Positioning: the battle for the mind of parents

When first engaged by a school, the team at imageseven initially looks at the school through the lens of the prospective parent. What we often discover is a confusing maze of competing market positions.

If your parents can’t identify what they are paying for and the school leadership doesn’t know what they are charging for, it is almost impossible for schools to identify their competitive positions.

Multi-pronged positioning of schools is rarely a conscious strategic decision. Rather, it happens over time in response to pressure from well-meaning staff, Board members or parents, and it is not uncommon for the positioning to contain echoes from the unfocused enthusiasm of a previous Head. 

In the early years following the foundation of a school, the positioning is obvious to any who care to look. It is in the DNA and it doesn’t need to be explained. You can taste it. So, it is unlikely that your school’s positioning suddenly breaks and stops working for you. If it did, it would be obvious and you would stop and fix it. Instead, it usually decays slowly, becoming incrementally less effective. This means more and more resources must be applied in an effort to achieve similar or even diminishing returns. The result is burnt-out marketing teams and Heads who feel helpless.

Just as you cannot have a multi-pronged strategy (by definition, you can’t have multiple priorities), you cannot have a multi-pronged positioning for your school. You cannot win the positioning war with a positioning strategy that is constructed like a Swiss army knife.

The big picture

Positioning is often confused with the concepts of brand or differentiation. They are related and complementary, but they are not the same. Positioning your school is the strategic process of arranging for your school to occupy a clear, distinctive and desirable place relative to competing education options.

Your position is how prospective parents define your school on important attributes. It indicates the place your school occupies in their minds relative to competing education options. To illustrate, think of the positions of some familiar auto manufacturers. Mercedes is positioned on luxury, Hyundai on affordability, Audi on innovative technology and Volvo, who has traditionally positioned its vehicles on safety, is transitioning to safety with sustainability.

Inside a parent’s mind

Your prospective parents, once actively searching for a school, are blasted by an avalanche of information about and from schools. They are faced with a decision that is high risk (get it wrong and they will not be doing their best for their child), high price (compared to the mostly free state education, any tuition fee is a high price), and long-term (their selection of school may live with the family for up to 13 years). There are few other parental decisions with similar ramifications. Prospective parents do what we all do as consumers of products and services: they arrange the possible school choices into different categories by positioning them in their mind.

A school’s position is a shorthand way of referring to the complex set of perceptions, impressions and feelings that prospective parents hold in their minds for the school when compared with competing schools.

With or without you

Prospective parents will position your school in their minds with or without the help of you or your marketing team. Of course, you want to play an active role in positioning your school. This means you must plan your school’s position in a way that gives the greatest advantage with your school’s ideal parent.

There are many attributes available to you from which you can choose to try and establish your school’s positioning, so it is more fruitful to consider potential positioning strategies. Some of the more common ways schools can be positioned include:

  • on their specific product attributes — for example, location, price or safety
  • on the needs they satisfy or the benefits they give — for example, best ATAR, well-rounded graduates or a strong community
  • on usage — for example, boarding schools, selective schools or subject focus
  • for specific types of parents or students — for example, single sex schools, foreign language schools or schools catering for international students
  • away from a competing school — for example, if one school only offers International Baccalaureate (IB), the competitor offers the state-based Certificate of Education or a competing qualification such as GCSE or SAT.

Schools can try to differentiate from their competition in many ways, but no matter how a school tries to differentiate itself, it will not be considered different if parents and prospective parents do not perceive it differently. The criteria for successful differentiation varies from school to school, but some of the more common are:

  • importance — if the school can deliver benefits highly valued by parents, it will be considered important by them
  • distinctive — a school will be considered distinctive by prospective parents if it offers something not offered by the competing schools
  • superior — if the difference seems to the prospective parents to be better than other ways of obtaining the same benefit, they consider it superior
  • communicable — the difference can be articulated to prospective parents in a clear and simple way
  • pre-emptive — the competing schools cannot easily copy the difference
  • affordable — the cost of your differentiation can be neutral to very expensive. However, the important consideration is if it is affordable (it earns more than it costs) and is sustainable over many budget cycles.

Strategy is about removing, not adding

The unfortunate truth is that most school Heads have an extremely difficult time explaining their marketing strategy, not because they lack the eloquence but because they lack a strategy. They have not made the difficult but essential decisions around the specific markets they serve and the specific solutions they provide.

An effective marketing strategy lives at the edges of a bell curve. In the centre is where average lives. It is very difficult to successfully position average in the minds of prospective parents.

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.[1] The best strategists are focused more on removing features than adding them. This is the opposite of the typical school strategy development process where the executive leadership fills the walls with post-it notes listing the ‘things we should do.’ Crafting your positioning strategy is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. In its simplest form, a compelling positioning strategy lives at the nexus of these two notions:

Be something …

You can be excellent at some things, but you can’t be excellent at everything. To define your core competencies, start with the question, ‘What are the main types of problems we solve for our parents?’

Then, identify the primary solutions you employ against these problems. This should not be a bullet point list of undifferentiated features which does nothing to separate you from your competitors, but a distinctive set of benefits. Not features.

… for someone

Your school must have a clear view of your ideal family and your ideal student. Parents trust schools that can show they know how to solve problems like theirs. They are buying your expertise, but they are not looking for a school that caters for ‘a wide range of students.’ Rather, they are looking for one with deep experience with students just like theirs.

If you think a focused positioning might limit your school, consider the alternative. The belief that your school can provide every type of educational service and appeal to every kind of parent is clearly false. Trying to be all things to all people is not only an impossible mission certain to frustrate everyone on your team — it’s also an unfortunate admission that your school does not yet have a positioning strategy.

insight applied

  • Positioning is the strategic process of occupying a clear place in the minds of parents.
  • Position happens with or without your input.
  • You cannot be all things for all families.
  • Be something. For someone.

Positioning questions to ask

  1. What position, if any, do we already own in the prospective parent’s mind?
  2. What position do we want to own?
  3. What competitors must we beat if we are to establish that position?
  4. Do we have enough resources to occupy and hold the position?
  5. Do we have the guts to stick with one consistent positioning concept?
  6. Does our creative approach match our positioning strategy?


[1] Porter, M. ‘What is strategy?’ Harvard Business Review. November 1996.

Brad Entwistle is the 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. imageseven.com.au 

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