Branding 201: How One School Stopped Talking and Started Listening

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about aligning a school’s mission and brand to achieve enrollment growth. Part one focused on the important conceptual differences between a school’s mission and brand by looking at the case of St. John’s Episcopal School in Dallas. Part two provides guidance on conducting market research and developing a brand positioning. Part three illustrates the benefits of following a brand-strategy-driven process to drive enrollment growth. 

How do you better understand the real drivers of school preference to most effectively translate your mission into a brand? At EdwardsCo., we helped St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, achieve this objective by conducting rigorous market research of prospective families. Then, we created a new brand positioning statement designed to grab families’ attention in the school’s highly competitive market. 

Meet St. Mark’s School

For St. Mark’s, a 131-year-old, coed, prestigious boarding school with roughly 360 students in grades 912, increasing yield and improving retention were becoming priorities.
As admissions directors know all too well, over the past 10 to 15 years, the lengthy and reliable mutual courtship, called the admissions funnel, has devolved into speed dating. Today, schools often have no inkling that a family is interested until the application arrives. And that same family is also typically applying to many schools. 
Chuck Greene, director of communications and marketing at St. Mark’s, explained the ramifications of speed dating to enrollment objectives: “Families apply to a lot of different schools based on word-of- mouth reputations without thinking carefully about the unique benefits a school might offer.  And if you haven’t done the work to differentiate your school, the admissions staff wastes time reviewing applications from families who are not a good fit, and then yield also suffers.” 
“Branding, when done well, draws in the people for whom your product is perfect and sends away the people for whom it is a waste of their time. Having a weak brand is a disservice to everyone,” he added.
Maria talks to Chuck about why St. Mark’s School, a well-endowed school, decided to engage in branding work (1:24).
When you think of brand strategy as a means to successfully attract and enroll more best-fit families, a clear benefit exists for recruiting time and budget, yield, retention, and word-of-mouth referrals.
While many schools know this, they naively believe they already know their market well enough and don’t need market research. The fact is that despite the vast institutional knowledge developed over several years or even decades in one school, staff and faculty are too close to the institution to understand a new crop of prospective families every year. They need to stop talking and start listening, just like St. Mark’s did.

Market Research: The Nuts and Bolts

Maria talks to Chuck about why St. Mark’s School leaders felt they needed to go out and talk to people to help the school develop its brand (2:16).
In spring 2015, St. Mark’s hired EdwardsCo. for assistance in developing the right questions to ask and to whom, and how to use the resulting information to create an authentic and meaningful brand positioning that would attract more best-fit families.
We started by spending two days on campus conducting interviews and focus groups with faculty, staff, trustees, and current students and parents. We then reached out to external audiences, including current international parents. Here, we concentrate on four primary external audiences:
  • newly committed families;
  • accepted families who enrolled elsewhere;
  • families who inquired, but didn’t apply; and
  • decision influencers like feeder schools, placement consultants, and college admission officers.
Keeping in mind that the goal was to build a comprehensive base of knowledge about the real drivers of school preference, we focused on getting the groups to answer questions in five key areas:
  1. What are you looking for in a school and why?
  2. Describe the perfect learning environment for your child. Why do you want that type of environment? What benefits would expect to accrue?
  3. Picture your child on the day of graduation. What three adjectives do you hope to use to describe him or her? 
  4. What do you think of St. Mark’s? Why did/didn’t St. Mark’s meet your criteria?
  5. What other schools did you consider? Why?


Maria talks with Chuck about what surprised him about the initial market research results and how other school stakeholders reacted (3:22).
In addition to confirming the lack of definition in the market, we saw three important distinctions for St. Mark’s compared with its competition:
  1. The challenging academic program combined with a warm and friendly environment.
  2. St. Mark’s small, close-knit community fostered strong relationships and a focus on each student’s success.
  3. St. Mark’s graduates stand out for being happy, well-adjusted, and prepared young adults.

