Unmarketing Schools

My experience tells me this: Most teachers at independent schools trust that someone in the marketing and communications office is taking care of the marketing and communications, and that’s just fine with them.

They will, if asked, allow the photographer into the classroom, send updates for the alumni magazine, withhold smirks when the latest re-branding efforts are rolled out.

They are good sports, aware that the promotion of a school is a necessary and thankfully peripheral aspect of the professional agreement that educators make when they sign up for a tuition-charging institution.

I’ve been that teacher. I’ve withheld that smirk. Before I morphed into a communications director, I spent years — many of my best ones — as an English teacher, college essay coach, advisor for the school paper, etc. etc.

For a long time, the arrangement between the communications office and faculty generally worked. The marketing folks did their best to understand what the educators did, and then they worked their magic to show off the transformational work that takes place in the halls, classrooms, and fields of most schools.

However, if we look at the enrollment trends over the last years — and the projections of the coming ones — there’s a good chance that this approach will not suffice.

I propose a different entanglement: a holy marriage between a school’s educational arm and its storytellers. I contend that marketing a school is generally a blunt and ineffective enterprise, but that an audience-calibrated storytelling approach can play a crucial role in helping a school identify, recruit, and thrill families without compromising an iota of the academic offering.

Schools Are Not Storefronts

The more time I spend in this field, the more I see that we school marketers can treat our schools like storefronts, and as a result, we can treat the programs and features in the schools like products. Find a school website or an advertising campaign, and you will likely find gorgeous photography and compelling text. The voices will be polished and welcoming. You may, in fact, walk away feeling like you would love to go to that school. Or work there so your kids could go there.

In that way, the marketing messaging works.

But in some important ways, that approach will struggle to solve the problems that enrollment-challenged, tuition-charging schools are facing.


Because this approach isn’t really about solving problems at all — instead, it’s about highlighting features that anybody and everybody would love. Who doesn’t want a Fab Lab? Or a climbing wall? Or low teacher-to-student ratios? Who doesn’t want a school that believes, aspires, empowers, challenges, cultivates?

And even when schools find “unique” or “distinctive” features to promote, the move is essentially the same: we treat our schools like a storefront and place our uniqueness in the window and then send direct mail pieces and digital ads to encourage customers to stroll by.

If that approach works for your school, then you can stop reading. If, however, that approach sounds vaguely familiar (and there’s no shame in that!) and your school is still struggling with enrollment, I have a few ideas.

Edward Bernays Was A Jerk, But He Had A Point

If you don’t know who Bernays was, you should spend a few minutes getting to know him. It likely won’t be an uplifting journey. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and is (in)famous for applying his uncle’s insights into human psychology into the worlds of advertising, propaganda, and consumerism.

His work led to some dastardly ends, and in my Media Literacy class, I teach his work as a cautionary tale of how intellectual breakthroughs are often vulnerable to exploitation.

In my marketing strategies, I try to reclaim what value he added to how humans tell stories to and for each other. I try to use his ideas for good.

Among his major insights is this: human beings tend to make choices driven by our irrational and malleable impulses to join groups.

We tend to choose tribes that relay our values or our beliefs — or at least the ones we seek to signal publicly. In that way, the groups we choose are declarations of values that solve powerful problems within our psychological frameworks.

It’s a big idea: groups are solutions to individual problems.

And it matters for schools because what is a school other than a group, a tribe, a collective?

Audience-Calibrated And Mission-Aligned

If we accept that people seek to join groups that signal values, then we can understand that families seeking a new school are actually seeking a new group with which to affiliate and through which they can solve both acknowledged and deeply concealed problems.

Which is why schools should spend far less time thinking about themselves and far more time thinking about the audience.

Schools that understand whom they are for have a significant advantage when it comes to storytelling. And to understand whom a school is for, we have to understand what deep psychological problems people are trying to solve.

This approach is similar to the powerful 2019 “Jobs To Be Done” report put out by The National Association of Independent Schools, which posited that “parents do not buy school products and brands, but rather they ‘hire’ and ‘fire’ schools to perform a ‘job’ for them.”

I find that insight powerful and seek only to add a wrinkle: families often are unaware of what kind of jobs schools can be hired to do or what kind of unspoken psychological needs schools can meet.

The goal of the person occupying the position of “Director of Marketing” is to deeply understand the family’s expressed and unexpressed needs and to understand how the faculty, coaches, and culture align — and don’t align — with those needs.

In some ways, the director’s job is to investigate these areas and then translate each group’s perspective to the other.

I also believe, though, that there’s another step to the process. And it doesn’t always win you/me friends.

I believe the storyteller needs to be involved in the program — not to interfere or redirect in a way that compromises the integrity of the academic program but to represent the external world during program evolution or even construction. The storyteller’s role is to speak to the underlying anxieties and aspirations of families so that program developers consider those needs as they build.

That person might be the Director of Communications, who, I would encourage, might be a faculty member who is interested in expanding his or her skill set. (This might sound like the opposite of what some consultants suggest, which is to bring in a marketing professional, but I have seen that a talented teacher with an insider’s understanding of the world of schools can learn the techniques and strategies of marketing while the reverse is, perhaps, rarer).

That person might also be the Associate Head of School who can move between the external and internal machinations of a school a bit more easily without initiating the allergic reaction in the faculty who, perhaps understandably, often react with suspicion when the marketing person is seated at the table.

An example: When I was the Associate Head at Westtown School, I worked with faculty members to design the Deep Dive Certificate program, which deepened and accelerated their hands-on, action-based program that also spoke to parental anxieties about depth of learning and distinctions for the colleges to see and appreciate. The program leaders drove the process, but the external facing concerns were also a part of the conversation. The process was balanced, and in the end, the partnership created a powerful program for the students, the faculty, and the school’s marketing team.

The core attributes of the arrangement between the academic arm and the marketing arm must be trust and respect. And the marketing side of the equation needs to approach the work humbly. After all, we’re the ones asking to be included…

Whatever the configuration, the goal is to establish that faculty and storytellers are essential members of a shared group project: to build intellectual and social experiences for students that will solve their undergirding problems.

I have more to say on this topic, but I’ll stop here for now. I’m eager to hear what you think.

About the author 

Terry Dubow

Terry serves as the Director of Communications and Story at Marin Montessori School in California. He has worked at various independent schools around the country from Ohio to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and now California. He earned his bachelor's degree in English at Skidmore College and his Masters in journalism at The Ohio State University. A middle and high school English teacher for more than 20 years, he's also served in various administrative roles from the Director of Communications at Hathaway Brown to the Associate Head of School at Westtown. His most recent work focused on helping launch the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Mastery School of Hawken.

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