It has been a long-held view that schools are primarily the purveyors of education – temples of knowledge/ learning entrusted with the noble task of character- and nation-building, far removed from the world of push and pull market competition. Compare this with the reality of today’s India. Sky-high parental aspirations for their children and their future have resulted in a burgeoning plethora of schools that compete to fulfil these aspirations. The only way for these schools to get attention is to advertise and market themselves to prospective students and parents.
How does this dilemma get resolved?
It is true that education can never really be seen as a business or a commodity. Yet it is important for schools (and other educational institutions) to build their brands and communicate with their internal and external stakeholders. Established institutions such as Harvard Business School have long used a well-defined and implemented brand, advocacy and communications strategy to maintain their prestige and appeal.
However, the branding and advertising strategies that have made, say, McDonald’s or Coca Cola such huge international brands can never really apply to a school.
In a crowded domain, it is important for a school to distinguish its brand from competition. Since branding has a huge impact on reputation, it should be considered an integral part of the school’s strategic development efforts. However, a brand is not just about the logo; it is about authenticity, building an emotional connect with your stakeholders, and showcasing your value proposition. It is not just about pasting your logo and tagline on every collateral but about building a communication ecosystem where every message, every piece of content, every photo, every graphic contributes to reiterating the value proposition.
It is also important to understand that a brand is a living organism and is continuously evolving to stay ahead of the change curve.
In other words, for a school to stand apart from competition, it is critical for it to invest time in creating a well-thought-out branding and marketing strategy based on its vision, mission, values, current needs and future requirements in consultation with its stakeholders. And it is equally important for every stakeholder to buy into the strategy and adhere to it. Branding and marketing is not one event or one activity – it is the sum total of sustained efforts that eventually result in reputational gains for the school.
A school’s value proposition would include its best practices, philosophy, values, strategic goals, etc., and the brand should be a true representation of all these. Hard sell and brash advertising can rob an education brand of its credibility. And credibility is built through consistent messaging and judicious choice of which media to communicate on and what to communicate.
For instance, today, everyone is clambering onto the social media bandwagon. However, in order to use social media effectively, schools need to understand the media’s role in their own strategy. For example, social media cannot be used to sell the school or its programmes but it can be effectively used to engage with stakeholders and build a community of loyal advocates.
In fact, I would say that once your brand has been established and is recognisable, advocacy rather than advertising is the route to follow. We, at Heritage Xperiential Learning School, have found that this approach works for us.
The goal of advertising is to reach people who are willing to pay for a product or service and tempt them to buy it. On the other hand, advocacy is aimed at influencing people’s minds and convincing them to buy into the value of what you are telling them.
The idea is to create awareness of a school’s belief systems, pedagogy, ideology and methodology among the target audiences. Once people are convinced of the efficacy of your value proposition, they will become your advocates and spread the word through word-of-mouth or social media or other means. People generally trust recommendations and content from friends, family or acquaintances over what they see as advertisement. So, over time, you will have built a community of supporters who will project a positive image of your school organically. And this goodwill will stand your brand in good stead over the long term.
Advocacy is a time-consuming approach but we have found that it has gone a long way in helping us enrol students, attract teaching talent, boost the self-esteem of all our stakeholders, engage effectively with the local community, and start conversations with other entities in the education domain. Not the least, it has also helped Heritage Xperiential Learning School to strengthen its thought leadership in its chosen area of work.
Manit Jain is Founder, Director, The Heritage Schools
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