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Branding: It's Not Just For Cattle

Wednesday, September 9, 2015  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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SAIS Annual Conference Preview

By Christina Mimms, SAIS

At a time when independent schools compete with each other for a relatively small number of qualified students, school leaders must work even harder to distinguish their institutions from others. Why should parents select your school for their child, and what makes your school different from all the others (other than perhaps the cost or location)? Is your mission clear to them? Are your unique qualities evident? Do parents have a clear idea of what to expect from your school? That is your identity. That is your brand. That is you. 

According to Brett Shevack, founder and CEO of Brand Initiatives Group, now, more than ever, every school needs to define its reason for being in a simple, credible, differentiating, and inspiring way to increase its recognition and reputation and to deepen its engagement with all audiences, internal and external. 

From attracting and retaining top-tier faculty to filling the student body to meeting advancement goals, school leaders also need to develop brand awareness and brand differentiation. Brand building is not just for carmakers or pharmaceuticals or athletic apparel. Brands are personal to many people, as is their brand loyalty. One might try a different toothpaste every few months but the choice of a school is typically a one-time, lifelong selection.

As Shevack notes, brands own a place in both hearts and minds. Schools must as well. Brands must know who they are and who they are not. Schools must as well. Brands instill pride. Schools must as well. What makes your school different and special? What inspires and motivates your faculty? What promise do you make to parents and students? What keeps your alumni engaged long after graduation day? These are some of the questions that every school needs to answer by defining who they are in a differentiating and inspiring way.   

The goal is to become a Category of One, according to Patti Crane, founder and president of Crane MetaMarketing, by understanding both your market position and what to do about it. Brand is just one piece of the marketing mix. In a presentation entitled Marketing 101, the school explores the concept of branding and yes, it's about more than cattle. 

So when schools say “Bobcat Pride” or “War Eagle” or “Go Titans,” what are they really saying? And what are they saying about your school to peers, colleagues, or friends?

Atlanta parent Tiffany Hendryx, strategic counsel at Firebrand for Education, is one of those parents talking about her children’s school, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. “As someone who willingly drives an hour each way — in Atlanta traffic — to bring my kids back and forth to school every day, I consider myself an uber-evangelist for our school,” Hendryx says.

"At a time when word-of-mouth is king, when schools need to attract many kinds of best-fit families, when differentiators like innovation and design thinking don’t stay differentiating for long, it’s more important than ever for school leaders to be able to put themselves in their parents’ shoes and speak to families in ways that uniquely and compellingly resonate," Hendryx explains.

The journey that independent school families make from being skeptical buyers to true believers is long and overflowing with questions. In turn, school leaders like Allison Toller, chief of brand strategy & partnerships at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, are asking their own questions: How can we strengthen our word-of-mouth marketing? Why aren’t we attracting (and retaining) more of our best-fit families? What do we do when our message is being co-opted by others in our marketplace? How can we equip our most-passionate parents to become brand evangelists? What is our brand, anyway?!

Making sure that school employees and school parents are delivering the same message – and the right message – is a crucial component of any school’s overall brand strategy. No message is more powerful than word-of-mouth from one parent to another, or one current parent to one prospective parent. As someone in the profession of brand strategist, Hendryx has always paid close attention to the messaging from Mount Vernon.

“It’s been a surreal experience as just a mom engaged in my kids’ day-to-day school life, and as my professional self observing my Mount Vernon Mom self through several years worth of brand touchpoints,” Hendryx says. She’s been able to marry her two selves into a strong advocate for the school – exactly what every school wants for its brand. 


To learn more about branding, please join us at the SAIS Annual Conference on October 17-19, 2015. Patti Crane will present Six Game Changers for Your Marketing Strategy on October 18 at 2:00 PM. Allison Toller and Tiffany Hendryx will present Brand Diaries: The Making of a Mount Vernon Mom on October 19 at 7:45 AM. Brett Shevack will present Schools Must Think and Act Like a Brand on October 19 at 11:00 AM.

>>Register here.



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