Marketing Matters

How marketing can help tell your story and build community support.

By Brittany Edwardes Keil Last Updated: August 02, 2022

This article is even better when paired with the companion discussion guide.

We don’t have to tell you that for a while now public schools have had a bit of an image problem. If you’re like most districts, you’ve probably gotten a bad rap at some point in time. Negative headlines around test scores, mean comments on social media, and the local rumor mill can all take their toll, both on you and your brand.

When this happens, it can feel like combating the negative messaging is a distraction from your real work. After all, most people don’t actually know what happens on your campuses. And while that’s probably true, you also have a substantial role to play in communicating what goes on in your schools. If you’re not intentionally adding your district’s voice to the conversation, you’ll have little to no control over the narratives floating around about your schools.

So, what’s the solution? Actively sharing your district’s story by talking up your accomplishments and successes—big or small, day in and day out. You may not think of storytelling as “marketing”—but it’s actually the best kind. After all, marketing isn’t only flashy brochures and commercials, but rather the continuous story your district shares that defines who you are and where you want to go.

If you want your community to rally around the great work your schools are doing, you must consistently and creatively tell them exactly who you are. If you’re not telling your story, someone else will tell it for you. With the rising popularity of school choice and the increasingly challenging recruitment market for both teachers and students, it’s time to embrace proactive storytelling to shift how people think and feel about your district.

Anyone can be a marketer.

Hopefully, we’ve got you convinced that marketing should be on your radar—even if you aren’t able to afford a full-time staff member to take care of it. If you’re one of the hundreds of school leaders tackling marketing on their own, we’ve got ideas to help you lay the groundwork for marketing your district successfully.

First, let’s get clear on some terminology. It’s a common misconception that marketing is just another word for advertising: branded T-shirts, billboards, and pop-up ads. You might also confuse marketing with public relations: getting your district into (or out of) the local press. But advertising, branding, and PR are actually just pieces of an overall strategy. Marketing is the whole picture.

Marketing is the practice of influencing how people think and feel about a brand. Right now, people already have an opinion about your schools...but maybe not the opinion you wish they had. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

You could choose to be reactive: waiting until negative news surfaces in your community and counteracting it with an announcement or press release. Or, you could be proactive. You could tell the district’s story yourself. The first is just PR, but the second? That’s marketing.

Marketing aims to build your brand—to make your audience think about your schools the way you want them to.

But what’s a brand?

In simple terms, a brand is a symbol that represents your organization. Brands can be logos, names, images, or even people. Anything that represents your district is part of the district brand. But in a broader sense, your brand is your district’s reputation. The status of your brand is the way people currently think and feel about your schools.

Branding has always been about being distinct: setting oneself apart from the crowd. Starting with branding livestock, our ancestors recognized the necessity to differentiate themselves from one another, and understood that the imagery of their “brands” would eventually convey the quality or value of their products. Thousands of years later, companies distinguish themselves from their competition by branding their products with names, colors, and logos. When done well, brands have a lot of power to help companies and their products stand out from the crowd.

Take iPhones, for example. By this point, most smartphones have similar tech specs, cameras, and other features. However, iPhones remain astoundingly popular, even though they are pricey and aren’t as customizable as some of their competitors. Why is this? Because Apple has convinced us that they’re distinct—and that buying their products makes us distinct, too.

As a school district, you should be trying to cultivate that same differentiation or distinction: the sense that you’re unique and maybe even better than your community’s other education options. When the community hears your district’s name, you want them to feel something positive, something different from the way every other school or district makes them feel. To make that happen, you’ll need to determine which of your district’s qualities you want to emphasize most. If your district has a strong set of core values, this can be a great place to start.

But is my district all that different?

Let’s be honest for a second. Across the U.S., there are over 14,000 school districts, and that’s not even counting charter and private schools. In so many ways, these districts are extremely similar. They have the same basic goal—to educate students—and, generally speaking, they use the same methods to accomplish that mission. While there may be minor differences in strategy, a student who transfers from one school district to another is unlikely to face much confusion about the fundamental school experience.

But in the world of marketing, none of this really matters. It doesn’t matter if your school district isn’t different from any other; what’s important is that your district does what it brands itself on, and it does it well.

