Posted on August 27, 2018
"Heads and Hearts"
“My word, Emily, did you see the square footage of the Classics Department?!” is, unsurprisingly, not an excitable remark that Registrars or Headteachers will often hear emanating from the mouths of soon-to-be customers. If one lists the various ‘things’ that any given Independent School has or does, one will find the list differs only in relatively minor ways. Schools sometimes don’t like to hear this, but as someone with experience of well over three-hundred Independent Schools in the UK and overseas, I can assure you it’s the case. You offer a “broad and balanced curriculum”, a “firm commitment to pastoral care” and a “wide range of co-curricular activities”, I’m sure. I’m not saying any of this isn’t true, I’m simply pointing out that it is by no means uniquely true.
The days of one-upmanship in the various ‘cherries on top’ of Independent Schools - be it a Forest School or interactive whiteboards in classrooms - are rapidly decreasing as both Prep and Senior schools realise that the provision and facilities (within reason) that they can offer a family must compete with those around them for their offering to be sustainable. Of course, where genuine specialities exist - a superb hockey school, top-of-the-table academics, a renowned music school etc - certain families will always be drawn, but what of the majority? A great deal of Independent Schools are, contrary to certain ill-informed political views, notably normal places full of notably normal children. How are these modern parents deciding between school x and school y, let alone the ‘free at point of delivery’ alternative they have half a mile down the road…?
God help you people, I am your modern buying audience. Married, one child, early(ish) thirties. A small-business owner, by no means ‘rich’, but comfortable enough in the grand scheme of things. If (and it’s a big if) I am able to send my son to an Independent School, I will do so with a significant change to my lifestyle. I’ve heard us called ‘sacrifice parents’, or the more witty ‘JAMs’ (‘Just About Managing’). In the time I spend with Independent Schools learning about their audiences, this is the group I hear is growing. Moreover, my family is split - my wife was educated completely in the State system, I was educated (from Year 6) in the Independent system. She thinks I went to Hogwarts, I think she went to Grange Hill. We’re both completely wrong and completely right in our own ways, but more important is the psychological dynamic this creates. This complexity of background and of financial status is the new ‘wave’ of post-financial-crash buyers to the Independent Schools sector - at least the ‘normal’ majority of it.
So how does this ‘type’ buy? Put simply, we buy brand. The ability to buy anything (almost literally with online buying) at any time and have it within twenty-four hours can’t help but change attitudes to parting with your money. The modern audience is used to buying on how they feel towards the options in front of them. How many review stars does it have? What do the comments say? More to the point - does the picture of the product look trustworthy? Does the brand look ‘decent’? Have I heard of it? Has a friend or family member bought it or something similar? All of these questions point not to what the product is - I know what it is - it’s how I feel about it. This is brand buying at its purest.
What does this have to do with Independent Schools? Everything. Independent Schools are the epitome of the ‘high brand’. Average customer spend of between £10,000 to £20,000 (on average), per annum, for the care and development of their most prized emotional asset when there is a zero-cost alternative to them. The differentiators of opportunity, breadth and quality are inherently present in all high-brand propositions. “You get what you pay for” is essentially the mantra of the Independent Schools world.
My point, therefore, is simple. Independent Schools have to stop marketing to the ‘heads’ of their audiences, and market to their ‘hearts’. In many ways, it’s like buying a house. Four bedrooms, good garden, local amenities etc just like the last four houses we’ve been to see, but this one feels like home. There is no coincidence that the vast majority of language one hears from happy, buying parents of Independent Schools has the same tonality - “…I knew she’d be happy here…”, “…the atmosphere was lovely…”, “…it felt like he’d fit in…”.
Yet, the outward message is often one of two things - either archly practical or staggeringly generic. The latter we call ‘three under a tree’ marketing - a wide, landscape image of three suspiciously diverse children sat under a tree with a large, vague word (usually ‘ambition’ or ‘family’ or something else suitably meaningless) in a bad font sprawled over the empty space. Sound familiar? Independent Schools have to be smarter than this to appeal to this modern buyer I’ve described. Stop telling us ‘things about stuff’ that we already know and get smarter with emotion. Marketing is hard, sorry.
I work in Independent Schools for two main reasons that pertain to all this waffle. First, I work in the medium that allows this emotion to be brought to the fore - film - and it’s an area that is finally being given the chance to shine. Crucially, I don’t mean the ‘school promo video’; a Headteacher propped up in front of a fireplace with a labrador telling me when a school was founded followed by a list of generic platitudes that any other school has the right to say. I mean film that makes you ‘feel’ in just the same way that high brands advertise through broadcast and digital platforms. Secondly, schools have the most wonderful storytelling potential. Kids are hilarious, they’re inspiring and unpredictable. It should be a marketeer’s dream.
Miles Latham, Managing Partner of Affixxius Films
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