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Branding your school (Part 1)

Like it or not, we are all branded.


Regardless of our age, where in the world we come from or what we believe, all of us carry the marks (some would say scars) of a relentless culture of global enterprise. The everyday objects that surround us are no longer valuable simply because of what they do, but because of what they symbolize. From the cup of coffee in your hand, to the watch on your wrist, to the pen in your pocket – everything is carefully designed to set you apart (or so the makers promise). They are icons of status, power, wealth or simply plain ‘cool’.


We live in a branded universe.


As well as being branded by external objects, we each have a personal brand: Me®. We carefully construct our identity by choosing to dress in a certain way, buy certain accessories and live a certain kind of lifestyle, albeit chosen or forced upon us. And most of us, over the years, become quite expert in managing Me®. Standing in front of the mirror each morning, we are chief executives of a truly unique product.


So what about My School® or My Network® (ECIS perhaps)? Charged as guardians of the brands that define the present and future of international schools around the world, how are we doing at managing these more complex brand identities?


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 are 10 lessons 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 1: All aboard the ‘Cluetrain’

I once applied for a job with Sony. I didn’t get the job. But I did come away with a book recommendation that changed my view on communications forever: The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual (Locke et al., 2000).


Four statements will capture the essence of the key ideas: 

  • ‘Markets are nothing more than conversations... Our only hope is to talk.’
  • ‘Conversations are a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.’
  • ‘The only advertising that was ever truly effective was word of mouth, which is nothing more than conversation. Now word of mouth has gone global.’
  • Further, these voices are telling one another the truth based on their real experiences.’

Reading this book again, I find myself believing more than ever that it is time for international schools to get aboard the Cluetrain and join the market revolution that has already changed the way many companies construct their brand and do business. In a world now accustomed to Web 2.0 and the power of social networking, it is time to ‘cut the crap’ and start communicating in ways that people understanding. Forget the jargon and educational clichés. Starting talking to your customers as people, friends, partners. Listen to their ideas. Tell them stories that ring true. Most of all, stop seeing your customers as ‘the enemy’ when, in fact, they are your most important advocates.


Lesson 2: Funky hedgehogs

Most of us have read and been influenced by Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (Collins, 2001). Personally, I have always been intrigued, if not a little confused by what he calls ‘the hedgehog concept’. In his follow-up essay, Good to Great and the Social Sectors (Collins, 2006), Collins explores what this might look like for organizations such as schools. Greatness, he explains, is all about being best in the world at something, being passionate about it and having an effective resource engine comprising of time, money and brand.


There is the ‘B’ word again.


Brand is clearly important to Collins. It is a component of ‘greatness’. Unfortunately, though, Collins is not particularly helpful when it comes to understanding what the word actually means. For that, I have to turn to another one of the titles that almost every airport bookshop in the world seems to be selling these days in their popular business section: Funky Business Forever: How to Enjoy Capitalism (Ridderstrǻle and Nordström, 2007).


The point about brands, Ridderstǻle and Nordström suggest, is that they are always more than the sum of their parts. Think of The Coca-Cola Company. When we think of Coca-Cola, we associate various things with it – a logo, perhaps an advert, a certain packaging, a price-value proposition, its history, reputation or simply a recent advertising campaign. All of these components are part of what makes Coca-Cola a powerful brand. But in other sense the brand is always more than the sum of these parts. According to the authors of Funky Business, brand is actually more to do with a ‘promise’ or ‘contract’ with every customer. Another way of putting it might be to say that a brand is all about a relationship of trust that is built between the Company and its customer.


When prospective families choose our schools, they are literally ‘entrusting’ their children to our care. So what kind of value propositions are we offering to these families? If we are going to be great schools, we need to spend more time thinking about the promise and contract we are building with our current and future markets.


Lesson 3: The next now

Imagining the school of the future is something I have been interested in for a while now, but not in the sense of 2001: Space Odyssey or fantasy-filled images of children being taught by robots. I am much more concerned with what today’s best business minds are saying about the future of commerce and how this will shape and impact the business model of tomorrow’s schools.


Today’s reality is simple: like it or not, families, companies and organizations purchase international school education in just the same way as they buy a new BMW, Apple iPod or pair of Chanel sunglasses. International schools are symbols of status and the purchasers of our services demand the same standards of service, after-care support and ‘packaging’ as any other luxury item they might choose to spend their money on.


