The term “positioning” has been used by Ries and Trout (1972) in marketing for at least 14 years, ever since it was popularized by Trout and Ries. The idea of positioning has attracted the attention of management of the organizations and has been applied to consumer products.
Once considered the sole purview of global corporations and consumer product giants like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Toyota, and Disney, the concept of branding is coming of age in financial services, health care, nonprofit organizations, government, professional services, and even (gasp) education. While talk of market share, media budgets, brand strategy, positioning, and other common marketing terms still give many school board members and superintendents the willies, the fact is that public education can learn a lot from successful brands.
Widely viewed today by many taxpayers, business leaders, and elected officials as inefficient, ineffective, and bureaucratic, public education is losing its once-noble brand position as the cornerstone of American democracy. “The first problem is the name; it’s called public education,” says marketing guru Laura Ries, who has coauthored four books on branding.
“The perception out there is that anything run by the government is lousy. That may not be the way it is, but anything that is government-run is seen as big, inefficient, many times ineffective, and not as wellrun as the private sector.”
More than just a logo, theme, or color scheme, great brands own a unique attribute or position in the mind of consumers. It’s easy to test this proposition. Name a favorite brand and see what pops instantly to mind.
Now say “public education,” “ABC Senior High School,” or “XYZ School District” and see what happens. What words and images come instantly to mind? Contrast those results with the names of the most prestigious private schools in your area, and you begin to see why brands matter.
Taking a cue from private schools and well-endowed universities, public schools and districts may want to consider name changes that convey a special focus or emphasis on academic excellence, Ries says. Generic school names like North, South, East, and West do little to spark the imagination or position the school as an academic leader in the minds of prospective students and their families.
“Names are very important in branding, and so often the names for public schools are chosen haphazardly or without much thought at all,” says Ries, author of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding and The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding. “Many of the fancy names used by private schools are infinitely more powerful, and give people an ability to talk about them in a way that sounds much better.”
Charter schools, despite the fact that they have produced mixed results in terms of their actual academic achievement, appeal to parents and business leaders because they tend to have a unique focus and are viewed as being free of the bureaucratie taint associated with traditional public schools, according to Ries.
“People always feel a specialist is better than a generalist,” says Ries. “Public schools need to find ways to focus on one thing, on one word they can own in the mind of the consumer that no one else can own.”
One way in which public schools can build a better brand is to rally behind an outspoken leader who personifies the brand and unites the community around the importance of public schools.
“When Bill Gates talks about the future of the tech industry, people listen because Microsoft is such a big global brand,” says Ries. She notes that few people outside the field of education know who Margaret Spellings is-or care, given the political nature of the position. “Who speaks for public education? One of the problems is that there’s no one leader for this industry.”
It is true that school board members and school superintendents may not be able to solve the lack of visible leadership which exists at the national level. However, it is also true that they can-and should-spend more time on public school advocacy.
“Many times school administrators spend most of their time getting the organization running smoothly instead of working on the public perception of their school district,” says Ries. “While that is certainly understandable, having a highly visible spokesperson promoting public education is very important on multiple levels. A powerful, well-known leader can make a brand believable and keep everyone on course.”
Restoring credibility, rebuilding trust, and reclaiming public education’s brand position requires public relations, not advertising, Ries says. “Most people, when they hear any words like branding or marketing, only think of advertising. We don’t recommend advertising for a brand that’s trying to establish itself unless you have a credible message. What you really want to drive is public relations (PR).”
Giving speeches, publishing opinion pieces, connecting with community groups, and developing close, working relationships with reporters can help make school leaders-and the brand they represent-respected household names. Public relations, whether by word of mouth or in print, provides critical third-party endorsements that help build credibility.
“First, you have to do something, then you have to verbalize it, and then you need to do PR to get people to talk about it,” Ries says. “The difficult thing is not the idea but the verbalization of the idea, and then sticking to that turn of phrase that articulates the message and keeps it relevant.”
More than a decade into the standards and accountability movement, where data drives decisions and public policy, it’s ironic that facts often don’t matter when it comes to public perception. Take Volvo, for example: Volvo still owns safety in the minds of most consumers, even though a Volvo model didn’t make the top 10 in a recent automotive industry study that ranked the world’s safest cars.
Doing Better Job
For weak brands, as in the case of public education, the opposite is true: Research studies consistently show that public education is doing a better job with more students than ever before-so why do so’ many think public education is failing in this country?
Factoids and statistics don’t change minds. Research shows that consumers seek out information that reinforces an existing position, and that they filter out data that contradicts firmly held beliefs.
“Using one verbalization, and sticking to it, is better than trying to get it perfect,” says Ries. “If the numbers don’t match the perception, they’re not going to do you any good.”
In order to make an effort to counteract this problem, educators need to focus on positioning more than facts, telling stories and using emotion to drive home key concepts and ideas. Testimonials from successful graduates, satisfied parents, and highly credible community leaders will resonate more with information-weary consumers than charts, pie graphs, and 45 slides of mind-numbing data.
