Framing Your Mission

How independent schools translate common missions into distinctive brands

Although each independent school has qualities that are distinctive, the missions of many schools sometimes sound quite similar. So how do you make your institution stand out? By using marketing to establish your brand.

By Andrea Jarrell

St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, the Orchard School in Indiana, Chestnut Hill Academy in Penn­sylvania, and Dana Hall School in Massa­chusetts are like most independent schools—they have qualities that are distinctive and extraordinary. Line up their mission statements, however, and the schools sound almost interchangeable. They’re all on a mission to produce talented, highly educated, global leaders who will serve and contribute to the greater good.

And they aren’t alone. The phrases “academic excellence,” “character-building,” “challenging,” “life-long learning,” and “global citizenship” echo through most independent school missions. But the schools themselves are very distinct places, offering different experiences and benefits to their communities.

The relationship and the difference between mission and message can confound schools as they work to define their unique characteristics in a differentiate-or-die climate. They wonder, “How can we all talk about the same things yet be unique?” Or worse, they don’t realize that their messaging doesn’t set them apart at all but instead makes them sound like dozens of other schools. School missions may be similar, but how those missions are accomplished is what sets the schools apart. Communi­cating the “how” versus the “what” of your school’s mission is the work of branding.

Mark Edwards, principal of Mark Edwards & Company, who has worked with more than 100 schools, colleges, and universities, says it’s OK that schools have similar missions. Problems occur, however, when a school tries to use its mission as its message. Edwards sees this issue crop up on a weekly basis.

One difference between “mission” and “message” (or “brand”), he says, is that a school’s mission statement articulates its reason for being. “It should be unchanging and really should speak to the soul of the school,” Edwards says. “On the other hand, the brand is the best way to frame that mission. It should essentially tell the school’s public how they should think about that mission.”

Edwards offers his favorite corporate example—Nike—to demonstrate the distinction between mission and message. Nike’s mission is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” but its brand statement is “Just Do It.” Mission and brand are closely related—but quite different. Although missions don’t have to differentiate schools, brands do. A brand must convey what a school does better than any other school, positioning it to successfully compete against its peers. “The brand should demonstrate how the school can win in a competitive context,” says Edwards.

Here, the work being done at four schools helps highlight what it takes to make the leap from a common mission to a singular brand.

St. Paul’s School: Framing the mission

The mission of St. Paul’s School boarding school is “to pursue the highest ideals of scholarship, strive to challenge our students intellectually and morally, nurture a love for learning and a commitment to engage as servant leaders in a complex world. Founded in the Episcopal tradition, St. Paul’s School models and teaches a respect for self and others; for one’s spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being; for the natural environment; and for service to a greater good.”

But the school’s brand statement is “Freedom with Responsibility.”

Three years ago, Edwards & Company conceived of and developed “Freedom with Responsibility” as part of a positioning assignment for St. Paul’s. Edwards says, “Essentially the school asked us, ‘How can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors in a way that’s consistent with our mission, true to who we are, and is meaningful to our market?’ Prior to that, the school had pretty traditional materials that weren’t organized around an idea—just a collection of features and benefits.”

The firm developed five possible ways of describing St. Paul’s and tested them with alumni and prospective families to determine which was most persuasive. Out of this group emerged “Freedom with Responsibility.”

Prospective families found the idea “intriguing and different from what other schools were saying,” says Edwards. “And it gave them a window into the actual experience at St. Paul’s—a place where students are given extraordinary freedom and are trusted to make good decisions, starting with their curriculum and branching out to other phases of their lives.”

Since releasing the brand statement, St. Paul’s has seen significant increases in inquiries and applications, says Edwards. Mike Hirschfeld, the school’s vice rector and leader of the project, says, “It’s a message that resonates internally and with our applicant pool, and it has brought our community together.”

