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March 7, 2010

Making Schools Work – Build Brand

by Chris Lindholm

This is one in a series of posts focused on answering that question called "Making Schools Work." 

At the core of a successful democracy lies a public education system that makes sure the ruling majority is knowledgeable, grounded in unifying values and principles, and mentally competent to make decisions on behalf of the common good.  In direct tension with this, our founding fathers constructed an open market economy grounded in competition and "survival of the fittest" principles.  The positive tension between these two entities carves out the daily miracle we refer to as America – and puts public school leaders in the middle of that tension every single day.  We in public education have never faced more real competition, and we who understand that a successful public system is key to keeping America working also understand that failure is not an option.  So… how do we make our schools work? 


Building Brand is Key

Education leaders must learn how to build brand in the 21st century.  The simple and historically true assumption that students attend the public schools in their district is no longer a safe one.  While venturing into education opportunities overseas or through an on-line platform hundreds of miles away is far more prevalent in higher education and for profit business, k-12 schools are certain to be impacted in a similar way as the trend increases.  The pull is simply too great.  Those who can afford opportunities that look attractive from the outside will go after them – because they can.  The natural question we have to answer is – "why is it better to go to your school?" 

Building brand is not a new leadership concept to public education, but the stakes are higher today.  Leaders have faced the need to build brand for decades as public support for what schools do is critical to politically tied revenue streams and building a culture of school pride that cultivates success.  The competition in past years has been the amoebic beast of convincing the public that their investment of money is a wise business deal and their investment of energy is crucial for the development of successful programs.  21st century dynamics make these variables even more challenging and add the key variable of competition from online schools, private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and public schools utilizing 21st century tools.  Leaders today have a much larger retired population to target with district communications (see footnote), work with a public far less devoted to a particular geographical community, and must now convince those were "assumed to be on board," to attend the school in their community.  We must build a brand that is attractive to 21st century students (inside the district AND from afar), a brand that cultivates buy-in from retired baby boomers, and a brand that demonstrates incredible return on investment for all parties.  Public schools must build a brand that takes advantage of 21st century dynamics – not one that resists them. 

Building brand in the 21st century requires sophisticated, strategic communications.  A quick run through blog posts and Twitter accounts focused on marketing, media advertising, or political polling reveals a private sector willing to pay incredible amounts for good counsel on how to build brand in today's market.  Rumor in the blogosphere today shows that some companies are willing to pay Chris Brogan, writer and consultant on marketing and business communications using on-line tools, upwards of $22,000 per day for his expertise.  Their argument?  $22,000 spend now will generate 10x that in revenue if his counsel is heeded and followed through upon.  Public school leaders may be wise to follow some aspects of this school of thought.  A well orchestrated communication strategy utilizing 21st century tools – especially if supported by online, flexible education services aligned with 21st century family needs – may very well be the key component to increasing enrollment (and revenue) in the coming years.  It seems crazy in a time of cutting, but real success for public schools in the next 25 years will come to those who invest in 21st education delivery systems and communication strategies. 

Jim Collins speaks to building brand in his monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors.  "Whereas in business, the key driver in the flywheel is the link between financial success and capital resources, I'd like to suggest that a key link in the social sectors is brand reputation – built upon tangible results and emotional share of heart – so that potential supporters believe not only in your mission, but in your capacity to deliver on that mission" (p 25).  Building significant brand reputation in the 21st century requires public school leaders to be strategic communicators using Web 2.0 tools.  Afterall, failure isn't an option. 

**Footnote: In the United States, the population 65 and older will more than double by 2050, rising from 39 million today to 89 million. While children are projected to still outnumber the older population worldwide in 2050, the under 15 population in the United States is expected to fall below the older population by that date, increasing from 62 million today to 85 million.  Source: US Census Bureau News Release, June 23, 2009


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