachers know and understand the school’s brand. Clearly it should be reflected in all their communication with students and parents and that includes classroom websites and email blasts. I would contend that the brand should also be evident in the classroom. I know a Head of School that challenges teachers to consider the changes they would make to classroom content if the mission of the school changed. If mission and curriculum are married, then brand must also be part of the educational product.
Everyday Communication – Parents are recipients of what sometimes seems like an endless stream of communication from the school. While this often deals with day-to-day issues like early closings, lunch programs and upcoming events, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t reflect the school’s brand. The danger is that much of this type of communication is often written hastily by people other than marketing and communications staff. There are a number of solutions. Many of these communications can be anticipated and templates can be prepared in advance. Everyone in the organization should be brand-trained and understand how that affects even the most mundane messaging. Finally, a review system that gives the communications staff the final say could help maintain the brand.
Office staff – We all know the adage about having one chance to make a first impression and office staff are the front line of most interaction with stakeholders – whether in person, by phone or by email. Like everyone else, they need to understand the school’s brand promise but more importantly they need to know how to incorporate that into daily activity. Front-line staff in a school that emphasizes inclusivity and diversity should communicate differently than those in an elite IB school.
Board members – Lay people are often represent the greatest brand challenge. Their implicit contract with the school is not employment based and requires more refined management measures. Yet they wield tremendous influence –within the school community and the community at large. Brand training for board members is essential. What’s more is that lay people are often not aware of the ways in which they subtly make brand impressions in their everyday conversation.
Mission/Marketing Misalignment – Finally, it’s possible that everyone in the organization is delivering the brand experience dictated by its mission or even brand strategy and the real problem is that marketing efforts have missed the mark. What’s being promised isn’t what’s being delivered. Assuming that most people are satisfied with their interaction with the organization, the fix is to re-tool the marketing effort.
The real solution is the 3 M’s – You can only fix branding gaps that you are aware of. The key to brand management is to measure, monitor and modify. You have to survey stakeholders on a regular basis to determine if you are delivering your intended brand. Likewise, it’s critical to be monitoring social media including the parking lot that, in a school, is often the most potent social media channel. Final, you have to be prepared to act based on what you discover.
Branding gaps can undo the most masterful marketing efforts and create enrolment crises. Knowing how to find them – and bridge them – will undoubtedly improve results.
What do you think? What branding gaps have you uncovered in your organization and what are you doing about them?