Sunday, January 31, 2016

For better marketing results – Get Experiential!

Consumer brand marketers are finding innovative ways to cut through the clutter and independent schools would be wise to pay attention.

The goal of marketing is to make someone feel something. That’s becoming increasingly difficult in large part because we are inundated with marketing messages. So, marketers are continually on the hunt for tactics that can find a straighter route to the heart.

Enter experiential marketing, which is all about creating real-life experiences that form a memorable and emotional connection between the consumer and the brand. Some of the most talked about examples of experiential marketing are pretty outlandish. Have a look at this video that shows how the cable network TNT transformed a quiet corner in Belgium into a bizarre crime scene that ends with the message, “Your Daily Dose of Drama.” You can check out this page for lots of other examples of experiential marketing.

But not all experiential marketing has to have that "wow" factor. In December, chocolate maker Ferrero Rocher invited residents in Toronto and Montreal to drop by a home in their neighborhood for a “holiday house lighting ceremony.” Along with a beautifully lit home, carolers and hot chocolate, Ferrero Rocher chocolates were handed out to those who had come to be part of the event. When interviewed, the company’s spokesperson talked about creating “‘golden moments’ that have a special place in our hearts.”

There’s another dimension to experiential marketing that schools should pay attention to. It is being touted as a highly successful means of reaching millennials. People who have grown up with media and technology along with its ubiquitous stream of marketing have justifiably become a little cynical about sales pitches. As a recent article in theFinancial Post says, “millennials want to experience what a brand has to offer before they lend it their dollars or support. That’s why experiential marketing has taken on a new importance.”

Millennials are also characterized by being both values and relationship driven. Experiential marketing is seen as a means of “building consumer-to-brand relationships [that are] authentic and transparent” and reflecting “collective values” that are the key to supporting a brand.

So, what does all of this have to do with schools? In almost all elementary schools, prospective parents are millennials and you can bet that cynicism and marketing-immunity extend to the universe of prospective parents at all schools. Like any other player in competitive markets, schools have to find a way of cutting through and establishing a meaningful connection with those they want to attract.

For sure, schools don’t have the budget and resources to pull off elaborate experiential marketing events but there is no reason they can’t be guided by the goal of establishing an emotional connection with potential buyers. Here are a few ideas with a fair warning that many of these are simply a product of my imagination and, as far as I know, are untried.

Experiential Open Houses – Let’s start with the obvious. The typical “talking head” open house presentation isn’t going to cut it. At a school that I worked with we had parents visit various classrooms where teachers taught them a mini-lesson as they would their students. Parents sat in a circle, sang songs, repeated words, jumped up and down – and, believe it or not, had a blast. They got to experience school the way their kids would. Best of all, they got to feel just a little bit like a kid and imagine the way their children would feel when they get to school.

Pop-up school – A growing marketing trend is the pop-up store or restaurant. Businesses rent space on a short-term basis to bring a sampling of their products to high traffic areas, to a particular venue that is thematically related to their business or to take advantage of an upcoming event or holiday.

What if you set up a pop-up school at your local mall. Children could drop in and participate in fun, educational activities. Parents could take part and be wowed with a robotics or other technology based activities. The broad idea is to allow people to experience your school. The other experiential points that get made are that learning can be fun and can take place beyond the four walls of a school.

Imagine the future event – The idea is to organize an event or perhaps even a contest for local parents that asks them to imagine what the world will look like in twenty years. Maybe people are asked to predict things like the price of gas, houses or groceries; what countries will or will not exist; the population of cities, countries or the world. It could have a light-hearted component with comedy routines about the future. However its done, the idea is to create an opportunity for parents to experientially consider the future in which their children will come of age and for which their education is preparing them.

School-mobile  - The inspiration for this idea is the bookmobile. When I was growing up, we lived a long way from the local library but every week our neighborhood was visited by the bookmobile – an RV shaped vehicle that was a mini-library on wheels.

Schools could take a used school bus and re-model it at as a traveling educational activity centre. Advance publicity would let parents know when to expect the school-mobile in their area. Once it was parked in a particular neighbourhood, children and their parents could hop on the bus and spend an hour or so engaged in fun activities. The school-mobile allows parents and children to experience what a school has to offer and creates a sense of excitement about learning.
Ok, some of these ideas may be a little out there, but what is undeniable is that when schools find ways to experientially make a connection with prospective parents they will see better marketing results.

