Preaching to the converted is usually taken as a waste of time. The same could be said of branding. Why bother branding to those that have already bought?
But I had an experience last month that ought to send a shiver down the spine of any independent school advancement professional – or for the keeper of the brand in any organization.
I was speaking with a woman whose oldest child is a grade one student at an independent school to which I consult on marketing and admissions issues. She told me that as a parent she didn’t really know how to articulate what distinguishes this school from others. And in a moment of panic, I thought, “Houston, we have a problem.”
You see, this is a school that mounts aggressive recruitment campaigns with very healthy budgets. And the marketing is effective. It generates hundreds of inquiries and provides a school of over 1500 students with enough new students to offset attrition and maintain stable enrolment.
The problem seems to be that four years after they signed on, parents clearly can’t remember why they chose the school and what makes it different. The reality is that current parents don’t see all the fancy advertising. The expensive viewbook they were once given is gathering dust somewhere – assuming it was spared from the recycling bin. They don’t look at the admissions section of the website.
And yet current parents are any school’s greatest salespeople. If they can’t articulate the brand, the return on marketing investment isn’t going to be very exciting. So, what to do?
Here are some suggestions for what is not an uncommon challenge.
1. Live the brand. A brand is way more than a logo and a tagline. If the brand is that which truly distinguishes a school, then it is defined by the sum of all experience with the school. Every interaction has an impact on that brand. Based on that, the goal is to have everything that happens at the school – educationally, programmatically, even administratively, reflect the brand. It’s possible that although the parent in my story felt that she couldn’t distinguish what was different about the school, her description of her family’s experience at the school may in fact reveal unique qualities. If she’s living the brand, she becomes an effective ambassador.
2. Communicate the brand. Current parents should be just as much a target of communication efforts as are prospective parents. Knowing what’s going on in their kid’s grade one class isn’t enough. They have to know about the notable events and successes throughout the school. More importantly that communication should also reflect the brand. Whether you’re using e-newsletters, social media, websites or old-fashioned print, what you say and how you say it has to convey the values, priorities and essential characteristics of the school.
3. Measure the brand. Let’s start this one with the basics. You absolutely need to be surveying your parents regularly. Are they satisfied? What areas need improvement? How do they assess the quality of core curriculum components and key aspects of student life? Assuming that those elements are reflective of the brand, those questions are already measuring your success at conveying the intended brand. You can go further. Ask parents about the extent to which they identify with the principles that are at the core of your brand.
An interesting question then arises. What happens if parents don’t identify with those principles? Well, you have two choices. One is to redouble your efforts to live and communicate the brand. The second choice is more intriguing. Even though the brand being articulated by your parents is different than what you intended, it’s possible that brand is more authentic and equally attractive. Maybe you need to rethink the brand.
Any way you slice it, branding and marketing efforts must be inbound as much as they are outbound. That way, current parents become powerful brand advocates for their school – and you reserve your spine chilling moments for horror movies.