I’m excited to share this Cup of Coffee with Rob Norman and Liza Fisher Norman. Rob and Liza are the principals of Turnaround Marketing Communications, a small, “boutique” firm specializing in branding and marketing for independent schools.
I first ‘met’ Liza three years ago when she commented on my blog post, “Independent Schools shouldn’t brand…they should blog,” because she disagreed with me. She made a great point that I agreed with and we’ve been having great conversations ever since. With over two decades of experience helping schools achieve their marketing goals and as frequent speakers at TABS and SSATB I knew it was time for me to sit down and talk about branding and marketing at independent schools with Rob and Liza.
1. What are the most dramatic changes with regard to marketing at independent schools in the last 10 years?
Two changes come to mind. First is social media. When this technology emerged and became virtually universally adopted, schools felt a pressing need to ramp up quickly in learning how to create and manage social media channels — and how to use them to their benefit for enrollment, development, and retention and alumni/ae relations. Second is branding. Branding was a word that was not associated with independent schools beyond a decade ago. “Branding” was for the likes of Nike and Coca-Cola — not schools that impact lives of children and families. As school tuitions rose to higher levels, communicating the value of an independent school education became increasingly critical. Schools also realized the need to communicate their uniqueness to prospective and existing families. This is exactly what a strong brand does. Branding has also been recognized as a valuable tool to connect and bond current families, faculty and staff as well as alumni/ae. This, in turn, results in happy families, satisfied employees, loyal alumni/ae, and stronger donors. These two changes alone have forced independent schools to take a much more strategic, professional approach to marketing and has resulted in new positions for Director of Marketing Communications where there may not have been one, as well as Directors of Social Media in some cases.
2. What do you feel are the keys to marketing an independent school?
We have a blog post that outlines what schools need to have in place for branding (and marketing) success. The critical keys include hiring qualified brand stewards, giving them the power and resources to do their jobs, adhering to brand messages and graphic identity, tracking and assessing marketing efforts, and committing to being in it for the long haul. Too often one or more of these elements are omitted, and schools are surprised their efforts haven’t paid off. For those holding these keys, the results can be dramatic.
3. What is your definition of branding?
Branding is a process a school goes through to develop their distinguishing characteristics, identify what their market wants, and pinpoint their institutional goals. The intersection is a school’s brand, manifested in its brand messages and graphic identity. A brand is composed of at least two elements: brand messages and graphic identity.
4. Is branding all about new logos, letterhead, and business cards?
Logos are part of a school’s graphic identity. Other parts of a graphic identity include school colors, additional approved colors, fonts, athletic logos, visual representation of mascots, etc. This is how the school looks to its audience. Letterhead, business cards, websites, viewbooks, etc. are all marketing materials that incorporate the graphic identity. However, graphic identity is only half of the brand equation as we mentioned above. The other half is the school’s brand messages. These messages are the distinctive qualities of a school that the market wants and that separates the school from its competition.
5. Why is it so important for an independent school to do branding work?
Without developing a brand, most schools describe themselves like this:
We have small classes and dedicated faculty. We educate the whole child. We create a lifelong love of learning, and we have a community that’s like family.
While this may be true, it may only distinguish an independent school from public schools, and not from other independent school competition. Without branding, a school might flounder in attempting to describe itself in a unique way that is meaningful for internal audiences and enlightening for external ones. When schools have strong branding and they manage it well, it makes their marketing efforts more streamlined, focused, targeted, and, effective. Without a strong brand in place, it is very difficult for a school to consistently and compellingly communicate what makes a school the right place for families to send their children. A strong brand also helps both internal and external communities to understand what makes your school who it is.
6. What are the benefits of doing branding work?
There are so many, it’s hard to know where to begin. For one thing, clients report to us that the process alone ignites the community and reminds them why they fell in love with the school in the first place. When our brand strategy report is delivered and the committee sees it for the first time, we are thrilled to hear, “You got us!” and schools are excited to start implementing the brand immediately. As the brand takes hold, your community will begin to talk about the school with one voice and to tell stories that reflect the brand. Current families will be reminded why the school is “worth it” as an investment in their child’s future, “worth it” as a recipient of their philanthropy, “worth it’ as an organization to donate their time and talents. Prospective families will know the school for what the school wants to be known for. General misperceptions about the school will fade over time. Prospective donors will know that they are contributing to a worthy cause that they want to see continue and flourish and know why it’s worthy. Alumni/ae will see that the school today, while not exactly the same as the school they attended, still retains the core values and goals as when they were students, and be proud of their association with the school. This results in focused friend-raising and fund-raising that may have been scattershot in the past. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that schools that have developed and steward a strong brand reap the rewards in every department.
7. What questions should a school ask potential companies that they are interviewing for branding work?
First, a school should ask, “Do you have experience working with independent schools?” In our opinion, schools should only interview firms that are familiar with academic work. Branding for schools is not branding for products. This is an emotional “buy” for constituents and there is a great deal to know about independent school culture and jargon. We have seen time and again how the local ad agency, while creating materials that are creative and professional, misses the mark for effective independent school branding. So, hire Turnaround or don’t, but please hire a firm with a background in academic marketing. Among other things to ask: Do you generally get the brand messages right the first time? Does the process go smoothly? When doesn’t it? What do you expect from us [the school] in the process? Have you seen a brand fail? If so, why? Once we have the brand, what do we do with it?
8. What social networks does Turnaround Marketing maintain a presence?
We are active on Twitter and disseminate a great deal of free, valuable information. “News you can use,” if you will. We rarely self-promote, which is something we committed to long ago when we speak at TABS, CASE-NAIS and other national conferences. It’s just not us. We also have a Pinterest presence, which is a lot of fun. The visual element is very compelling to me (Liza) and I enjoy pinning and repining. I can get lost on Pinterest for quiet a while, and have to drag myself back to the work at hand when my Pinterest minutes run over. I’m on LinkedIn and post for the company. ForwardThinking is our blog. We don’t have a Facebook presence, because, as we say to our clients, do only what you can do well. And Facebook is one of the many that we’re ignoring in order to manage the others.
9. Can you offer tips or lessons learned with maintaining your social media channels from a branding perspective?
We strive to be brand-centric with our channels and encourage our clients to do the same. As tempting as it is for me to post adorable puppy stuff (I’m canine-crazy.), I save it for my personal Facebook account. I put myself in the position of my followers and only post tidbits that I believe they would find interesting or valuable (or both) in doing their jobs. My followers include directors of marketing communications, admissions, and development for the most part. So I look for content to post that is the intersection of what they want and what Turnaround provides, which is not only branding services, but also communications and website assessments, enrollment and campaign positioning, oversight of creative, etc. There’s a lot of content that falls in those categories that is of interest to our followers.
I’d like to thank Rob and Liza again for taking the time to share a Cup of Coffee with me. I sincerely hope you’ll connect with them on their social media accounts: Twitter, Pinterest, and their Forward Thinking Blog.
If you have a question for Rob and Liza please ask it in the comments section below.