Marketing Your School's Sweet Spot

By Andrea Jarrell

When a school hires me to develop their brand they will sometimes ask, "What makes a good client?" My answer is, "a clear-eyed, true believer." Clear-eyed because schools need to be willing to take a sober look at themselves in the context of what prospective students and families want and in terms of what other schools offer before they think about what makes them special. A true believer because, despite the sober look, they still need to fervently believe that their school offers something extraordinary. Finding that nexus of authenticity and passion is what the market "sweet spot" is all about.

While "brand" is the word of choice these days, it is similar to its predecessors "reputation," "image" and "identity." What is constant is value. Identifying your school's sweet spot answers the most fundamental question on prospective families' minds: What makes your school worth it? Worth the personal and financial commitment of investing their hopes, dreams and dollars in your school.

Start with What the Market Wants

In determining how to speak about their value, too often schools develop their message based solely on an internal view. The result is usually distinguishing characteristics that do not distinguish the school at all because they are too similar to those of the school's competitors or because the ways in which they are talked about are too similar. The school misses opportunities to clarify and communicate what is truly special about it.

To find your market sweet spot begin with what your market wants. Not because you only want to tell parents and students what they want to hear but so you can tell them what makes your school special in a way that they can hear it. It's the old adage that you need to know your audience if you want to reach it.

Based on admit/decline data from dozens of schools and from talking to hundreds of parents, students, alumni, teachers and school leaders through focus groups, in general prospective independent school families are looking for the following:

Parents Want:
  • Quality (in academics, teachers, facilities, extracurriculars, a safe and nurturing environment and sometimes the prestige that goes along with a reputation for quality)
  • A Parenting Partner (The proverbial "village to raise a child" - other caring adults and an environment that will help parents instill values in keeping with the family's.)
  • Extraordinary Opportunity (Faculty mentorship, a diverse student body of peers who are invested in their schooling, exceptional experiences in athletics, the arts, international study, experiential learning, and service.)
  • Successful Outcomes (Attainment of the qualities, knowledge and skills that will give their children an advantage in college admissions, professional life and personal happiness.)
Students Want:
  • Friends (To fit in and belong)
  • Interesting Things to Do (A school life that's not boring, exciting engaged classes, to develop their existing talents and explore new ones, to have fun.)
  • To Be Successful (Academically, socially, athletically, etc. As students get older this includes college admissions and career goals.)

Keep these market drivers in mind as you think about what makes your school special. Consider all the ways in which what your school offers intersects with what the market wants. The next step will be to winnow that list down to its most compelling in the context of what your competition offers.

Make Sure Your Distinguishing Characteristics Truly Set Your School Apart

The fact is quality independent schools - boarding and day - share many wonderful characteristics. And in general parents and students want the same things from schools. So it's no wonder that school communications often sound the same. It's a tall order to both reassure prospects that you deliver what they're looking for in any school while also setting your school apart.

"Distinguishing" Characteristics Most Independent Schools Claim:

  • Small classes
  • Family-like atmosphere
  • Education of the whole child
  • Close student-faculty relationships
  • Lifelong friendships with peers and teachers
  • Healthy risk-taking
  • Excellent academics
  • Quality teaching
  • College placement advantage
  • Opportunities to explore talents and discover passions
  • Lifelong values

Schools may share qualities like those above or individual attributes such as talented teachers, experiential learning, and a great location. These are not distinguishing characteristics. Distinguishing characteristics begin to tell a specific school story that the generic qualities listed above do not. They are often combinations of more generic attributes that enhance one another and resonate with what your market wants. Consider a Quaker school that wants to communicate the highest academic standards in a field of other rigorous institutions. Academic rigor does not distinguish the school, but "academic power with a conscience" does. For a mid-Atlantic boarding school competing with New England schools, the school's Southern civility in a world-class East Coast city is a compelling juxtaposition. Meanwhile, an unpretentious K-8 school feeding into the most selective high schools and competing with more expensive and elite institutions offers families a "right-sized powerhouse." Well-run schools have a handful of these combinations that affirm in unique ways the quality, success and extraordinary opportunity families are looking for.

Compelling language is a key factor in the appeal of these characteristics. The best source of such language is often the school community itself. Examples of phrases spoken by parents, teachers, school heads and students that have become the basis of distinguishing characteristics for some of my clients include: "Put yourself in the way of opportunity." "The genius of our founder's vision." "At home in the wider world." "Small by design." "A real campus in the city." "Priceless moral compass." "Nursery school to rocket fuel." "Phenomenal placements." And "Queen bees who share the stage." These are all real things real people have said to me about their schools.

Effective distinguishing characteristics do not attempt to "sell" a school on the basis of any area in which the school can't legitimately go head to head with competitor institutions and best them. Nothing is quite as damaging to student recruitment marketing as postured prestige. You must be able to prove your distinguishing characteristics through unique program details, persuasive statistics and third-party endorsements.

The Sweet Spot

People in marketing often talk about telling a brand's story. In fact, Scott Bedbury, the Starbucks and Nike brand guru, defines great brands as stories that are never completely told. I see school communications like this - epic tales with themes of opportunity and transformation continuously unfolding with each new generation of students, alumni, donors and parents. When you recruit students you are inviting them to be heroes in your story. The sweet spot is the plot of that story.

Among your distinguishing characteristics do any speak to successful outcomes? If not they should. Because as the National Association of Independent Schools points out "quality" is the number one reason families choose independent school for their children. Families assess schools on the basis of program, experience and outcomes. But of the three, outcomes hold the most sway because they offer the best proof of an effective education and the promise of a successful future. Parents look for proofs of student success, such as selective college admission or college readiness, proofs of academic and artistic achievement, leadership and critical thinking development, student and graduate confidence, communication and social skills, integrity and character. Although a school's ethos and values are often the deciding factor that push a family to choose one school over another, successful outcomes must be assured before the family can get to that point in their decision making. Your school's sweet spot is based on that assurance.

Remember that the sweet spot is the intersection of what your market wants and what you have to offer. More than anything else your market wants "success," however they may define it. In identifying your school's sweet spot, the essential question is: How does your school deliver success? The following are sweets spots of various school and college clients. Each is the essence of the kind of success a particular school's market is looking for:

  • Prestige without pretense
  • The product without the pressure
  • Useful liberal arts
  • New Ivy
  • Personal is powerful
  • Uncommon intellectual ability + innovation + common good

The great storyteller Eudora Welty once said, "Whatever our theme in writing, it is old and tried. Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough." School stories are more alike than they are different. Their themes of life-changing opportunity, experience that forges lifetime bonds of friendship, personal triumph and transformation will never be new again. But each school has its sweet spot — its vision. And that is enough.

This is from the Spring 2007 edition of Admission Review, a journal for independent school heads and admission and marketing directors.