The school has even made program and curricular changes that support the idea of “Freedom with Respons­ibility” more fully and robustly. But the mission has remained constant. “This is the convergence of mission and branding at its best: when the brand can give the school a distinctive lens through which they can think about their own strategy and decision making,” says Edwards.

The Orchard School: From internal to external

Many schools struggle with making the shift from an internal to external perspective. Rob Norman, principal of Turnaround Marketing Communi­cations, a firm that works exclusively with independent schools, says, “Many schools aren’t quite sure what brand means. They just know they want one.”

Here’s something else most schools may not know about brand: Each school already has one, whether it intentionally takes on brand development or not. “Schools mistakenly think their brand is a tagline or a logo, when in fact it is a much more comprehensive concept,” says Carol Cheney, another independent school marketing expert. Brand is the composite mental picture that constituents—current and prospective families, alumni, donors, education consultants, college admissions officers, peer schools, and other influencers—carry around in their heads of a particular school.

And it’s important to remember that while an institution’s desired brand can be defined by the school, that brand doesn’t exist until constituents “get it.”

Three years ago, the Orchard School knew many of its prospects didn’t “get” Orchard. “We are one of the oldest schools in the Indianapolis area with a rigorous academic program, some of the highest independent-school test scores in the nation, and kids going on to great high schools and Ivy League universities. But people thought of us as a ‘loosey-goosey’ school,” says Anne Scheele, director of institutional advancement.

Established in 1922, during the U.S. Progressive Movement, as an alternative to traditional schools, Orchard had always taken pride in its history of innovative education. The drive to capture that distinctiveness, however, had led the school to use internal language in its messages that didn’t communicate the competitiveness of an Orchard education in terms that outsiders could understand. “They didn’t know what progressive meant,” says Scheele. “When they tried to explain [the concept], school leaders fell into ‘educator-ease.’”

Orchard is proof that communicating what is important for prospective students, parents, and donors doesn’t mean a school’s brand leaves mission behind. The words and ideas that school founders used can sometimes inspire the essence of a strong brand.

Indeed, the Turnaround Marketing Communi­cations team that worked with Orchard discovered that the school’s founders had differentiated the value of their “modern” school from the “traditional” school in simple, persuasive terms. In fact, Turnaround drew upon a document from Orchard’s history, in which the founders listed their new school’s outcomes. They used this to develop a present-day brand that helped the school return to its founding mission’s simplicity and clarity.

The new communications focus on “9 Promises” that both insiders and outsiders can appreciate: The Best Teaching; Students Who Love School; Parents as Partners; Diversity Is a Given; Successful Outcomes; State-of-the-Art Resources; Nature as a Teacher; Global Readiness; and Meaningful Heritage.

“The nine promises have given us focal points and language that we can lift in whole or in part to consistently tell our story,” says Scheele. “People who attend our open houses and those who inquire about the school are coming with a much greater sense of who we are, how we approach education, and what sets us apart from other schools.”

Chestnut Hill Academy: All roads lead to the brand

If the first thing you think of when you hear the word brand is a tagline or elevator speech, think again, says nonprofit brand expert Roger Sametz, president of Sametz Blackstone Associates.

Sametz believes brand communications should not be so monolithic. Instead, communications should show prospects “different ways in” to connect and care about the brand. Chestnut Hill Academy’s Head of School Frank Steel says its new brand campaign—“5 Reasons Great Boys Grow into Great Men”—offers those different ways in: the school’s academic power; its expertise educating boys; its character development; and its unique partnership with Springside School for Girls that combines single-sex and coeducation.

Founded in 1861, the boys’ school with grades pre-k through 12 in Philadelphia had always focused on its single-sex mission to distinguish it in a competitive field of mostly coed independent schools. But Steel and his marketing team knew that, at first glance, “boys’ school” could be perceived as “old school,” belying a program based on the latest research about how boys learn and develop and on innovative teaching models that put this research into practice. CHA’s new brand needed to reflect its innovation while staying true to the purpose of the school’s mission: educating boys.