Brands are powerful because they represent a promise to the consumer in terms of consistency and quality. How many times in the past have you gone to a McDonald’s while you were traveling because “you know what you’re going to get?”
When it comes to the subjects of your schools or district, do parents know what they’re going to get? Are you delivering the same high-quality education to each and every child who attends?
I’m OK, You’re Not
The lack of consistency is part of what’s driving the “my school’s OK, public education isn’t” phenomenon, according to Ries. “The result of a weak brand is that consumers’ personal reactions may be different, but they can’t verify that their experiences are shared by others,” she says.
Defining your school or district’s brand promise-the one thing your students, parents, teachers, and other key groups can count on time and time again, and want to be a part of-is just the first step. According to Interbrand, a global brand marketing firm, the world’s most successful brands are characterized by consumer recognition, consistency, emotion, and uniqueness.
This is the reason that educators should stick to one theme or message consistently over a long period of time, rather than creating new tag lines, logos, and color schemes every year.
Collateral materials, websites, PowerPoint presentations, voice mail messages, e-mail signatures, fax cover sheets, automobile stickers, e-mail newsletters, and speeches all represent moments of truth for your brand image and message. When colors, fonts, formats, and other design elements change every time that a new piece is produced, your brand power diminishes.
It’s hard enough for public schools to cut through the clutter which is created by today’s advertisers without adding to the confusion through inconsistency and poor definition. Changing perception-the heart and soul of branding-represents a long-term investment.
“You’re not going to be able to combat the perception that our schools are failing, or that private schools are better, by running an ad campaign,” says Ries. “You’re going to have to get out there and promote the idea that public education is better than we think.”
The bottom line of the entire situation is this: Public education won’t survive without public support. It’s time for public education to reclaim its brand position as the world’s great equalizer, the place where the American dream takes root.
The movement away from product-driven and toward image advertising might have been heralded as early as 1981, when two advertising executives, Al Ries and Jack Trout, published their best-known work, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (McGraw Hill, New York). Trout and Ries defined positioning as “the communication activities necessary to alter the conception about a product or an organization that is held by a prospect.” Ries and Trout urged their readers to “oversimplify” their messages in order to cut through the “over-communications” occurring in American life.
While their approach was persuasive, it took the convergence of several major trends to move financial industry advertisers away from the concept of advertising that sells products and into a new focus on positioning through brand imagery.
First among these trends is the advent of the superregional financial services company. As more financial services institutions like Bank One and Norwest enter new markets, they need to establish their identity among their new customers and prospects. Often they are looking for a quick way to establish themselves as part of the local financial services community. Selling services can come later.
Increasing the urgency is the name change which often accompanies the expansion. That was the reasoning behind the NationsBank prime-time, major network placement on New Year’s Day. The TV commercial was designed to introduce the new name adopted by NCNB in the wake of its merger with C&S/Sovran. No products sold–just NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl establishing the behemoth’s new identity.
The name, NationsBank, itself marks a swing in taste. In the early days of consolidation, merged banks usually retained identities. Early attempts at forceful name changes, such as that which occurred after Mellon Bank’s takeover of Girard Bank, were often accompanied by public relations disasters. More often, as in the Fleet/Norstar combination, the names of the constituent banks were left inviolate.
When banks which were to be combined decided to merge identities, a new, often artificial, name was created to soothe feelings. That trend may have died when C&S and Sovran Bank created, then abandoned, “Avantor” as the name of the new company. More recently, acquired banks are likely to adopt the new parent’s name–with an attendant marketing splash.
In addition to the growth of the superregional, a second contributing trend is the growth of product management and, with it, decentralized control over advertising budgets. The result of dividing the advertising budget pie into micromanaged slices has led to an inability to mass the dollars needed for major media campaigns. Often, even when the marketing director is able to obtain agreement on joint budgeting for that purpose, it’s difficult to obtain consensus on advertising content.
Although some marketing directors were unwilling to speak on the record (another symptom of the fragility of some of these budgetary alliances), several acknowledged the trend. One state coordinator for a midwestern-based superregional put it this way: “Even when I get a few departments to agree to a major advertising expenditure, I can almost never get agreement on what to put in the ads. As a result, I fall back on name recognition and let each (department) do their own thing with their own budgets.”
“Doing their own thing with their own budgets” is another part of the phenomenon. Take, for example, a recent baskethall game between Indiana University and the University of Kentucky in Indianapolis’ Hoosier Dome. Bank One’s logo was visible throughout the stadium–on banners adorning the press table and festooning the upper decks, on the basketball court itself and on chair backs at court side.
Sidney P. Cook, senior vice president/director-marketing for Bank One, Indianapolis NA, points out that the branding or positioning of the Bank One name at a high-profile basketball game supports other nontraditional advertising vehicles such as more targeted micromarketing and direct mail, for example.
