How to pivot your school from mission to brand to growth

How to pivot your school from mission to brand to growth


Stop talking, start listening

If you want to get inside the mind of a prospective family, talking to parents of newly enrolled students to better understand what inspired them to consider an independent school, and choose yours, is the obvious place to start.

Note the emphasis on the word ‘start.’

The most powerful and successful school brands are built on insights gathered from families who chose you, from those who chose a competitor and from key influencers on school choice. By talking to these different groups, you will have more information about barriers to enrolment growth.

Who to talk to and why

Newly enrolled families
This audience is your sweet spot. They’ve committed to you above other options, but they are not insiders yet. They offer a fresh market perspective, having just gone through the enrolment process.

Families who were enrolled, but went elsewhere
So close, yet so far! You must know why they did not choose you. They will most likely provide a financial reason or say, “It was a matter of fit.” But you need to know why your school wasn’t worth the money/sacrifice and what part of your school wasn’t a good fit. It is worth hiring a third party to conduct these interviews, otherwise parents will likely sugar-coat the real reason.

Families who inquired, but didn’t apply
Why did they inquire? What intrigued them enough to reach out? Why didn’t they apply?

Decision influencers such as feeder schools, secondary schools and university admissions officers
Their perceptions of your school are influential, yet these folks are susceptible to outdated or inaccurate perceptions. They speak with authority even when some have never stepped foot on the campus or haven’t been to your school for over a decade.

Families who left the school for reasons other than relocation
If retention is an issue, you need to know why. Some families are simply not a good fit, and that’s okay. However, if you’re routinely losing good-fit families, you have a problem. And more importantly, dissatisfied families will tell friends and other families about their decision. It is worth hiring a third party here, too, to get at the underlying issues causing problems.


By digging further into what most motivates families to choose an independent school, you get at the bigger picture of why that is important and you get a sense of the emotions involved in decisions regarding their child’s future; there’s nothing more emotional for parents! You also get a sense of the effect — positive or negative — families believe different attributes and characteristics will have on their child’s life.

Identifying the perceptions of target families and their influencers about how well you fulfill their primary decision criteria will help pinpoint opportunities to capitalise either on areas where your school is seen as strong or on areas where your school is seen as especially weak.

When families offer quick attribute-driven answers — “I’m looking for rigorous academics and a commitment to character education,” — press forward to find out why. Why do you want rigorous academics? What does character education mean to you? How do you envision your child benefitting from these things?

The end goal with this investigative line of questioning is to go beyond collecting basic data points and to build a more comprehensive base of knowledge that will help your school become a trusted partner in realising the family’s vision for their children. By getting a clearer picture of what that vision looks like, your school moves one step closer to developing a meaningful and powerful brand.


insight applied

Think of a brand strategy as a statement of the values and priorities you want parents and the school community to share. Shift the mindset from “What do we need to say to enrol more families?” to “How do we enrol more of the families who appreciate our values?”


Seven questions … to get to a deeper emotional level with prospective families

  1. What are you looking for in a school and why?
  2. Describe the perfect school for your child.
  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 our school and why?
  5. What is driving those perceptions?
  6. What motivated your ultimate school choice?
  7. What other schools did you consider?


Pivot 2: Give your brand an EDGE

Now comes the next step — using your knowledge base to select the one message that:

  • resonates deeply with a target set of prospective families
  • is very specific, highly motivating, and timeless
  • can’t be easily replicated by competitor schools.

That one message will give your school an EDGE in the marketplace because it Expresses Differentiation and Generates Engagement. An ‘EDGE’ is the concept that cuts through the clutter, captures attention and drowns out the competition. It is the single most palpable quality that makes your school stand out from the competition. Your EDGE is your ‘unfair’ advantage.

Within a school messaging architecture, when your EDGE is expressed in one to four sentences, it is known as the positioning statement. This take on your EDGE is a rational expression of the soul, unique role and relevance of the school in a way that resonates with your target families because it aligns exactly with their vision for their child.

The full imageseven Message Architecture suite

Target market

The market you wish to serve with your school. These are your current and prospective parents.

EDGE (Differentiator)

The single most palpable quality that makes your school stand out from the competition.


The group of peers in which your school belongs.

Value proposition

The key benefit you offer your mission-fit families. The primary reason a family would choose your school.

Positioning statement

Articulates the differentiated role you play in your industry as well as your relevance to customers.

Key messages

The top three to five messages that must be understood within a specific timeframe.

Elevator story

Your school’s story in brief — just the facts.

Brand archetype

A genre you assign to your school brand that is based on symbolism.

Brand personality

The personified traits that define your school.

Brand driver

The single word or phrase that best captures the essence of what your school brand stands for.

Brand story

The emotionally charged story of your school that answers the questions: “Why your school?” and “Why now?”


How do you develop options for your EDGE? Let insights from your knowledge base about the shared dreams and aspirations of mission-fit families and their perceptions of differences, weaknesses and advantages of your school guide decisions.

Use your school’s mission as another selection guide. Check options for compatibility and eliminate the ones that the internal community rejects as “not us”. Your brand positioning statement must express a concept the school can authentically and enthusiastically deliver. If your school’s strategic priorities don’t align with a proposed brand positioning and the internal community doesn’t believe in it, no one in the marketplace is going to buy it either.

As a first pass, develop a few possible options to consider. They should be real alternatives — not variations on a theme — to allow the internal community to have a robust discussion and come to consensus on two to three statements to test with prospective families.

And yes, after internal discussion, you should go back to prospective families for feedback on positioning statement options. Words mean different things to different people. What is beautiful and moving to one group could sound harsh and negative to another.

Remember, a winning EDGE resonates, motivates and is difficult to replicate. It’s the heart of your school’s brand strategy and will direct all future communications with prospective families. In a highly competitive market, when you have less than 60 seconds to establish a memorable connection between your school and the fulfillment of family aspirations, taking the time to test potential positioning concepts is time well spent.

Adapted from the eBook How to Pivot From Mission to Brand to Growth by Maria Kadison, CEO of EdwardsCo. 


Maria Kadison is President and CEO of EdwardsCo, a branding, marketing, strategy, and design agency for independent schools Maria is a trusted partner to senior leadership and boards of independents schools and higher education institutions across the United States.

Brad Entwistle is Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness.


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