The school also needed its brand to resonate with boys, their parents, and alumni who have different reasons for valuing CHA’s mission. Steel says the new campaign is proving successful with these constituencies because it filters the brand consistently, but differently for each audience.

At its core, the “5 Reasons” campaign is about “great boys growing into great men.” But unlike the school’s previous communications, which were written in an institutional voice addressing only parents, the new “5 Reasons” materials include a book just for parents, one for middle schoolers, and one for upper schoolers.

CHA’s parent book includes the five reasons along with stories that help prospective families relate to the community they would join at Chestnut Hill. The student books were inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden, a hands-on guide aimed at what many boys like: camaraderie, exploration, and knowing how to do specific things. CHA’s books are student-voiced how-to guides to the CHA middle- and upper-school experience. The books never explicitly state the five reasons but emphasize what they mean to boys—brotherhood, a boy-geared curriculum, codes to live by, outdoor adventure, and having “your own world at CHA.” Steel now uses the five reasons in his school talks and hears from both prospects and alumni that “the school is all about just what we should be doing for boys.”

Dana Hall School: Telling the right stories

Prior to launching its new branding campaign, Dana Hall School, a girls’ middle and upper day and boarding school in Massachusetts, translated its mission, which emphasizes “integrity, leadership, service, respect for self and others, and a caring community,” into “educating the whole girl.”

Liza Cohen, director of communications, says one of the school’s goals as it developed its brand was to turn up the volume on academic success. “There was a concern that our ‘whole girl’ reputation was somehow unfairly diminishing our school’s academic standing, at least in the outside world. We have a compelling story to tell. We just needed to tell it better,” says Cohen.

To better communicate its story, Dana Hall went to the girls themselves. Follow­ing the basic rule of storytelling—show, don’t tell—the school’s new brand cam­paign shows prospective students and their families how the Dana Hall mission is lived. Sametz, who worked with Dana Hall on the project, says, “Schools are often so busy talking about what makes them great and enu­merating their distinctive qualities that their message can be very inward look­ing. It’s all about them, them, them. All the while, the prospective students these communications want to reach are thinking, ‘But what’s the benefit to me as a 15- or 16-year-old?’”

In a “See Yourself” Web site and viewbook, Dana girls now present their own stories and photos of their school experience. Speaking girl-to-girl, they convey what’s special about Dana Hall while answering questions that the school’s research revealed were on the minds of prospective students, such as “Will there be other girls like me?” “What if I have wildly diverse interests?” “Will I get into the college I want to go to?” To communicate its brand through the voices of its students and alumnae, the school uses a message rubric of “five big ideas”—academically excellent; focused on each girl’s personal growth; a strong community of mentors and friends; committed to an all-girls education; committed to investing—as a guide.

“When I look through the stories from the viewbook and online, I hear the five big ideas,” says Cohen. For example, when Cohen hears a senior talk about her love of science and wanting to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she thinks “academically excellent.” Or when a boarding student talks about the freedom to be herself and wear what she wants without the distraction of boys around, Cohen interperets this to mean that the student is “committed to all-girls education. So the girls really are all ‘on message,’” says Cohen.

Brand heroes

One of the branding gurus behind the rise of the Starbucks and Nike brands, Scott Bedbury, defines great brands “as stories that are never completely told.” Think of your school brand as an epic tale with themes of opportunity and transformation continuously unfolding with each new generation of students, alumni, donors, and parents—your brand’s heroes and heroines. When you recruit families and cultivate donors, you invite them to become heroes in your school’s story. You invite them to change the story and theirs by being in it.

“Brands tell prospects how becoming part of a school community, or continuing to be part of the community, will in so many ways change their lives for the better,” says Turnaround Marketing Comm­unications’ Norman. “That is a huge benefit and a big promise—a promise put forward by the mission of the school.”

In other words, your school’s mission may be the plot of your story. But your brand makes that story mean something.

This is from the January 2009 edition of CURRENTS