Why be the Name Brand in Independent Schools?

Marketing and raising money: two evergreen, and intertwined, issues facing independent schools. A pair of books published by the National Association of Independent Schools – Marketing Independent Schools in the 21st Century (2001) and the second edition of Philanthropy at Independent Schools (2002) – examine both issues and come to a common conclusion: the business of 21st century independent schools is service.

Service is certainly a crucial attribute, but it’s a tactical one that wouldn’t make the top of my list. The strategic priority for independent schools should be developing brands that proclaim “leadership.”

What’s an independent school to do in this new era of increased choice, a time when many consumer-parents see parity among products? The days of relying on traditional marketing and fundraising tools – namely high gloss viewbooks, arm-twisting trustees, and riding the coattails of old reputations – are over.

The success a school has in marketing and fundraising depends on how well it crafts and, above all, communicates a unique position of leadership in the marketplace.

What can your school be bold about? Do you set the agenda, or merely respond to trends?

Pulling together answers to questions like these isn’t easy for one simple reason: it requires pulling together. Successful brands are ensemble pieces. As with any well-executed play, a collection of team members – development, admissions, alumni, communications, teachers, administration, even parents and students – play distinct positions yet simultaneously support the actions of their teammates.

The ability to articulate a common brand and ideology guides and inspires people inside an organization. Employees who can espouse a point of view are more likely to behave consistent with that point of view; the very act of stating the ideology influences their behaviour, becomes pervasive, and transcends the tenure of headmasters and trustees.

The effort of lateral thinking does pay off: stakeholders who tie themselves together can transform answers into a strategic vision positioning them as the best: not as a school for elites, but as an elite school.

Listening to voices from the outside is also important. But the savvy school must be careful not to listen too closely. Certainly, consumers want to be heard; parents want their children to attend schools that share their values and concerns. Parents also want their children exposed to unique ideas. They want to be led, they want to associate with, and be guided by, the best.

The simplest, easiest, most direct way to achieve quality perception in a consumer’s mind is to communicate leadership: demonstrate your school has an unrivaled capacity for thinking and teaching.

The strong brand convinces consumers their sacrifice is worthwhile; whatever the cost, it has value.

The brand of value concept leads me to fundraising. Development is, as Helen Colson tells us, “about people, about building and nurturing relationships with those people whose generosity can empower a school.” Unfortunately many marketers’ focus on the visual aspects of identity – important enough, but what about the intellectual?

Strong intellectual brands and their stories are hooks for nurturing relationships; they give developers something to talk about. Promoting your expertise and raising your school’s profile – building a bigger community – should be the necessary precursor to fundraising.

And here is a problem with the Colson book: her pronounced preference for deepening the contributions of top donors at the expense of a broader and longer-term donor acquisition strategy.

I would have said the best fundraising program is the one with the deepest communications program because it is most capable of building community. “High ideas,” Jim Collins wrote in Built to Last, “are not a luxury.” Intellectual leadership generates substantial interest. Telling stories from school is just what is needed for consumers and donors to understand and appreciate your brand.

This pair of books offers some interesting ideas, but none that will result in effective differentiation. Suggestions such as ensuring communication tools (publications, proposals, newsletters, letters) be merely “literate” and have “simple sentences” doesn’t set the bar high enough.

Marketers and fundraisers have a common core challenge: to increase mindshare and get people talking. Developing a unique brand is the first part of that job; they have to collaborate and augment their capacity for innovative thinking.

Communicating – and this job never ends – comes next. Clearly and tangibly establish the burden of proof: tell your stories effectively before asking for money. Ensure your targets know why the school is unique. What have you done to prepare them to hear your ask? A deeply-held brand removes the angst of purchasing decisions. If parents understand who you are, and what you do, they will understand your need.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 12 June 2003)

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