Marketing Strategy to Brand Story: Telling the Story of Independent Education

Excerpted from The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Independent Schools 

Understanding and agreeing on what makes your school competitively distinctive is a huge part of the marketing battle. But true victory means knowing not just what your value proposition is but how to tell that story.
Developing and telling your school’s brand story goes hand in hand with enrollment management. As you’ve read in previous chapters, enrollment management puts school division leaders in the same boat, rowing in the same direction. Branding and brand storytelling generate the esprit de corps and the collective song school leaders sing as they speed along. Just as enrollment management is more than admission, your brand story is more than your message.
In Chapter 4 of this book, you read about two schools that made significant enrollment gains by identifying a value proposition that distinguished them from competitors. In the case of The Thacher School, it was "The best of all worlds: high achievement within an incredibly positive and nurturing community." In the case of Cushing Academy, it was "Binding together strengths in globalism and technology to found the Cushing Institute for 21st Century Leadership."
But dozens of schools talk about high achievement, nurturing communities, and preparing 21st century leaders. These are not the words but rather the plot of those school stories, the boy-meets-girl equivalent. Just as boy-meets-girl narratives can be told in dozens of ways – some of which will be more appealing to one group or another – a key tool in enrollment management is to develop the story of your school’s value proposition in a way that is both authentic to the school and most appealing to its target markets.
You may know you want to convey high achievement or a global curriculum, but how are you going to hook your audience? How does the plot unfold? What’s going to keep them interested? What is the tone? Who are the characters? What does experiencing the story look and feel like?
At this point, you may be thinking, "What’s all this talk about stories? I just want to market my school." But as the novelist Jonathan Franzen has said, "We experience our lives in narrative form." Human beings make sense of the world through stories. Writer Joel Achenbach sums it up this way: "Story loving isn’t just culture; it’s biology." So if you want your school’s message to stick and be memorable, thinking of it as a story – with a hook and a plot and heroes – can be a powerful tool.
In fact, Scott Bedbury, the brand expert who was instrumental in building the Nike and Starbucks brands, has said, "A great brand is a story that’s never completely told." The brand is always unfolding, and new fans of the brand are always embracing it and helping to live and tell that story.
That is especially true for schools and at the heart of a successful enrollment management. Every year you recruit new students to your brand. When you recruit students and families (and donors, for that matter), you are inviting them to be heroes in your school story, want to be part of it, and want to tell that story to others.
Andrea Jarrell is a communications strategist who specializes in brand, campaign, and recruitment message strategy for colleges and universities.
The NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook is available from the NAIS Bookstore.