Your brand: watch and act

Paul Teys was Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School for 15 years. SMJ talked with Paul about customer service and why he still reviews his school’s brand every year.

SMJ: What has been your career journey?
Right from my University of Queensland graduation, I made a commitment to independent schools. The ethos and the approach to their own autonomy appeal to me. I have been in independent schools for 37 years with 33 of those in middle and senior leadership. I moved from Fairholme College in Toowoomba to Moreton Bay College (an all girls school in Brisbane) via AB Paterson College and arrived at Hunter Valley Grammar in 2006. I’ve occupied most senior leadership positions — this was my second principalship and I’ve been a Principal for nearly 20 years.

SMJ: What is Hunter Valley Grammar School like?
PT: It is entrenched in the Hunter Valley region in East Maitland, with students coming from all over the Hunter Valley, Newcastle and further afield. It is part of the community with a cultural ethos that reflects that of the region. It’s a large campus with plenty of land, where students are generally relaxed and at ease with each other. They have their own space, place and time to be themselves. In terms of what can be achieved, I think it’s one of the better independent regional schools in New South Wales. More than ATAR results, its best work is reflected in the quality of its graduates. The school is K-12, coeducational with 1,100 students and 200 staff, and there is also an Early Learning Centre. At the time of writing [July 2020], we were at capacity; there’s been pressure to grow, but on this site and in terms of management of students and staff and leadership of the community, this is a good size where a Principal can still keep a close eye on all aspects of the operation.

SMJ: How did the pandemic alter your enrolments?
PT: We had this really interesting phenomenon. We had to cancel all the open days and there were no people coming onto the campus but we still had incredible enrolment demand. My Director of Enrolments suggested it may have had something to do with expats coming home, though I don’t know whether this is true. Another thing is that parents have had much more time to pore over what schools are saying about themselves and how they’re presenting themselves in the broader community. At Hunter Valley our mantra was to get kids back to school face-to-face teaching because that’s where you can look after all aspects of the child, the holistic child. Because we’re not in a city we were able to pretty much keep up with business as usual and I think we managed the parent expectation really well through the early days of COVID.

SMJ: Where does your awareness of brand and marketing come from?
PT: From working with my first Principal, Allan Faragher, at Fairholme College in Toowoomba and then at Moreton Bay College, I’ve always worked in independent schools where there’s been a strong competitive market. We’ve had to work hard for enrolments. They’ve all been schools that have had a particular niche or point of difference in the community. Each one of the Principals that I’ve worked with has instilled in me the need to understand marketing, brand recognition, a value proposition for your parents and customer service approaches to make sure parents are strong advocates for your school.

SMJ: How is your personal management style reflected in the school’s communications and marketing?
PT: We try to be positive, upbeat, tell good stories and make sure the communication is clear, decisive and succinct. It’s not onerous or long-winded — people don’t have to spend a long time reviewing our marketing material to get a perspective of our school. Any experience of the school is meant to be a rich and positive one, and I like to think that’s a reflection of the leadership I provide. At the end of the day, Principals in independent schools have got to make decisions and they’ve got to own those decisions. I like to consult and collaborate with individuals who can assist most in whatever it is we’re trying to solve, drawing in individuals who I think can give the most input. But once you’ve gathered all the intelligence, feedback and people’s understandings, you have to make decisions. Then it can be reflected in marketing, brand and image. That breeds confidence and surety in what the school is going to provide and offer to parents and their children.

SMJ: What prompted you to undertake a brand audit and what did you discover?
PT: I think there’s no question that the psychology of buying, and the appeal that schools or organisations offer to the customer or consumer, changes. So I felt it was important that we tested our brand, how well it was understood and how widely it was accepted. Was it really affiliated with our school and our school values? The first thing that came out of it, which surprised us, was the affirmation we got from our families about how strong our educational programs were, but that we weren’t selling them particularly well. There was a mismatch, a chasm, between what we were actually doing and what people in the wider community, who didn’t know us, believed we were doing. That was the most revealing part, that we had a great product but it wasn’t being expressed well.

SMJ: How did you and your team address the gap between marketing strategy and execution?
PT: By holding everyone accountable — but not in a punitive way — for the interactions they have with people, how they talk about the school, how they greet visitors, what they say in the community and what sort of communications they are giving out. The execution was all about having everybody on board and understanding the messages we had to deliver. But that only works so far. What we did know is that we had to get some quality, trained professionals onto our marketing and communications team — people who were qualified and had experience in the field. The understanding around social media, the marketing platforms, how you access the demography through algorithms and so on, you need expertise for that. And at the end of the day it takes leadership. You have to be able to cast a critical eye over every aspect of the operation. I had to be active in getting my hands dirty in working with teaching and non-teaching staff, running presentations to talk about what it is we do, our core messages and what our parents are expecting from us.

SMJ: How important is the customer experience to your strategy
PT: The experience of parents in our school, through personal interactions with staff, at events, the communications, valuing them as people and allowing them to have access to staff and provide feedback is vitally important because that’s our strongest marketing. The advocacy that parents provide to other parents about our school and any indicators around brand, parent alignment with brand and how they speak about the school, we rate extremely highly. You have to listen to those people who are interested in your school and take their feedback, whether it hurts or not, whether it’s affirming or otherwise. Because of our demography, we’re fortunate here that parents want quality outcomes for their children as graduates — a holistic outcome. That changed in my time at the School, because early on we struggled to compete on academic grounds. But we were able to manage the shift so that parents choose our school now because they know we care deeply about their child. Word-of-mouth brings interest in the school, then prospective parents come visit the school and see what other people are talking about. Once we get people onto site, we generally win them over easily.

SMJ: How do you engage parents and stakeholders?
PT: The first thing is getting feedback from parents in the enrolment interviews; I don’t know how many independent school Heads these days do all the enrolment interviews, but I still do for Year 7s. We also have formal surveys of parents every couple of years. Not just surveys about the parking or the homework loads, but about what level of trust and confidence they have that the school actually delivers what they thought it would. There’s no question it’s changed over the years. Initially in enrolment interviews I actually had to convince a parent that we were the right choice for their child. We don’t have to do that now because the whole marketing, public relations and messaging are aligned and people come to the door knowing they want to be part of this school community.

SMJ: How often do you believe you need to review your school brand?
What I’ve learned in education is that the 2020 Year 7 parent cohort will be different to the 2021 Year 7 parent cohort. You have to be constantly in tune with what your parent group wants, so your marketing and brand have to be reviewed annually. I see schools roll out the same messages like it’s a template. We don’t do that. There are a couple of other schools in our region who might do better than us academically, so we have to tell the richer stories about what the students are going on to do. It’s an annual cycle of reflection. Even if you’re comfortable with the brand you’ve got, you should test it because your community might not be comfortable with the messaging. Another thing is that if you’ve got a turnover of support, operational and teaching staff, there are all those people every year who have to be inducted into the brand and how you deliver it. I don’t think there can be any complacency around how your school is viewed in the wider community, even a school with strong waiting lists.

Insight applied

  • Reflect your community in your culture.
  • Test your brand and test it often.
  • Add experience and expertise to your team.
  • Your current parents are your best advocates.

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