Branding 301: How to Make Your Brand Drive Enrollment Growth

Editor’s note: This is the third 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 provided 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.

When a school’s enrollment and retention rates miss the mark, school leaders often jump-start a conversation about what kinds of marketing and communications tactics they should use to attract more families. While marketing and branding elements such as websites and logos can help your school get out its message, a one-off update or refresh usually does not draw in more families. To successfully win over hearts and minds, you need to use an integrated brand strategy to guide critical communications decisions.
Why? Because in a cluttered environment full of handsome websites, glossy brochures, and similar messages from competitors, delivering the right message, in the right way, in the right place is essential to inspiring engagement and action. With so many channels and touchpoints to select from and manage, effective communication is not a skin-deep process. 
A new website, for example, might look gorgeous, but if it is executed with the wrong message, its beauty will quickly fade. Furthermore, if the school’s other forms of communications — such as brochures, Facebook, fundraising appeals, and current families — have entirely different messages, then the site’s good looks will not bring a school much closer to achieving its enrollment goals. 

New Canaan Country School Wanted More Than Just a Makeover

The New Canaan Country School (NCCS) realized that it needed much more than a website redesign if it wanted to drive growth. Located in New Canaan, Connecticut, just outside New York City, the co-educational, pre-K–9 day school with about 620 students faced increasing competition and changing demographics. 
Though the school refreshed its website and redesigned its logo, the consensus was that these were modest fixes to a much larger problem.
The school admitted that its advancement, admissions, marketing materials, and messages felt siloed and fragmented. Parent groups expressed frustration that the messaging they saw in NCCS’s printed materials and website not only varied but also did not always match their experiences. They wanted clear guidance about how to tell friends about the school. Without it, they felt more reluctant about recommending the school to other families. With no consistent counterpoint coming through in NCCS communications, misperceptions about the school persisted in the marketplace.
“We all agreed internally that if we wanted to attract more families, we could no longer shout different messages,” explained Brooke Springer, director of communications and marketing at the school. “We needed one strong singular message to lead the way, and be comprehensive and cohesive across the school.”
Like many independent schools, NCCS had no shortage of wonderful stories to share with prospective families. The challenge was, as Springer described, “We didn’t know what to lead with, and we also needed to sharpen our focus in the way we talked about ourselves as a school, in all of our materials and visual identity, across all departments.”
Maria and Brooke talk about NCCS’s decision to develop a brand and the project’s beginnings (2:27).

On the Right Track

NCCS’s shift in mindset from “Let’s redesign the logo and website” to “What do we do strategically and holistically to best achieve our goal?" demonstrated that NCCS was taking a systemic and integrated approach needed for sustainable growth.
Based on our work at EdwardsCo. with hundreds of independent schools for more than 30 years, we have developed an estimate of the return on a variety of investments, ranging from individual tactical elements and visual identity, to more strategic work to develop a brand strategy. Time and again, we have discovered that when a school brings together all the relevant tactics and executes them with a holistic brand strategy, it sees the strongest return.
brand work and ROI.jpg

In other words, your school can significantly magnify the impact of any individual tactical element or communications piece when you understand:
  • how to create and execute a unified brand identity, with messages and graphic design, across all points of communication; and
  • how target families use and interact with communications elements during the decision-making process.
Maria and Brooke discuss how the communications and marketing team managed internal concerns about the school’s branding project (2:21).

Reasons to Believe

In 2014, NCCS hired EdwardsCo. to develop and implement a comprehensive brand strategy. We worked with Springer, as well as an internal team composed of trustees, faculty, administrators, and current parents. Based on the results of internal and external research and testing, we selected a brand positioning statement that conveyed the magic that happens every day on campus coupled with the most meaningful outcome described by best-fit parents.
With a positioning statement in hand, we moved to the next phase in developing a brand strategy: crafting three supportive messages. The supportive messages flow directly from the brand positioning statement and describe the distinct environment in which your school delivers on the promise, how you do so differently and better than alternatives, and/or the outcomes from this distinct package. Very importantly, the supportive messages also provide a hierarchy to follow in communications and a framework to focus your message.
While testing the potential positioning concepts, we asked parents to choose the one most compelling positioning, as well as identify the concepts or points that rank a close second and third. These second-level concepts often become the supportive messages and serve to further differentiate the school as the best option for those like-minded, best-fit parents.  
brand promise NCCS.jpg    

Staying on Track

Now that we had the final positioning statement and supportive messages, NCCS needed a powerful creative strategy and execution plan that would bring to life its brand messaging in an appropriately evocative way. Only when you combine all three — brand messaging, creative strategy, and execution — will you successfully drive enrollment growth.
The first step to linking brand messaging with creative strategy is a creative brief. A good creative brief is your school’s North Star; it guides every decision about brand and design execution. It also makes the initial process and ongoing brand management infinitely easier. 
creative brief.jpg
The project team discussed all the different types of materials the school used — from websites to information sheets, print and digital ads to viewbook. They talked about if and how prospective families used them during the consideration process, as well as how the critical elements could work together most effectively.  This exercise helped the team not only add to the creative brief’s comprehensive quality but also develop an action plan for implementation.
With a creative brief focusing on the positioning, EdwardsCo. developed a new graphic identity, brand campaign, and tagline. Working from this foundation, the school prioritized updating the website with the new campaign and identity. NCCS also opted for a short but powerful Inspiration brochure rather than a text-heavy viewbook. EdwardsCo. created these as well as print advertising, spirit wear designs, campus banners, and a new stationery package.
Although not every school opts to use a tagline, NCCS felt a tagline would be an important focal point in its communications efforts. It chose: Go Boldly.
North Canaan Country School students clad in spirit wear with the school's new tagline: Go Boldly. 
According to Springer: “We really felt that we needed a succinct tagline. We wanted something that could be used as a rally cry — that we could picture students saying and sports teams chanting — and encapsulated everything we’re trying to say about the school.”
Maria and Brooke discuss why the school believed it needed a tagline but not a viewbook (4:16).
As a final step before rolling out the new strategy, EdwardsCo. conducted message training on campus for trustees, faculty, staff, coaches, tour guides, and parent ambassadors to introduce the brand positioning statement and supportive messages in October 2014. Participants received coaching on how to verbalize the messaging in a deeply personal way, using their own words and examples, to bring the school’s brand positioning to life. NCCS used our message training to turbo-charge word of mouth in the community.  
“We had at least 100 people in training — key stakeholders and in very influential positions — feeling well versed and comfortable with the school’s new messaging and language,” said Springer.
Within six months after the creative strategy launched, the school experienced a boost in spirit, pride, and confidence. The stronger language, clear direction on messaging, and new materials made faculty, staff, and current families want to spread the word. Just as the project team had hoped, the “Go Boldly” tagline became part of the internal community’s vocabulary. The third-grade rock band even wrote and performed an original song entitled “Go Boldly!” for a lower school assembly. 
Maria and Brooke discuss how NCCS launched its brand and creative strategy (2:01).

Positive Results

External reactions were also highly positive. Within one year of launching the brand and creative strategy, the school experienced an increase in overall enrollment and had to open a new pre-kindergarten class to respond to the surge in demand.
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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