Mirrors vs. Windows: Transforming Mission into Brand Strategy

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about aligning school mission and brand to achieve enrollment growth and energize the internal community. In this piece, we examine how St. John’s Episcopal School in East Dallas, Texas, stayed true to its mission while creating a brand that reflects families’ aspirations. 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.

As independent schools vie for the attention of prospective families, they naturally want to share their school’s mission in order to break through the clutter and grow enrollment. Yet mission statements fall flat when it comes to inspiring future students and their parents to learn more, apply, and enroll. For that, you need a brand.

Think of your mission statement as your description of how your school is and will continue to be outstanding. To rise above the competition, however, your school needs to stand out.  Rather than compete with or replace your school’s mission, a brand strategy brings it to life for prospective families in a way that moves them to choose your school as the best place to educate their child.

A case in point is St. John’s Episcopal School, a 63-year-old Pre-K-8, co-ed school of about 500 students. Located in East Dallas, Texas, a growing and desirable area of the Dallas metro area, the school was frustrated with outdated perceptions in the market and their dampening effects on enrollment.

Although St. John’s had limited non-public school competition in its immediate market area from a Catholic school and a pre-K-12 independent school, many prospective Eastside parents supported the strong public school system or were willing to drive their kids to the well-regarded independent schools in North Dallas.

With many excellent independent school options close by, North Dallas families had little reason to travel east, explains Liz Hamilton, director of marketing and communications at St. John’s and parent of two St. John’s students. “So our sweet spot really was the people who live in East Dallas and trying to convince them that St. John’s ‘North Dallas’-level tuition is worth the investment.”

And therein lay the challenge.

Maria and Liz chat about the difference between mission and brand (3:37).

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Why Mission Lacks Meaning for Prospective Parents

St. John’s highly engaged internal community, including board members, staff, alumni, and current families, loved the school’s mission:

St. John's Episcopal School is dedicated to a program of academic excellence designed to train the mind, strengthen the character and enrich the spirit of each student in a Christian environment.

At the same time, the school’s leadership recognized that the mission didn’t communicate the transformation that had taken place at the school over the past 10 years.

“Our mission was still who we are at our core, but it didn’t demonstrate that our school had become so much more than a little neighborhood school or the benefits of a St. John’s education — why it’s worth the investment. The mission statement didn’t answer the question for prospective families of what they can expect for their child,” Hamilton says.

Maria and Liz chat about why “Christian environment” doesn’t appear in the St. John’s positioning statement (3:44).

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A mission comes from looking in the mirror. An internally focused statement, it describes a school’s purpose and primary objectives. It drives leadership’s decisions and provides internal measures of success.

Meanwhile, a brand comes from a look out the window. Externally focused, a brand describes a school’s primary and differentiating value in terms of how it addresses the educational and emotional needs of target prospective families. Think about what families need to see in the window to spur them to knock on your door.

You often see the mission statement — a one-, two-, or three-sentence or paragraph statement that encapsulates a school’s educational priorities, goals, and objectives — emblazoned in the school’s strategic plan documents and annual reports. It also appears on marketing-oriented communications, such as school brochures and the website — sometimes on the homepage, sometimes in the “About Us” section. You don’t often hear the mission statement mentioned during a campus visit or inquiry phone call. In these cases, the focus is on features such as the school’s low student-to-teacher ratio, sports and signature programs, etc.

Yet, is putting your mission statement — your reflection about what’s important to you — on display in your window going to be the best way to grab the attention of and draw in prospective families? Keep in mind every school in your market area also has a front window, likely with a similar presentation of educational priorities.

For parents, there are few more emotion-driven decisions than those that involve their child’s future. The more you enable parents to see the reflection of the hopes and dreams they have for their child’s education in what your school offers, the more effective your school will be at attracting families to apply and enroll. Prospective parents want to know:

  • “What will an education at ABC School mean for my child and his/her development and achievement?”
  • “What advantages will an education at ABC School offer to my child versus my other options?”
  • “How will an education at ABC School help my child reach his/her greatest potential?”

