Marketing mindset

“I am just so tired of our school being referred to as ‘nice’!” lamented the Head during an early scoping session. The school wasn’t struggling per se: enrolments were steady, parents were generally happy and it had a good reputation. So, what was the problem?

All brands, including schools, sit on an ever-changing continuum that evaluates ‘brand perception’. Negative events or poor media coverage can obviously affect how a school brand is viewed. However, complacency can be just as dangerous, insidiously driving an invisible wedge between what you promise as a school and what you deliver. Ultimately, it is up to school Heads and their marketing teams to keep the school on the positive end of this scale with relentless consistency.

The problem with ‘nice’

So, what’s wrong with being — or being thought of as — nice? ‘Nice’ is warm; it’s comforting, compassionate, inclusive and unoffensive. It’s on the positive end of the brand perception scale and there are certainly worse things to be known for.

Any school worth their tuition fees should be safe and welcoming. Parents may accept these basic niceties as sufficient in the early school years, however a secondary school will likely struggle to attract and retain families if they cannot offer more for adolescent students approaching tertiary education or the workforce.

To differentiate your school from the competition, you must identify your school’s true brand voice and what your school’s unique offerings are. How many times have you seen a school position itself in the market as “a safe and nurturing community, developing lifelong learners who are prepared for an ever-changing world”? 

If you do not tackle ‘nice’ head on, you may struggle to answer the question, “who would miss your school if it ceased to exist?” If you cannot definitively answer this, it’s time to get creative.

The case for creativity

Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy UK recently said, “Logic will very likely land you in the same place as everyone else.” Whilst your early associations with creativity in a marketing sense might make you think of glossy brochures, snazzy websites and eye-catching advertising, the reality is that any good school strategy has creativity applied throughout.

Creativity is fragile and unlikely to spontaneously appear sitting around a boardroom. It also requires protection from the elements — fear and short-termism.

Fear can be subtle yet still stifle creativity. It might be the meta-message behind your Marketing Manager’s response of, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” It might be that irksome feeling you have after a meeting with your executive or marketing team which was filled with affirmative sentiment.

Is groupthink taking a grip of your marketing? Is it shutting the door to creativity? Because fear of change — and, heaven forbid, failure — is a more powerful driver than the unseen benefits that your school might be missing out on. This is how you find yourself in a meeting with your Head of Admissions discussing next year’s vacancies and how you might explain the enrolment challenges to your Board.

Short-termism isn’t much better. A 2019 study by Peter Field found the increasing shift of brands to favour quick turnaround, low budget and digitally focused campaigns was causing long-term damage to brands and reducing their effectiveness.

For schools, short-termism can be even more harmful. Identifying an enrolment problem and hoping that prospective parents will pull their child from a competitor school in response to a simple, low budget campaign is near impossible. Creativity needs to be considered much earlier and be kindled.

How to harness creativity to dispel ‘nice’

To develop a long-term strategy that will elevate your school above the competition, away from that ‘nice’ tag and secure healthy and sustainable enrolments into the future, you will need to take your school for a DRIVE (Discovery, Research, Insights, Voice and Essence) and apply creativity at every stage of this process (see Brad Entwistle, Josh Miles and Andrew Sculthorpe’s book, Bold School Brand[1]).

While crafting a new Voice and brand Essence are the stages where creatives get excited, it’s the Insights stage where creativity comes to the fore, unearthing diamonds that can be polished later. After your Discovery and Research phases, you will have all the pieces of your brand puzzle laid out before you. But do you have the creativity to put them together in a unique way? Amongst the piles of research and transcripts, there will be something more than ‘nice’. There will be something unique to your school, but it might be hard to find and it may need refining. It is critical that you recognise the how before you try to look or sound different.

There is nothing wrong with a ‘nice’ school. There are far worse places to be. But is ‘nice’ good enough? Is that what you want to be known for? Consider embracing creativity.


Charlie Maughan is a Senior Account Manager at imageseven and host of the SMC: School Marketing and Communications podcast. Along with broad strategic experience across branding, communications and media, Charlie is also a graduate of the globally recognised creative course, AWARD School.

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