This article is the part of a series examining popular business concepts as they (might) apply to schools. This piece has a particular focus on marketing. Should strategy be led by the school (the ‘product’) or by the parents (the ‘market’)?
Before deciding on marketing activities, schools (and businesses) must make choices about marketing strategy.
At a very broad level, this involves considering the balance between focusing on the school’s current offering, a product/asset-orientated approach, or the parents, a market-orientated approach.
For most schools, the starting point for marketing activities are its ‘assets’ — the school’s brand, location, the quality of its facilities and staff, examination results, university destinations, and the reputation of alumni etc. It is these strengths that will most often be proclaimed and celebrated in marketing literature.
A product-led (sometimes known as asset-led) approach takes the company’s assets (its brand name, production capabilities or staff expertise, perhaps) as the basis of marketing activities. It then looks for a market that allows it to fully exploit (‘sell’) these assets.
A primary advantage of this approach is that product-led marketing can become self-perpetuating. The more one promotes the brand, the stronger the brand becomes; the more one focuses on promoting the quality of staff, the greater the reputation for staff quality; the stronger the school’s reputation for academic excellence, the higher quality of student it attracts.
The approach is also cheaper. In essence the school is doubling-down on what it already does well — and making sure it tells parents/the market about it.
The downside, of course, is that the school’s strengths may not be what the market wants; especially if the school is resting on its laurels and standing still. A cliched example perhaps, but a school that is expert at (now largely debunked) ‘learning styles’ can tinker all it wants with that approach, but strategically its akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
In contrast, a market-orientated approach begins with the market — what is it that parents want the school to offer/be good at.
A market-led approach considers first and foremost the needs of customers, adjusting what the business does to meet those needs.
A school would determine what products (curricula, activities, type of teacher and facilities etc.) meet parental/student needs and would seek to offer those.
Taken to the extreme, this approach would ignore the school’s strengths, suggesting instead that the school should follow the market. So, in a purely market-orientated approach, an American curriculum school might start to offer the International Baccalaureate or perhaps even British A-Levels, if that is what the market demanded.
The danger is, of course, that the school has no expertise or credibility in these spaces. The risk (and cost) of changing will be significant. The school would need to be very confident in its market research before committing to the change.
However, if the school was able to pivot its position (marketing-speak for shifting strategic emphasis), building the operational capacity to effectively meet the needs of the market, it may be more successful over the long-term. The American school successfully offering an IB programme may (eventually) have both product strength and market alignment — or, in marketing speak, product-market fit.
Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.
(Andreesen, M., The Only Thing That Matters)
Product-market fit doesn’t guarantee long-term success, but a lack of product-market fit does guarantee long-term failure
FROM BLACKBOARD TO BOARDROOM
In practice, product-led and market-led approaches need not be mutually exclusive and neither should be considered ‘better’; most schools (and most businesses) blend both approaches.
So, why does any of this matter?
The answer, as is often the case, is the value of reflection.
Reflecting on where a school might better promote its assets, or where it might better respond to the market (to parents), is an important component of marketing strategy.
And, in increasingly competitive markets this matters. In some markets, it matters a lot.
Competition is requiring that schools adopt, at least to some extent, market-orientated approaches. Even if this does not extend to rebranding, relocating or reimagining the curriculum offering, schools still need to respond to the market. A school may need to offer certain activities, it may need to have certain facilities and it may need to moderate its curriculum in line with parental/student needs (offering certain subjects for example).
A school’s core strengths should form the basis of a reflexive marketing strategy which listens to parents’ needs. These needs may not always be responded to, but they should be part of the conversation. Business guru Tom Peters famously said that you should ‘stick to the knitting’ (stick to what you do best). Sure, but you also want to make sure you are knitting the right thing.
It would be a useful exercise to reflect on the extent to which your school is product- or market-orientated. How does this positioning play out in marketing strategy? What are your school’s strengths? Are you telling parents about them? And, in return, what are parents telling you your strengths SHOULD be?