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Branding your school (Part 2)

The purpose of this article is simply to catch a glimpse across the fence at what others are saying about brand management in other industries and to think about what this might mean for the future of international schools.

Now whatever you think about branding, marketing and all those off-the-shelf business books, I urge you to read on because here lessons 6-10 that you and your school really can’t afford to ignore. Read them in any order, one at a time or all at once. They are all connected and all point to a very different and exciting future.


Lesson 6: Tell me your story

So what do you do exactly? I am often asking this question and sometimes ask it of myself. The best line I have come up with so far is this: “My job is to tell the story of ISB and help others find their place in their story.” And, you know what? I really believe it in the sense that stories are able to ‘bottle’ the experience in a unique way.


Take the recent ‘Let it Out’ campaign by Kleenex. It you think back over the past few years, we have seen a massive shift in the way companies such as Kleenex sell their products, which, after all, is only a piece of paper on which to blow your nose! We used to see statements and claims about tenacity, softness, fragrance. All of this propositional-style marketing is now gone, replaced by a campaign that is rooted in the concept of story.


It is such a simple idea: everyone has a story to tell. So place a couch on a busy street. Place a therapist on the couch, who invites people to sit and tell their stories of love, life, joy and pain. Inevitably, tears begin to flow as people ‘let out what has been bottled up inside’. And, of course, Kleenex is there – this is such great tv! – playing a small but vital part of the drama unfolding right in front of our eyes. The simple tissue has become an existential accessory.


Or so the advert would suggest.


The point is this: storytelling in today’s world is key to brand development. And, as international schools, perhaps our greatest challenge is the fact that one story quickly leads to 1000 ways of telling it. And every time the tale is told, the story changes, improves, evolves.


It is time to learn the art of storytelling.


And this absolutely does not mean we become skilled in the art of ‘spin’, with all the negative connotations that can bring up in people’s mind. On the contrary, ours is truly an ethical responsibility ruthlessly to ‘seek out and pass on’ the truth that lies hidden in the experiences of the children, faculty, parents all around us.


Lesson 7: Monitor you brand

It is never long before someone asks, so what? How do you know, anyway, whether your brand development is making a difference. After all, there are plenty of examples out there of big-name companies who now rank in the all-time list of brand failures. Take the notorious American Airlines campaign that sought to secure impact in the Mexican market with the slogan ‘Fly in Leather’, only to realize that ‘Vuelo en Cuero’ to the average Mexican meant ‘Fly naked’!


Metrics is not a term commonly used by many international schools. Right now, however, our focus at ISB is more than ever before, looking closely at methods for more effective data collection, improvements in our data analysis and systems for effective data reporting. All for one simple reason: we have to know what people are saying, thinking and feeling about us. We have to catch early trends and be seen to be a school that listens and makes effective change. We have to report efficiently on the success of the brand against clear indicators and targets in enrolment, fundraising and teacher recruitment. Otherwise, what’s the point?


And just in case there are skeptics out there who still think that none of this affects your financial bottom line, let me assure you that our experience is quite the contrary. The impact of brand development at ISB has had a very tangible effect, not only on our enrolment, but equally upon our fundraising and development efforts and teacher recruitment.


Lesson 8: Understand why brands fail

Of course, integrally related to the need to monitor your brand is the ability to understand why brands fail. In his book, Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time (2005), Matt Haig refers to the seven deadly sins of branding:

  • Brand amnesia
  • Brand ego
  • Brand megalomania
  • Brand deception
  • Brand fatigue
  • Brand paranoia
  • Brand irrelevance

Reading through this list, I am left with a number of questions about international schools and the brands we have created:

  • Do we know what we stand for?
  • Do we think of ourselves too highly?
  • Do we think we can be best at everything?
  • Does our product match our description of it?
  • Have we simply run out of ideas?
  • How we lost a sense of self in constant reinvention or obsession with the competition?
  • Do we have a product that anyone wants anymore?

These are the hard questions that all organizations, from time to time, have to face. If you have difficultly in answering any of the above positively, it is probably time to go back to the drawing board for a while.


Lesson 9: Diagnose the pain

Back to the Kleenex campaign. The art of selling tissues is identifying with a universal human ‘pain’ – in this instance, an emotional need that runs (excuse the pun!) far deeper than simply have a good nasal clear out: the need to talk.


And if you want to find more examples of this kind of advertising, look no further than the campaigns of Alaska Airlines. Any search of YouTube will provide some great examples of a company that has managed to capture the ‘pain’ of airline travel and, in doing so, deliver relevant, effective solutions.


By contrast, international schools often seem to miss a trick when pushing their brand out into the marketplace. The ‘pain’ of any globally-mobile family arriving at your school – with all those hopes, fears, concerns and expectations – is just so glaringly obvious. And yet so often we ignore it and fail to capture the opportunity.


It is time to show our families that we truly understand what it is like to step off a plane, arrive somewhere completely new, faced with the seemingly impossible task of finding the right school.


In thinking hard and diagnosing exactly what this ‘pain’ is, looks like, feels like, we will stand a far better chance of delivering effective, meaningful solutions to our customers.


Lesson 10: Build alliances

The final lesson is really about the maths and hardly needs explanation. However, it is arguably the most important lesson in terms of the future development of international schools.


Here goes:


Apple is a great brand. Nike is a great brand.

Apple plus Nike, working together under the banner of Tune Your Run is an awesome combination.


In a similar way, Michael Fullan in his book Leadership and Sustainability: System Thinkers in Action (2004), writes about eight elements of sustainability. Number 3 is as follows:


Lateral capacity-building through networks.



The same principle is at work here: building alliances and partnerships with individuals, companies and organizations which share your core values will always taking you further than you can go on your own.


The branded world of the future – including the world inhabited by international schools and their associated networks – is all about social-networking on an organizational level.


So who will you be working with, building alliances with and in partnership with tomorrow?


And in the end...

At the beginning of this article, I said it was all about looking over the fence at other companies. Well, in some ways, this is only half true. I could equally have said that this article is the story of one school and its beginning attempts at trying to understand itself, its role as an international school serving families in Brussels, and it possible future.


As part of a team committed to thinking through this future, absolutely love what I do. So please don’t leave this article feeling overwhelmed, anxious or offended. It’s all just about having a conversation and thinking together about what the future might hold.


And before I sign off, here is the mantra that keeps me sane when it perhaps does all feel too much:


Find simplicity in the complexity
Stay learning focused
Take risks.
Encourage innovation.
Embrace change.
Accept change.






Collins, J. (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Other Don’t. Random House Books

Collins, J. (2006) “Good to Great” and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany “Good to Great”. Random House Business Books

Fullen, M. (2004) Leadership and Sustainability: System Thinkers in Action. Corwin Press

Haig, M. (2005) Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Failures of All Time. Kogan Page Ltd.

Locke, C. et al (2000) The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. London: FT Com.

Michelli, J. (2006) The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Ridderstrǻle, K. and Nordström, J. (2007) Funky Business Forever: How to Enjoy Capitalism. 3rd Edition. Financial Times/ Prentice Hall

Salzman, M. and Matathia, I. (2007) The Next Now: Trends for the Future. Palgrave Macmillan.


This article was first published in The International Schools Journal (ECIS), November 2008.

Click here to view in PDF format.