I recently came across this letter and it got me thinking about the importance of basing your marketing & communications strategy and messaging on the ‘product truth’. The letter was published last year on the Association of Independent Schools Admission Professionals website. It was written by Peter Gow, Executive Director of the Independent Curriculum Group and a respected author and speaker in US education.
It caught my eye because it chimes with many of my own beliefs and observations and I would encourage every school Marketer to read it, whether seasoned or just starting out.
At its heart, it talks about identifying and basing a school’s ideal message on the core of it’s product offering (the product truth), and the importance of you as a marketer and communicator of this offering, to really get under the skin of it’s ‘product truth.’ This is a valuable lesson I recall learning in my early days working with Procter & Gamble.
There must always be alignment between the message you communicate to your audience and its actual reality.
Ask yourself – does the message you are communicating about your school actually exist on a day-to-day basis? Are you communicating the truth? And do your greatest advocates the pupils, teachers and parents agree?
Peter Gow’s article sagely warns us about the perils of spin, yet at the same time highlights the importance of communicating a sense of aspiration for the future.
If we can get the above right in our school marketing, then I think we have a platform for developing long-lasting relationships with our existing and prospective parents and in so-doing create a more sustainable future for the school. As the sector becomes more competitive, so the need for a differentiated brand proposition becomes more important, it is our job as Marketers to make sure these propositions are relevant, resonant and carry true integrity.
A model that roots your ideal message in the product truth.
Below is a model I have developed that brings value proposition, reality and aspiration together to form the ideal message. It should be used to evaluate your own marketing and messaging.
Letter to a New Marketing and Communications Officer
By Peter Gow
You may already be settling into a new position at a school. Perhaps you’ve done this marketing and communications thing before, or perhaps you are brand-new to the field. It may be that you’ve done other “advancement” work, in an admissions or development office. It might even be that you are in a position that no one at your school has ever held before.
These are going to be exciting weeks, trying to figure out all there is to know about your new school, meeting a whole new cast of characters, and discovering all sorts of projects and deadlines that will seem more than a bit overwhelming some days. And there will be other discoveries, too, as you dive more and more deeply into your new environment.
When they hired you they probably shared with you all kinds of strategic goals and plans, to-do lists of things the school needs to accomplish, and a bunch of challenges the school faces. But they might have neglected to mention that your job is to know, in the most profound ways possible, the heart and soul of your school. As much as anyone else, you have to know what is most fundamentally true about your school, to feel its truth and mission and values in your workaday bones. How else can you help it to tell its story?
There will be scoffers, so be prepared to meet and co-opt them. Somebody seems to have told teachers a long time ago that “marketing” is a dirty word, and some of them still believe it. The answer to this is to be sincerely interested in what they are doing—spend time in classrooms, talk to the teachers, be a student, be innocent. You’ll discover that classroom practice is pretty hard to explain, even for teachers, so ask questions, test your own understanding, and stick to what is real and true when you try to interpret this for others. But for heaven’s sake, engage with the teaching faculty—don’t just stay in your office sweating to meet administrative deadlines, because all the met deadlines in the world aren’t worth a faculty that knows you, trusts you, and believes in you and your work.
Remember that school is for kids. It is not for the board, for the head, or for the teachers. Your school exists to prepare kids for their tomorrows, their next weeks, their next years, their next schools, their colleges, their lives. Find out how the amazing programs or those wowie-zowie curriculum innovations are actually experienced by kids, how they see and feel the school’s “value proposition.” Get students to talk to you about this—not necessarily for today’s tweets (but why not, if you get great stuff?) but as deep background for everything you do.
Remember wondering in school, “Why am I learning this stuff? When am I ever going to use it?” Well, kids still wonder that, and so talk and listen to them—you may actually be able to help them frame their own understanding, and (trade secret—sssh! don’t tell!) students who can speak with clarity and conviction about the meaning of their own learning experiences in your school are a resource more valuable to you than diamonds.
There will be not just deadlines and projects but people with ideas about how to “spin” this or that. Resist this—you are not a spin doctor, and years of watching Mad Men and campaign ads on television have schooled your audience all too well in the art of deception detection. Tell the truth, or find something else to talk about.
You also have a huge responsibility that no one ever told you about: there are things that are wrong with your school, things it says it does but doesn’t, things it does that it probably shouldn’t do so much. Your responsibility, as you learn more and more about what is true, is to tell those who need to know it when something is going on that doesn’t align with the school’s mission, its values, or the brand promise it makes to families and its community. You may be doing all you can to “tell it like it is,” but the program leaders need to be doing all they can to make sure that the school “does it” as you are telling it. It’s a two-way street, and you can’t do your job well when you know that what the school says and what it does are out of alignment.
It takes a village to raise a child (or 300 of them), and now you are a part of one of those villages. You are not standing on the outside looking in—you are inside, as much a part of all the students’ lives as the chef or the director of athletics or the head of the art department. Dig in, embrace the culture, find the truth, and unleash the truest voice of the school. For a while you need to be an anthropologist, a witness, an explorer. In time you may even become something of a priest, helping to interpret and explain and advocate for the school in its complex relationships with its communities and sometimes even its own mission and values.
You have a big role. But exploring and understanding a community of human beings is amazingly gratifying work, whether your school is large or small, prosperous or struggling. As you find your school’s true voice you are likely to discover your own, just as understanding its values may clarify some of your own. Don’t be afraid to take it all personally—schools are all about people, always have been and always will be.
And of course, have fun. For all the years I coached and taught I ended every mid-game pep talk and preceded every exam I gave with those two words. Yes, kids looked at me as if I were nuts when I said it before exams or when we were one goal down with two minutes to play. But school is fun—you’re surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things, and every day you will experience unexpected delights that would make your business-sector colleagues green with envy, if you could even begin to explain.
It’s kids, growing up in all their variety and glory, and in all the world there is nothing more wonderful, more fun than that. And your job is to talk about it—what’s not fun about that?