If you’ve ever seen the TV show Mad Men, this concept may seem familiar. In the pilot episode, the main character, Don Draper, is tasked with creating a marketing campaign for Lucky Strike Cigarettes. Draper asks the Lucky Strike executives to list the appealing qualities of their cigarettes,  and they name several, including that their tobacco is toasted. Draper uses this for their new slogan: It’s toasted.

The executives immediately object; their competitors toast their tobacco as well, they say. But Draper counters that it doesn’t matter, as long as Lucky Strike is the first one highlighting this feature. Oftentimes, people don’t know what they’re getting until you tell them.

While Don Draper is fictitious, the campaign itself was real. Lucky Strike really did adopt this slogan way back in 1917, and it was so successful that it’s still on the brand’s packaging today. Doubling down on this distinct quality set Lucky Strike up for monumental success, even though their products weren’t that different from their competitors’.

When it comes to your schools, this distinct quality could be a value that you especially pride yourself on or a program that you feel doesn’t get enough attention. Choose a strength to highlight and double down until it becomes part of what defines you—even if it isn’t totally unique to your district.

Take Centralia School District in Illinois, for example. Every spring, they spend a lot of energy marketing their May Fete. This annual spring festival has been held at their high school for over a century, complete with a May queen, student performances, and dancing around a maypole. While this tradition may sound unique to an outsider, many other districts in the area have equally storied May Fete celebrations. That doesn’t stop Centralia, though, from showcasing their event as a unique part of their brand. It doesn’t matter what other districts are doing—it matters that this tradition is precious to Centralia’s students and alumni.

What makes you distinct?

To figure out your distinction points, start by answering these two questions:

What do families in your district desperately want from their schools? You know what families in your particular community value. Maybe they appreciate a small-town feel, world-class football coaches, or innovative arts programs. But go beyond these concrete concerns to imagine more abstract wants and needs: safety,  diversity, or a sense that their child belongs. List everything a family’s ideal school would offer.

What does your district do really well? It might be a stellar STEM program, a promise of small class sizes, or exceptional teachers. Consider what really great things are going on in your district—even if there is some overlap with the districts around you.

Now, take a look at your answers. The intersection of what parents need and what your district does well is the sweet spot, the core message you’ll highlight again and again.

Market to build community.

Marketing has several purposes, and recruitment is always one of them, whether you’re recruiting students or teachers. However, marketing can also help you build up community investment. Even if your next bond campaign isn’t for years, a supportive community can be a game changer for your district.

People can’t be excited about what they don’t know.

It’s incredibly frustrating when your students’ families or other community members criticize your district—especially when it seems like they don’t have all the information. In reality, some people are going to have strong opinions formed by misinformation—or even malice—that you can’t sway or control. What you can do, though, is flood your community with positive impressions of your district—all centered around that core message we mentioned earlier. You have good stories to tell, so share them with as many of your stakeholders as possible.

A lot of schools get this right when it comes to athletics. Imagine your local high school won a state championship in basketball, but there were no banners, no parades, no press releases, nary a Facebook post. That would be a massive missed opportunity, right? School leaders understand how to talk about success when it comes to their sports teams. But why isn’t that same enthusiastic communication happening for all of your students’ successes?

As a school leader, it’s your job to communicate a narrative that captures your district’s multifaceted identity. This means sharing everything from academic achievements to pictures of kindergarten field trips.

Think about your district like an elementary teacher might think about their classroom. Many teachers love to showcase their decorations and activities on Instagram or TikTok. There’s a sense of pride in the learning that’s happening every single day, from small wins in student growth to the books being read during storytime. As simple as it is, that’s the type of content that your community can get behind.

When sharing content, think back to your core message and how you want to emphasize it. If you’re showcasing your district’s multiple paths to excellence, show your audience what that looks like in your district. The content you share is an illustration of your district’s values.

People want bang for their buck.

Think about the last time your district completed a bond-funded construction project. There’s something special about your community getting to see their tax dollars put to use in bricks and concrete. But why should that energy be reserved for a ribbon-cutting ceremony?

