Simplifying the complex: Fifteen years of marketing schools

After 20 years of marketing—including 15 years working with schools across Queensland and New South Wales—I am steadfast in my belief that there is no marketing challenge as complex as that faced by schools.

In what other industry would you find thousands of individual stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, alumni and more—all with do-or-die expectations?

Or an environment that can, quite honestly, change the trajectory of children’s lives?

Then you have the two very distinct markets—internal and external—often with very different needs that need to be met with minimal budgets.

The experience of school changed little for nearly a century but, in the past 20 years, it has evolved in such leaps and bounds that today’s parents struggle to recognise it.

Philosophically, there are few industries I can think of that have such a strong evidence base to guide practice—here I’m thinking of teaching and learning—yet the required outcome is often diametrically opposed to it. Looking forward to the arrival of ATAR, anyone?

It’s little wonder that I find the business of marketing schools endlessly fascinating.

Only this morning I was in another principal’s office, talking through these very complexities. In our conversation, we touched on what I’ve discovered over the years are three bedrock principles every school needs as their marketing foundation. They’re my way of transforming a little of the complex into the simple.

1. Work out what makes you unique

Marketing and enrolments teams live and die by their numbers. It is endlessly tempting, then, to try to go wide in your appeal so that you create the biggest possible net. In practice, though, it means no-one knows what you stand for. The better alternative is to embrace what makes you unique and then market that hard. You’ll end up attracting families that are the right fit for you and work hard as your ambassadors. Internally, there’ll be great cohesion, too, because you’ll attract and retain great educators who get what you’re about and support it in their words and actions.

2. Don’t be afraid to like you’re unique

If you’re bored one day in your office, try this game. Get ads from three schools, and then block out their hats and uniforms. Can you still tell them apart? It astounds me that we continue to use sterile, look-alike images—hey, here’s a girl in a lab coat with a test tube as proof that we promote girls in STEM!—that don’t reflect the day-to-day experience of what it is to learn at your school. Celebrate your uniqueness—and set yourself apart from your competitors—by choosing unique visual styles and photography.

3. Now stay unique

Over time, teachers and leaders of schools get to know each other pretty well. Principals, in particular, know other schools like bookies know racehorses. The net result in marketing is that your great idea quickly becomes next year’s norm… and after a few years, what was edgy is simply outdated. Wise schools invest in a middle ground here. They start off strong and then review and refresh their brand every year or two. That way, subtle tweaks don’t destabilise your internal audience but you stay fresh and relevant externally.



Want to know more?

Suzanne advises schools on sustainable marketing strategy that helps them get the most from their internal resources. To chat, phone 07 3334 8340 or email.