Monday, January 7, 2013

Branding to the converted

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.


  1. Hmmm...I can relate to your friend Chuck. I would add one more consideration in any branding campaign - benchmarking. It's important that ANY brand distinguish themselves from the competition and clearly articulate their value proposition...relative to other products, services and supports in the same industry. Consumers need to be reminded of what makes the brand special.

  2. Thanks for the comment Ruth. Couldn't agree more. Branding is all about finding those core points of differentiation - and making sure they are communicated in every touch point with an organization.

  3. Really great observations and advice! I can see this problem with an institution with which I'm involved as a volunteer. Most of the marketing apples are in the admissions cart and much less attention is being paid to translating the brand message to other audiences, especially alumni but now that you raise it, current parents, too. Good post!

  4. Thanks Amy,

    You might be able to convince the institution of the need for action by simply asking someone to do what I (unwittingly) did and ask a handful of current parents what makes the school different from others. The answers may compel some action.

  5. Chuck,
    Never read your blog until now. Great article! I plan to pass this along to some others who could really benefit from your advice. I've always believed that the most effective marketing - whether inbound or outbound -- is always backed by authentic culture of those "living the principles". In other words, "who we really are" should be attractive that way we don't draw people in the door and then disappoint them with a culture that varies significantly from our marketing campaign.

    This is why I think your last point is so worthwhile. I agree that if parents are living something different -- but equally attractive -- then why not use that to your advantage. The easiest way for people to remember what sets a school apart is when they encounter it so often in the everyday experiences that even if they don't "read" the marketing. They still see others living it out and are influenced to do the same.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. Thank you very much Tournament Guy. I think you have eloquently underlined the point that so much of branding isn't what is read but rather what is experienced. A brand that only exists on paper will be as thin as the paper itself.

  7. Chuck, your advice is right on. I would add that the school's brand needs to come directly out of its Mission Statement. Be sure your parents are always on stream with the mission. Your brand will be connected and understood.

  8. Thanks Al. From my experience Mission Statements tend to describe the process (providing excellence in education) or the outcomes (creating graduates that will change the world). Branding describes the experience that both student and parent will have with the school. But you're right - they should be well connected.

  9. You make an excellent point, Chuck, and not just for schools. Every non-profit should take care to repeat their purpose and main benefits frequently to their existing supporters (in addition to explaining them to potential supporters, of course). When you work on the inside, you get tired of hearing the "same ole same ole" all the time. But your supporters may hear your message so infrequently, they forget it completely!

  10. You're absolutely right Judy. There's even the risk of taking current parents (or donors or customers for granted. Thanks for your comments.

  11. I agree with Ruth, benchmarking is a key to success here.

    For anyone who didn't see my first comment on LinkedIn:
    Current and past parents are a valuable marketing resource, if you continue to engage them in conversation about the school. Your point about measuring the brand by regularly surveying parents is key. My organization studied responses from 25,000 independent school parents through a parent survey program we've run for years and found that a sense of school community, including having a strong understanding of the school's philosophy, was a top driver of parents' likelihood to recommend the school (

    We also found that parents perceptions of the school's strengths and their satisfaction with key program areas were very different from leaders' predictions and assumptions, making regular surveys even more crucial.

  12. Great article and comments -thank you!

  13. Great article, sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the various categories of people you need to communicate effectively with and never underestimate the importance of your current core target! In terms of the prospective parents, it is critical to mention that not all parents are the same nor are all parents looking for the same things in a school therefore a differentiation strategy for this group could actually be highly effective!
    Agree 100% with the importance of measuring the brand regularly in order to gauge responses. keep the articles coming!

  14. Thanks for the comment. There are 3 major targets for independent school marketing - prospective parents, current parents and donors. And I agree that there are subgroups within each. You just have to keep targeting and measuring.


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