On the whole, people want to see how their money is being spent, not just after a capital campaign, but all the time. Public education is an investment, after all. So don’t be shy in showcasing what your students are up to! Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as too many updates. What’s more, parents want to know that their children are receiving an excellent education. They’ll enjoy the glimpses into your classrooms that only come when your teachers and administrators are comfortable with storytelling.

Again, think about athletics. Parents, alumni, even community members with no formal ties to your schools—everyone gets caught up in the excitement when the football team is on a winning streak. One reason for this is that there’s usually a lot of communication around the team’s success. You’re not hesitant to talk about it. Your students’ families love to hear about the programs that their kids are involved in—but outside community members want to be in the loop, too. After all, who doesn’t like to see the positive impacts of their tax dollars at work?

Your school is the heart of your local community. Even if you don’t live in a rural area where your community’s activities revolve around your district, your school matters deeply to the families and businesses who support you. You don’t have to wait for a championship game to get your stakeholders fired up about your students and teachers.

Don’t apologize for looking good.

Many school leaders hesitate to grandstand about their schools because they don’t want to come across as bragging. But it’s important to remember that talking about your successes isn’t about being “better than”—it’s about being the best you can be and highlighting your strengths, even if your district isn’t perfect. After all, what district is?

Private schools and (especially) colleges have a pretty solid understanding of this. These institutions never pass up an opportunity to talk about what makes them special. Nothing is too mundane to highlight, because every facet of their identities is part of the larger story they tell their prospective students and families. They know the value of creating and maintaining a narrative about their school, even when nothing extraordinary is going on.

Still, you don’t need a university’s budget to market like one. Once you’re in the mindset of always selling your value to your community and showcasing the small, beautiful moments happening in your schools, you’ll be on the right track.

Marketing can be internal, too.

When you talk about marketing your schools, there are going to be those who raise their eyebrows and express immediate doubt. Some of those negative voices may even be coming from your own staff. But time and time again, it’s been proven that finding creative and consistent ways to share your story with your community benefits everyone, from students and their families to teachers, administrators, and even community members without children. So how do you get your staff on board with your district’s marketing efforts? You encourage them to be part of the story you’re telling.

Getting your staff involved

When it comes to speaking for your district brand, no one has more power than teachers. After all, they’re the ones who handle most daily communications and serve as a child’s primary connection to school. So how do you turn your teachers into brand ambassadors—informed, passionate advocates for your district?

First, your staff can’t be on-message if they don’t know the message in the first place. Just like your audience, your teachers can’t buy into what they don’t know. When big decisions are made, make sure they are communicated internally before externally. You never want your teachers finding out about a change in policy from a Facebook post rather than from you.

This also means letting your teachers know when you want to get the word out about something. Say you want more students signing up for after-school programs. Getting teachers and staff on the same page will help them to reinforce that rallying cry.

Then, make sure your staff members can represent your brand with consistency.  Conduct brand trainings to teach your staff how to talk (or tweet) about your district. As your “boots on the ground,” they need to be using the correct school colors, logos, and language in their materials just as consistently as the district office. Remember: Every time your parents and students interact with your district’s brand—including their teachers—they should be taking away the same messages.

Highlighting teachers in your marketing materials, whether on video or in print, reinforces their expertise and builds their credibility—not to mention the district’s. Teachers become a part of the brand, giving them ownership over a facet of your marketing. What’s more, telling teachers’ stories on their best days provides your community a window into the amazing job your staff is doing.

Not every teacher will become an impassioned brand ambassador, and our research has shown that only staff members who feel strongly valued are likely to take that step. But with the right combination of information and engagement, they’re much more likely to promote your brand—even when they’re off the clock.

Think of your story as part of the whole.

If you were to walk through each of your district’s classrooms on any given day, chances are you’d see something inspiring, likely even several things. That’s because across the country, great things are happening in schools every day.

You probably already know what makes your district special—from the small actions happening in its classrooms to the broader role your district plays in your community. However, this good work risks not making it into the minds and hearts of your community unless you spread the word. If you’re reluctant to think of yourself as a marketer, it might help to think of yourself as a megaphone instead, amplifying all of the amazing moments happening in your district.

When you tell your story and show your school community who you are, you’re not just doing important work for your district’s reputation. You are also contributing to a broader positive perception of K-12 education. In every classroom, in every school, the magic is happening—why not shine a light on it?

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