Positioning Statements: The Options We Tested

Working with St. Mark’s, we used these insights to develop five brand positioning options to define and differentiate St. Mark’s in its market. Together we considered possibilities that satisfied both what best-fit prospective families were looking for and what St. Mark’s could credibly deliver. A strong brand must incorporate both of these considerations.
brand diagram.jpg

The project team, which in addition to Chuck Greene, consisted of the head of school, trustees, directors of admissions and advancement, faculty, and college counseling, selected three of the options for testing among newly enrolled families.
Positioning Statement Option 1: You'll know a St. Marker when you see one. Our graduates are renowned for being spirited, well-rounded, and happy contributors to their college communities and beyond. Taught to think for and beyond themselves, they know who they are, what they stand for, and how to craft a successful and meaningful life.
Result: 11 percent preferred this concept.
Representative Feedback:
 “This sounded small and not about my child and her success.”
“Too fluffy.”
Positioning Statement Option 2: At St. Mark's, our intentionally small community enables students to develop close relationships with faculty, advisors, and coaches who not only encourage but also challenge them to expand their thinking to the larger world. Our trusting environment fuels a spirit of innovation and discovery that develops big thinkers and world changers.
Result: 59 percent preferred this concept.
Representative Feedback:
“I love this it is exactly why I was attracted to SM, to the close relationships with faculty, coaches and the intentionality of it.”
“From day one, it was clear they were going to partner with me and form her education, so this really hit home for me.”
Positioning Statement Option 3: At St. Mark's, we believe that students, who develop the drive to push themselves from within, will be best prepared to thrive in college and in an unpredictable world. A St. Mark's education is intentionally designed to awaken in each student the determination to learn more, do more, and persevere through challenges. Our students learn to think independently, creatively, collaboratively, and most important with a can-do attitude.
Result: 30 percent preferred this concept.
Representative Feedback:
“I like the idea of cultivation of self-motivation, you need to want to do it, and they really foster that.”
“It makes me feel like St. Mark’s is a bunch of kids who are not driven to begin with and the school’s job is to awaken a bunch of passive kids.”
While the project team felt all three statements stayed true to St. Mark’s mission and culture, team members gravitated most to Option 1. Before testing, they felt the statement best reflected the benefit St. Mark’s offered and what best-fit families wanted for their child. 
Yet when we asked newly enrolled families for their reactions, they indicated Option 1 was their least favorite by a very wide margin. Instead, they said the “Intentionally Small, Thinking Big” community described in Option 2 captured what appealed to them most about St. Mark’s and motivated their decision to enroll their child. 
Maria talks to Chuck about settling on a brand positioning statement for St. Mark’s — and the importance of conducting additional research to achieve better results (2:58).
The investment of time in testing the options with the target audience of best-fit families had a very clear pay off. By choosing what most appealed to their market (Option 2), St. Mark’s school leaders could now proceed confident that, when they went public, they would have the wind at their back while reaching their objectives.
Currently, EdwardsCo. continues to work with St. Mark’s to implement the strategy based on its “Intentionally Small to Think Big” positioning. In mid-November, St. Mark’s will launch a new website, which will proclaim its brand positioning and three supportive messages front and center on its homepage clear, concise, powerful.
Closing thoughts: Maria talks with Chuck about the results St. Mark’s has seen after its research-based brand development process (1:52).
Maria Kadison
Maria Kadison

Maria LaTour Kadison is president and CEO of EdwardsCo., a brand consulting firm that works exclusively with independent schools, colleges, and universities. Throughout her career, LaTour Kadison has worked with senior leadership in education — whether as the vice president for marketing at Simmons College, as a member of the school committee in her hometown, or as a strategy consultant. She has won several national CASE and other industry awards for brand development, marketing materials, multi-channel marketing strategies, and industry research and analysis. Her love and appreciation for the work of independent schools began early — LaTour Kadison is a graduate of The Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island.


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