It would be hard to find a school Head who does not believe it would be a positive attribute for their school to stand out and look different to their competitor schools. Everyone agrees, but few Heads know how to go about making distinction a reality.
Look at the schools around you. In fact, look at any school and it is clear that few schools really change. They just trundle along making incremental year-on-year adjustments to their offering in the hopes of constructing a competitive advantage that will put space between them and their competition. Incrementalism is seldom a successful strategy.
When we ask a school if they are distinctive, we are seeking to understand how they believe they are different from the competition in the market they serve. But it is also a gentle way of asking if they are ready to succeed in their marketplace. Prospective parents are asking the same question. Increased choice, commoditisation of education and willingness to travel greater distances means parents are asking how your school will deliver value to their family, and ultimately create value in the life and future career of their child.
If all school ‘products’ appear the same to prospective parents and none seem to add particular value, then price often becomes the determining factor in their decision. All things being equal, tuition fees become the best indicator of how a parent will choose. Of course, every school Head will tell you that no two schools are the same and all things are not equal. But if the prospective parent, an unsophisticated buyer of education, cannot readily see and understand the difference, then price is often the only measuring stick they have left to use.
The same question also cuts in another direction. What if your staff do not know what sets your school apart? How do they know how to make the best choices to do their work well?
From imageseven’s experience, school Heads and Boards who recognise the changing education landscape see distinctiveness as a long-term answer to sustainability and success of their school. They believe that setting themselves apart from the competition is strategically valuable to their school and it speaks directly to the heart of vision, mission and leadership. But that doesn’t make it easier to pin down.
The 3Rs of distinction
It’s actually very easy to be distinctive. You could decide tomorrow that every staff member will wear bright orange uniforms. Trousers, skirts, ties and jackets, all orange. You would quickly become the best ‘orange school’ in your market, maybe even in the nation. As absurd as this idea is, many educators expect that distinctiveness lies in the visual, not the strategic or behavioural facets of education.
To help in your consideration of what makes your school distinctive, you can apply the 3Rs test. Any claim for distinctiveness that your school makes, or is considering as a candidate differentiator, should be assessed against the 3Rs criteria. For your school to be truly distinctive it must be real, rare and relevant. In other words, your school must be authentic, possess an attribute that is rare in your marketplace and offer something of value to prospective parents, students and staff. The 3Rs criteria is a useful tool to help you evaluate whether what differentiates your school from your competitors is strategically meaningful. Does it, or will it, deliver a competitive advantage over your competitors by making you distinctive among the prospective parents’ consideration set?
Keeping it real
Authenticity has always been important, but today’s generation of prospective parents are hyper-aware and quickly make a determination if they cannot see what you claim. To be authentic, it must be demonstrable. Purchasers of an education at your school are investing a great deal (whatever your fees) and will potentially experience your product 40 weeks per year for 13 years. They are also trusting the most valuable thing in their lives, their child, to you. Expect their authenticity radar to be on high sensitivity and sweeping 360 degrees for empty claims.
Making a claim for distinctiveness that does not survive scrutiny will waste the resources you value most: the time, money and trust of the people who are important to you. Attributes that are aspirational can be acceptable, and even desirable, to prospective parents, but they should be restricted to minor roles in your differentiator suite and be embedded in medium-term plans that are already into their execution phase.
The ‘keeping it real’ test also assesses whether your school can substantiate what you claim. Substantiation causes many Heads a great deal of consternation because they quickly feel the need to look for hard evidence that their claim is authentic. This leads to academic scores and sport championships as the only substantiation they can utilise. But schools are about a lot more than academics and sport. For example, character, community and connection are all ‘soft’ distinctives evidenced through the lives of students and can be substantiated by personal testimony of parents, students and staff, as well as interactions with students during open days and school tours.
Every day there are many ‘moments of truth’ in your school that prove you are what you say, and each interaction tests your authenticity. Having a rich collection of real examples on tap is essential to creating compelling communication and marketing that proves your school can deliver on its promise.
If what sets you apart can easily be reproduced by a competitor school now or in the foreseeable future, your potential distinctive can soon become just another parity comparison point. The elements that make your school distinctive may overlap with competitor schools, but you can still ‘own’ your chosen space in the minds of prospective parents by making your communications authentic, relevant and, perhaps most of all, consistent.
If your school is an early adopter of an educational trend, it is tempting to claim that the program or facility is distinctive. This can be dangerous because, if there is substance to the trend — think STEM — many other schools will be doing it in some form within a few years. If your implementation is legitimately distinctive in a meaningful way, consider communicating that aspect as a key differentiator rather than the generic program descriptor. As an example, “[Insert your school] makes STEM intensely practical. Every student is partnered with an industry expert who will mentor them through a real-world project each year.”
Make it relevant
What makes your school distinctive has to be relevant to prospective parents. If it does not present real value, then there is no point investing in its promotion. This criterion is the reason the ‘orange school’ example is immediately identified as absurd: it adds no value to the parent, student or staff member.
You must be prepared to dispassionately assess the audience that will be interested in your school now and in the future. If you cannot articulate why your offering is relevant to these prospective parents, then why should they choose your school? It could be that a number of strategies are required for different segments of your market. Perhaps one for the junior years and another one or two for the senior years. Objectively evaluating the value (perceived or real) from the prospective parents’ perspective may also cast light on what your school can stop doing.
Your recipe to create distinction
Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter wrote in Competitive Advantage (1985) that organisations compete using three generic strategies: cost leadership, focus and differentiation. There are only three forms of the differentiation strategy: product differentiation, price differentiation and service differentiation.
In schools, it is unlikely that the claim to be distinctive rests on any single factor or attribute. A mix of real, rare and relevant attributes is likely to be your recipe for meaningful distinction. These attributes should reflect and be in harmony with your school’s vision, strategy and objectives.
Distinctiveness is relative: it is defined in relation to other things. The reason you want your school to stand out is so that you are chosen rather than your competitor school. This means you will have a choice about who you will be compared with and what attributes you wish to be compared on.
If you cannot impact the design of your product or significantly control the price, your primary point of differentiation must become service.
- Creating distinction is an intentional act.
- It must be led by the school Head.
- Your distinctive should be real, rare and relevant.
- Your school’s distinctive will be your own mix of attributes.
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