And if we are to believe Salzman and Matathia (2007), only those brands with a combination of ‘global relevance’ and ‘hyperlocal desirability’ will survive. Our task is therefore to discover the educational equivalent of HSBC, which recently reinvented itself around the ‘promise’ of being ‘the world’s local bank’. Our customers, in other words, are becoming much more demanding. They want the best of both worlds. They want to be reassured that our brand is truly global in scope, ambition and relevance. Yet, at the same time, they want to be reassured that each school is deeply rooted in the local context.


Likewise, Dean Crutchfield, marketing guru from Google, recently explained, today’s customers want more and more precision, reciprocity and flexibility: ‘We live in a world flooded by spam, so you had better know me as a customer; you had also better let me speak as well and please listen to my feedback and ideas; and then lets discuss exactly how we might do business together.’


Once again, the Cluetrain has left the station: a global conversation has begun. The old rules of the game are changing. But are you on-board?


Lesson 4: Fancy a coffee break?

It certainly might be a good time to take a break and reflect on the impact of these ideas for your school communications and marketing strategies. For those brave enough to read on, however, there is another question to consider that has bugged me for a while now: what are we actually selling? I know that the grass is always greener on the other side, but honestly, it does seem easier for the guys over there in Coca-Cola, Nike or Apple. They sell ‘stuff’. We sell... well, education. But what exactly is it? How does one package it, describe it, let alone guarantee it?


The more we thought about this question at the International School of Brussels, the more we kept coming back to one simple concept: the ISB experience. That, it seems, is what families are purchasing for their children – a transforming experience that promises to shape the present and leave an indelible mark on the future.


That’s the idea anyway. And it is encouraging to see how other companies are picking up big time on this notion of selling an ‘experience’. Take Starbucks for example, driven by the dream of becoming the ‘third place’. In his book entitled The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary (2006), Joseph Michelli makes constant reference to the fact that much of Howard Schultz’s success in building this global brand can be attributed to the fact that Starbucks is not, in the end, about coffee, but about serving up an ‘experience’ that becomes a key component to people’s lives. Home, work, Starbucks: it really is the ‘third place’.


Now the problem with ‘experiences’ of any kind – but particularly the good ones – is that they are notoriously difficult to bottle and keep. Words are too mundane. Pictures fade. Sound is susceptible to different styles and taste. At ISB, we are therefore constantly wrestling with what it means to be an international school. Dare we believe we can become, for many expatriate families arriving in Brussels, the ‘third place’? Home, work... ISB.


Lesson 5: Coherence, coherence, coherence

If building a brand is all about holding ‘conversations’ and selling an ‘experience’, you had better make sure that it is coherent. Incoherence offers only a mortal blow to any brand or value proposition you may want to establish with you customer. Of course, there are some things you cannot control. If word of mouth, as was already suggested, is key to successful brand development in the new marketplace, you can’t expect and, in fact, don’t want everyone parroting the same lousy script. At the same time, though, you cannot simply assume that key messages will be heard loud and clear without some kind of management.


Looking at the issue in another way, international schools are extremely complex types of organizations. Each school offers one promise to the market, but this is applied and takes form in multiple contexts to multiple audiences, often in multiple languages. You therefore have to wrestle with the whole ‘loose-tight’ thing and try to ensure that the same story is being told – even if from different vantage points.


A simple example (really, a work-in-progress) will suffice. ISB had been involved in ‘environmental action’ for a number of years. However, if you asked people what exactly was being done and why, you could expect a range of wildly different responses. It was for this reason that ISBEarth was launched as a banner to capture and communicate the schools work in this area. By managing the brand and developing an organizational model, the school immediately had a frame of reference by which it could look at what the students were learning, how we organized ourselves, the partners we were developing, as well as the actions that parents, students and faculty were taking – discovering both areas of great coherence and, crucially, areas were there remained huge inconsistency that needed immediate attention.


The lesson from brands all across the world is simple. Make sure that if you stand for something, you practice what you preach at all levels of your organisation. The customers of today are extremely savvy and will see straight through and often expose, mercilessly, any inconsistencies.



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

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