SCHOOL OF THOUGHT ON ADVERTISING YOUR INDEPENDENT OR PRIVATE SCHOOL

I recently heard someone tell a room full of Headmasters and Headmistresses that ‘research shows’, (and I do wonder when people say that how valid the research is) that schools who ‘market themselves’ give a brand appearance or perception that they must be struggling financially if they need to pay for advertising ( e.g. both online – social sharing, website, film adverts and offline – print, magazine, back-of-bus). It was said that ‘parents perceive advertising as a sign of financial struggle within the school’ and that should raise warning flags to parents.

I wholeheartedly disagree and I’ll tell you why.

On the subject of advertising and what motivates companies to do it and how they do it:

1. Let’s relate this to the commercial world, because let’s face it, schools, you are all businesses.  What do you think or feel when you see a TV advert for Coca-Cola, Audi, Apple, Jaguar, John Lewis, Tesco, NatWest? Is your gut reaction that the company is struggling and needs your business or else it will crumble?  Likely not. In fact, I feel quite the opposite towards these brands. This is what goes through my mind and possibly through yours.  The brand and its offering is:

a. Accessible – The brand, its services and products are accessible to me – geographically, financially, socially

b. Financially viable – I can afford this

c. A social statement-maker – I can and should have this, I am worth this, having it will make a statement about me

d. Value-driven – that brand cares about me, my values, my family

e. Making a personalised claim – This brand is willing to speak directly to me, cater to my exact needs and be flexible with changes to what I/we/consumers want as opposed to offering a static commodity for a static cost

And hence, I feel (feel!!) engaged, driven to want this, achieve it, have it.  I feel ‘Brand proud’, if I already use that commodity and I feel (feel!!) inspired to enquire if I don’t have it, but think I should.  Never, at any point did I feel that I was being duped into using a company that is struggling to pay its bills and begging for my custom.

2. Let’s compare that, if you saw an advert for Bugatti, Philip Patek – What would your initial reaction to that TV advert be? Likely a moment of confusion because you’ve likely not ever seen one before…why do they need to ‘advertise’ when that product costs so much that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.  But also think what that ad might look like….would it carry the characteristics as above, likely not.  It would show something so rare, unique, expensive, high-quality that actually it would seem ‘unattainable’ to most and that’s EXACTLY the perception they want you to get.  If everyone wanted it or could afford it, then it wouldn’t be as special anymore.  For that type of high-end commodities, no advertising IS their advertising strategy. (lucky them!)

3. And lastly, imagine a brand with a poor advertisement, possibly really low-quality, perhaps of a ‘home-made’ variety, or worse, one that isn’t true to brand, is boring, doesn’t inspire, is factually wrong, discounts the product or uses well-known marketing tactics meant to deceive.  The ad with any of these characteristics, what do you feel towards it?  Not engaged, possibly a feeling of mistrust. If it’s cheaply made you may think ‘ahh, they don’t have enough money to advertise properly’, if it’s off-brand, it means they don’t actually know themselves so how can they know what I want or need.  If it’s factually wrong and hence likely to be using marketing tactics, you can see right through that and immediately disengage and you’d feel they’re lying to get your business, therefore the truth must not be enough to warrant it. And lastly, if they discount , that’s when I think of ‘struggling companies’ (think Groupon’s offering, or those crazy mattress company adverts of the 80’s!) although it’s not always the case, as some companies simply use discounts and sales ALL the time, as it’s part of their strategy (think Curry’s, Department stores and most mid-range brands) and in terms of ‘acceptable tactics’ it’s one that is widely accepted and works, even though it’s simply very likely prices are always inflated by X% and sales simply reflect the desired profit margin for that company.

So having a look at the above, and assuming you agree with some or most of it, would you agree that advertising an independent school looks ‘desperate’?

For me, no, it looks like the brand cares, it’s shouting about its benefits to the public, shouting about its achievements, showing why it’s a good idea to explore it as an education option for your child and engaging its stakeholders.  Parents of the pupils at the school feel proud that they have, in many cases, made huge sacrifices to send their kids to that school when there’s a perfectly decent free option down the road. Prospective parents feel the brand is not a ‘posh inaccessible place’, it’s within reach financially because they see others like them also accessing it, it’s a status symbol, it’s possibly better than where they are now in terms of quality of the education and it speaks directly to them. And a huge part of why they’d want or NEED to advertise is because many parents simply don’t know it exists. It may be 1 mile from my home but if it’s not on my TV, on my phone, on my social media, or a discussion at my dinner party, how would I know it was there?

Simply put, advertising an independent school falls into the first category of advertising: It’s BRAND ENGAGEMENT, not marketing tactics for failing schools…

Do you agree? Because the alternative might be your school falling into one of the other two categories…