It’s personal

There’s more to a successful marketing strategy than branding and a display stand, says Hilary Moriarty

So what do you get when you entrust a precious cat to a cattery for a couple of weeks holiday? Well, of course, you would expect to have relative peace of mind – no one, but no one, is going to understand and appreciate your cat the way you do, so you hope that at least the cat will enjoy the basics and be safe and well when you return. And after your pet-free travels, you would expect to get back an apparently healthy and even appreciative cat – oh, the freedom of not having to catch mice all day!

Happily, after a recent holiday I think we got all of the above, in addition of course to what I thought a hefty bill, but which was actually only two thirds of what it would have been if we’d used another local cattery. And who knows how the second establishment could have done the job any better?

Because more interesting than all of the above is what else we got, over and above the service from a third cattery some 10 years ago. We were no sooner away than we had an email from the cat – “Hello Mummy, I am having a lovely holiday and I hope you are too …” And attached were three photographs of, yes, a happy-looking cat – and I know that sounds silly, but we all know how a cat can look decidedly grumpy, so the shots were rather more reassuring than the narrative. When we collected the cat, we were given prints of the photographs, and one of the photos had been used to make us a key ring – I have to admit, our happy cat looks faintly threatening with her face filling such a small frame – and a handwritten card (no, not from the cat, don’t be silly) from the owner of the cattery thanking us for allowing her to look after Tom (a female cat, long story), saying what a pleasure it had been and hoping we would all come again.

All of which caused me to reflect upon the very concept of marketing: how, like Topsy, it seems to have grown in a way we could not have foreseen even 20 years ago and how it has changed the world. Certainly it has been part and parcel – and the trumpeter – of a changed world in schools, particularly, of course, independent schools, since – mostly – they have more competition to worry about and maintaining market-share is vital to their very existence.

‘We have gone through years when heads mooted the possibility of appointing a marketing professional’

As national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association for eight years, I spent much time and energy trying to reassure parents in particular that boarding schools were no longer the cold, distant, remote and closed worlds they may well have been for previous generations. Not marketing – I mean actively refusing to do it – was part of the climate of those times. In many schools there was almost a sense of entitlement to pupils: “Everybody knows we are an excellent school – of course they will want to come or to send their children if they came years ago – we’re fine, and advertising is very expensive, and I can’t see the value of it …”

As the British boarding market began to shrink, for social and economic reasons well-rehearsed, heads and governors of boarding schools began to realise the potential of, in the first place, the Hong Kong market for bright and willing pupils. And to be known there, it was obvious a presence would be useful. So exhibitions and fairs, first in Hong Kong and then in China, gave schools a platform for frontline marketing, face to face with prospective pupils and their parents. And cheek by jowl with their own rivals, other boarding schools, who seemed to have bigger stands and brighter pictures, more glorious flowers, more people to man the stand, better suits – oh, the competition to recruit the brightest and the best.

And in those early days of toe-in-the-water marketing, learning from each other and getting better every time you or your staff ventured out, I heard of one headteacher, in a school with a number of Hong Kong pupils attracted by word of mouth and family connections, who declared that she would no more tout her school with a display in Hong Kong than she would raise her skirts on the corner of the street. She viewed marketing as a sordid business in which excellent schools had no need to dabble.

But how the world has changed. We have gone through years when heads mooted the possibility of appointing a marketing professional, often to be greeted with cries of “How much?!” or grumbles of “I thought we appointed you to sell the school – what’s the problem?” And in the early days, if you could find a marketing professional, they probably had no background in schools or even education, but came from the hard-nosed world of ‘Mad Men’ and promised you they could easily pick up the niceties of their new territory – no problem.

Then of course they needed a budget – more cries of “How much?!” And that could grow exponentially also – part for advertising, part for overseas exhibitions – and how their number has increased in recent years – part for new branding, including a new prospectus. Oh, and the website. And whose job is that anyway? How often does one look at a random school website to find that the last posting is three months old, and it’s June, but the top story is a rugby win in February? And now, social media. And tomorrow …?

Marketing is likely to take a hefty shift every time a new head is appointed, with a new vision for the school and a new impetus for how it will look or behave or appeal. And it must be costing a fortune. Indeed, it would be interesting to survey schools – if they had the records – to find out what they were spending on marketing 10 years ago and how much the operation entails now.

However professional the business of marketing schools is now, there is no doubt that it has all become much more personal. I was impressed by a school which sent away visiting prospective parents with a goody bag – not revolutionary in itself, but in addition to the usual pen or pencil, post-it pack with school logo, most recent newsletter for events passed and grades attained and calendar of events to come, this school enclosed a handwritten school card from the young guide who had accompanied them on their tour. He had enjoyed meeting them. He was particularly interested in … (here it really was personal, even if most of the note was standard issue, dutifully copied out). And he really hoped that their son would be joining the school and that he would be a friend next year.

The cattery reminded me: the best marketing is personal. I might have said on their behalf that schools are warm and welcoming places where excellence is possible because of the partnership between parents and school. Schools now say it for themselves – loud and clear.

Go marketing! 

Hilary Moriarty is an education consultant, following six years of headship and eight years as national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association    

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