When working with Christian schools all over the country, one of the first things I hear from leaders or those involved in Christian education is, “we are the best kept secret!” While to some extent this is true, most often your school is known. The problem is what is known is not very significant. In fact, awareness, we often find, is a mile wide and an inch deep—and it is depth that gives potential customers enough knowledge to make a decision.
I’ve referred, in other blogs, to the fact that target parents are always comparing Christian schools during the search process. Your school has a position in that comparison process. That position is held either through a plan, by default, or by being active in the process of positioning your school. Obviously, we will never have total control over our position, but we can impact it considerably.
Brand positioning relates to moving and impacting a brand’s position. Positioning changes your position, but varies at different times and with different audiences. For example, a school may have one position at one stage of the search process and that may change during the process. Additionally, a school may hold a position in the minds of prospects in relation to other schools under consideration and that positon may be something that you want to change.
A school will have a complex brand position. Rarely is a school “that school” for just one feature or one type of student or one outcome. A school will be perceived as strong or weak in comparison to other schools. A school’s position will be based on academics, athletics, other co-curricular activities, parent make up, teacher reputation, facilities and many other features. However, we can’t impact how people will perceive our school until we know how we are perceived—what is our current brand position?
Testing your current brand position is critical, yet straightforward. The process involves asking some key groups questions about their own search process for school options. This is the target market that has to be tested. This group is analogous to “likely voters” in an election year – they are the ones you want to survey because their opinion matters. Asking those potential parents their views on your position will give you rich resources from which to draw and strategize.
When exploring your brand position with potential parents, it is essential to know where your school ranked in the search process. Were you first? Were you a fallback option? We also need to know what key factors were used in making the final decision. Once you know what mattered and why you were or weren’t chosen as an option by target parents, you can create a strategy to positon your school where you want to be positioned—or at least closer to where you want to be perceived. However, before working to move your brand position, there should be an honest evaluation of how accurate the perceived brand positon is. If it is accurate, one strategy will be needed, if it’s inaccurate, a different one will be needed, but most likely, a mixed and a multi faceted approach will be needed. If your perceived brand position is inaccurate, then marketing strategies can accomplish a lot. Drive the facts and watch how your brand positon changes. Track it. Monitor the impact of different strategies. Make adjustments.
However, if the brand positon you hold is based on accurate perceptions of who you are, then in order to hold a new position, you will need to make changes. You can’t be known as a boarding school if you don’t board students. Similarly, you can’t hold the brand position of the strong academic Christian alternative if the facts don’t back that up. Address the realities and then tackle positioning your school.
Finally, monitor, track, and have a feedback loop so that you are constantly testing the effectiveness of your brand positioning efforts and making necessary changes. Constant review gives you both current data and tracking info to monitor change. All of this is far different from the tradition of waiting and watching and accepting how you are perceived in the market even if that perception is inaccurate or not in your best interest as a school.
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.