What do you think?
Have you used any experiential initiatives? Were they successful?  Any ideas about other ways to create an emotional connection through experience? I’d love to hear from you.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Why bother branding?

Let’s face it. Branding projects are a pain in the butt. They’re time consuming, expensive, require intense introspection, demand the finesse of giving stakeholder groups just the right amount of voice, risk exposing deep divisions about foundational principles in your school and when complete, will create an avalanche of work in updating admissions, development and other messaging as well as websites and all kinds of communications and promotional material. And all of that is after the painstaking process of decision making that led to a branding project in the first place.

So, given all of that, why bother branding?

Your knee jerk response might be to point to the potential enrolment benefits of re-branding. And that wouldn’t be wrong. However the benefits of branding extend well beyond the admissions office and into every facet of a school’s operation. Branding can have broad, positive and even transformative impact on a school.

Before going further let’s make sure we have a common understanding of branding. A school’s brand reflects its essence. It communicates the experience of being part of the school community. A brand is a representation of the multi-faceted relationship that parents, students, teachers, staff and other groups groups have with your school. Branding is the process of articulating a school’s essential nature.

Based on that, here are some examples of the profound benefits that come from a successful branding project:
  • Admissions efforts. Well understood branding gives focus to conversations with prospective parents. Without the clarity of good branding, admissions staff can grapple with what to say about a school and feel like they are constantly reinventing the wheel. Branding uncomplicates admissions efforts and makes it easier for prospective parents to decide if your school is right for their child and them.
  • Ambassadorship. Having a clearer understanding of what makes a school unique will sharpen the conversations that ambassadors have and ensure that the prospective parents they refer are a better fit. 
  • Parent experience. Current parents can be equal beneficiaries of clearer branding.  Tailor your parent experience to match the brand and at every interaction your parents will gain a deep understanding of what makes the school unique, have their choice of the school validated and be better ambassadors. 
  • Customer service. Because the brand is all about the relationship that parents have with your school, more focused branding should make it easier to anticipate and satisfy the needs of parents. Great customer service is the foundation of positive word of mouth and intensifies the benefits of a strong brand. 
  • Community. A brand can be a rallying point for a school, uniting parents, students, administrators, teachers and even trustees around a common quest or cause. When there is clarity about what a school is supposed to be, there can be greater purpose to living up to the brand. 
  • Decision-making.  Whether it’s about curriculum, policy, staffing or facilities, branding brings a clearer common basis for decision making.  As Peter Gow says in an essential branding publication from NAIS, “Because it stems directly from experience, a school’s brand can be a reliable touchstone in the assessment of current programs as well as in future planning.”
  • Business Operations. A school’s business office acts in support of the brand as much as any other department. Selecting and assessing suppliers, decisions about facilities and payment policies – just to name a few items – are all given greater focus by a strong brand. 
  • Advancement. A well-articulated brand will be a boon to fundraising efforts. It sharpens the case for giving and brings clarity to solicitations and fundraising appeals because prospective donors are better able to understand what makes the school unique. Likewise, a strong brand can re-affirm the commitment of alumni, strengthening their ties to the school. 
  • Staffing. The brand becomes an effective criterion in staffing decisions.  The degree to which prospective teachers and other staff members reflect the brand and are capable of furthering it are key hiring considerations. Conversely, a strong and clearly articulated brand makes a school more attractive to prospective faculty members and helps them decide whether they want to work there. 
  • Classroom content. The head at a school that I worked with would regularly challenge faculty to consider how they would teach material differently if the school’s mission changed. Similarly a school’s brand can inform decisions about the way curriculum is delivered, integrating subject matter and making the brand deeply experiential to students. 
  • Inspiration. The best brands are aspirational. They provide a higher purpose to everything that is done within a school. They make the collective goal clearer. They challenge and, in that way, unite a school community. A vibrant brand will inspire a school to reach higher, achieve more and serve its community better.
All of these factors can also provide a meaningful gauge of your current branding. If it’s not delivering enough of the benefits above, it needs your attention. It may just be that the brand is not being communicated well or it could be time to go back to the drawing board.

The next time you are considering whether to “bother” with a branding project make sure it’s as 360 degree decision and take all the factors above – and more – into consideration.

What do you think?
What’s been the breadth of your school’s experience with branding? What other aspects of school life and operation does branding touch? How do you decide whether it’s time to re-brand?