When you show a prospective family your mission statement in response to these questions, you’re more likely to leave them scratching their heads than requesting an application. Your answers must do three things:

  1. Clarify what your school will do for their child in a way that’s relevant, motivating, and differentiating to families.
  2. Overcome any lingering misperceptions about your school.
  3. Quickly establish the value your school offers when it comes to achieving the hopes and dreams parents have for their child.

That’s why having a strong brand strategy is critical.

At the heart of brand strategy is a positioning statement — a simple one-, two-, or three-sentence statement or even a word — that expresses how your school is different from and better than others.

Your positioning statement should take your mission and reframe it to reflect the benefits your school can feasibly and authentically deliver that are most important to prospective families. You should write it with their wants and needs in mind, and craft it to guide their decisions and perceptions. (The next blog post in this series will dive deeper into the process of identifying and selecting a positioning statement for your school.)

While the positioning statement itself usually doesn’t appear anywhere, it acts as the strategic foundation from which to build your brand — key messages, school features, tagline, voice, imagery, and visual identity. It directs the

consistent, compelling message that the entire school community can articulate and share, and it comes through in all communication with prospective families.

Maria and Liz chat about how St. John’s developed its brand strategy (2:33).

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St. John’s Moves from Mission to Brand

To lead the charge to create a stronger brand identity which would drive increased enrollment, St. John’s hired EdwardsCo in fall 2015. The EdwardsCo team asked Head of School Mark Crotty to create a brand development project team consisting of himself, senior administrators, faculty leaders, trustees, the rector, and current parents.

Then our team started the research process. We conducted on-campus focus groups and in-depth interviews with the leadership team, trustees, faculty, staff, and current families. We then conducted phone interviews with inquiring families who did apply; admitted families who did not enroll; feeder schools; and placement schools to understand their perceptions of St. John’s and other schools in the area.

Maria and Liz chat about how Liz educated key internal stakeholders about the school’s move from mission to brand (7:15).

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With the prospective families, we also asked about their school selection criteria and their hopes and dreams for their child. This helped us understand the type of school environment that St. John’s target families were looking for (e.g., one that centers on the process of learning, one that focuses on academic achievement, or any other type of school culture or environment).

Based on our newfound knowledge of St. John’s and this market research, we developed a positioning statement that emphasized three key points:

  1. WHAT parents were looking for.
  2. HOW St. John’s could fulfill those expectations.
  3. WHY parents were looking for the WHAT.

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The positioning statement does not map directly to the mission statement, yet it is entirely consistent with St. John’s values and complements the mission.

To find out how well the positioning statement captured the driving reason families selected St. John’s, we showed it to the same group of families that recently enrolled. The reception was extremely positive.

As one parent summarized, “This is why we chose St. John’s — it’s balanced between your child and what they need to be successful in life.”

With the evidence that this positioning statement motivated our target audience of prospective families, we worked with St. John’s to further synthesize it. We developed a tagline

St. John’s Episcopal School. The love of knowledge. And the courage to use it” as well as key messages to guide copy for marketing materials and one-on-one interactions with prospective families. The school is working to implement the strategy in all marketing and communications efforts this fall.  

Final thoughts: Maria and Liz chat about the importance of meeting your audiences’ needs and developing a brand for your school (2:38).

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Comments

mkadison@edwardsco.com
10/11/2016 09:51 AM
Hi Vito.
Glad you enjoyed the post. Your question is perfect.

Using the case of St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA to demonstrate the process, Part II of the series provides concrete and specific guidance on how to approach market research (i.e., whom to ask, questions to ask) and how to use the findings to develop a brand positioning that will help your school stand out.

Look for the post and podcast interview in early November!
Cheers,
Maria Kadison

CheongV@ehsbr.org
10/05/2016 09:32 AM
Thank you so much for this! I know it would be helpful for us and other schools to have some insight on the right questions to ask for our research purposes. Any suggestions on other articles that could help with that process?

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