“Once we establish the name of the bank through programs like the Hoosier Classic, we find a greater acceptance of our direct mail programs,” says Cook. “They’re a terrific combination.” The combination, he maintains, is more cost-effective than reliance on media advertising alone, and using direct mail allows the bank to do more with less.
Doing more with less, and doing it differently, is still another major thread in the new advertising reality. Most marketers responding to a poll fielded by the Chicago chapter of the American Marketing Association (AMA) late last year said that dollars channelled away from traditional broadcast and print advertising will never return.
In their report on the study, the chapter revealed that nearly two-thirds of the respondents said that advertising dollars have been “permanently reallocated to other areas such as database marketing, direct mail and telemarketing.”
Enchantment with these high-efficiency techniques is only part of the story. Disenchantment with traditional media plays a role as well. The changing habits of media-hungry Americans has been well-chronicled.
First, there is the demise of the afternoon newspaper. When the Dallas Times-Herald ceased publication last December, it left in its wake only a handful of major markets with an afternoon edition. Commuters’ moving out of public transit and into automobiles and the popularity of early evening TV news are the two trends most frequently blamed for the demise of the afternoon editions.
It is also true that advertising revenue had been sharply reduced as major retail chains consolidated and airlines filed for bankruptcies, thus depriving newspapers of a large chunk of anticipated revenue. However, it was the steep drop in readership that ultimately did the afternoon papers in. The survivors report fewer readers–in some markets, as much as 60% of the households do not get a home-delivered newspaper, according to the admittedly biased Radio Advertising Bureau.
Retailers have never been as significant to the electronic media as they have been to print, but drive-time radio and network television are having their own problems–despite the popular wisdom that auto-bound commuters are listening to the radio and that, with no afternoon newspaper to read, the commuter turns on the television as soon as he reaches home.
On the contrary–new technology in audio systems has increased the range of choices available to the listener. With cassette, CD players and personal stereos available at increasingly lower prices, fewer commuters are tuning in to the radio.
Radio stations have also changed into a narrowly programmed, highly specialized outlet that forces advertisers to “buy the band” in order to reach a mass audience. As budgets contract, buying the band becomes a less-desirable option. But all of that is nothing compared to what’s happening in front of the television. As one market researcher who responded to the AMA poll said, “Advertisers and broadcast media don’t want to discuss it, but zapping, zipping and muting are so prevalent that broadcast advertising dollars are a poor marketing value nowadays.”
Zapping and zipping are terms of the VCR age –a byproduct of our ability to tape the shows we want and to watch them at our convenience, often eliminating the commercials. Add that to the glut of cable TV options, 105 channels in some markets, and it’s no wonder that advertising strategists are looking for more personal ways to get the message into the home.
At one time, according to industry experts, 93% of U.S. homes watching television were tuned to either CBS, NBC or ABC and were watching the show while it aired. Now media professionals calculate that fewer than 60% of TV watchers are tuned to the three major networks. The house’s TV sets (often as many as four or five) are still on, but they are just as llkely to be tuned to the newer Fox network, to a cable TV outlet, such as ESPN, MTV or one of the Home Shopping Networks, or, increasingly, to the external mode watching rented movie or a previously taped show or event. One of the sets, by the way, is likely to be connected to a Nintendo game.
The growth of cable has helped some advertisers, such as local banks. Advertising on cable outlets is less costly than advertising on network television, and cable stations usually provide a more targeted audience. Sheldon Weiss, director-marketing of Leon Shaffer Golnick Advertising, a Fort Lauderdale-based producer of syndicated TV advertising, says that the growth of cable has helped his business and his clients.
In general, national magazines have always played a minor role in most banks’ advertising budgets. With the exception of packages assembled by Magazine Networks, Inc., the reach of a typical magazine far exceeds that of a bank. Still, it should be noted that the malaise of the media has not left “slick print” unharmed. Many titles have ceased publication in the last two years, and others are much thinner than before.
The net result of all of this change has been a bleak outlook for the media, rolling readjustments on Madison Avenue and, in some cases, a determined rear guard action.
Typical of the outlook was the New York Times’ recent shareholders’ report, for example. The company suggested that newspaper advertising linage might have peaked early in the 1980s, and it could not project a return to those levels in the foreseeable future.
The layoffs taking place at major advertising agencies may have been caused, in part, by the late-1980s consolidation wave that hit that industry in the face of major acquisitions by the UK-based Saatchi brothers and Martin Sorrell. Whatever the reason, there is no question that the industry is losing jobs. Major agencies are cutting back and smaller ones are closing. And like the proverbial dominoes, suppliers to the industry are feeling the shock wave. For example, recent cutbacks announced at Birch-Scarborough, one of the leading broadcast rating agencies, were triggered by a decline in subscribers, most of whom had been advertising agencies.
As might be expected, TV and radio stations have been cutting both staff and advertising rates, as have newspapers, reversing a decade-long trend of escalating media costs. Network news bureaus are closing, and local stations are covering less, relying more on feeds from syndicated news broadcasts.