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Schooled In The Trade

In this series of articles, Simon Moran looks at the issues involved in starting and running independent ESL schools.

September 25, 2013

Marketing

Although the title of this article is Marketing it’s not really as simple as that.

To get their message out and then get bums on seats, school owners have to consider the following: branding, marketing, advertising and sales.

So, what's the difference? Well, depending on who you talk to, and who’s trying to sell you what, the definitions will be different, and the edges will blur.

The name and logo should both be simple, memorable and reflect the brand. A brand is not just a logo, but when the logo alone does the job, it’s a job very well done.

Branding is all about creating an impression; it’s the creation of feelings about the brand that are not necessarily related to products and services, but about emotions, identity, purpose and experience. As Don Draper is fond of saying in Mad Men, ‘You drink the label, not the beer.’ Virgin fly planes, but also sell cola and finance. What does Virgin mean to you? A brand is a promise of quality and a certain lifestyle, and sets what you do apart from everyone else. The name and logo should both be simple, memorable and reflect the brand. A brand is not just a logo, but when the logo alone does the job, it’s a job very well done. The Nike swoosh is now a huge stand-alone licensing business. Your brand should be easy to remember, leave a positive feeling and convey a certain image. Brands can outlast a company’s products. Apple sell much more now than computers. The value of good branding? Priceless.

Marketing and advertising are often used interchangeably, but marketing is the larger process of communicating the value of products and services to consumers in order to sell, promote and distribute them. It entails market research and strategy to deliver new products, or more sales of existing ones, to gaps in the market the research shows up. Branding is part of that strategy, as is positioning – getting into a niche. The message is then delivered by promoting the brand, at times without anything specific to sell – think roadside billboards in the Arizona desert, hundreds of miles away from any shops, beaming out: Coke.

Advertising is the public announcement, often via mass media, of service or products, usually making them appear desirable and enticing consumers, and affecting their behaviour i.e. getting them to buy. It has also been defined as: ‘Interrupting what people are interested in with a commercial message about something they are not interested in.’ Once that interruption has been made, there will be a call to action. ‘Buy Now! Save 25%!’

Marketing, branding and advertising should all combine to lead to sales.

Sales, very simply, is the process of selling something – delivering products and services in return for payment, most likely with certain conditions in a certain sector of the marketplace.

So how does all this apply to English schools?

Before starting out you need to look at the market very carefully – what does it have, what is it missing, what gaps can you fill and how can you deliver? It may be as simple as just building it and waiting for them to come. Particularly for the independent school, you need to research the local market very carefully (see Where and How? In this series for more on this topic) and position yourself very carefully. Then stick to your guns or risk diluting your brand. If you brand yourself as a be-suited, bilingual, bicultural specialist tailoring one-to-one tuition, at a premium, to top executives going overseas, people might be surprised to see you in jeans and a t-shirt teaching $15 dollar Skype lessons in your down time.

We chose Modern English and our logo, a bus emerging from a target, as they reflected our outlook – we were teaching modern English in a modern way; the name of the product is in the name of the business, and the symbols are both instantly recognizable as being ‘foreign’ and therefore somewhat glamorous, but also convey meaning and proof of our product delivery. Anyone can ride a bus, and all are welcome; we will guide you though the often-complicated world of English, provide a driver and a map, and show you the targets you need to hit. This extends to slogans on our achievement certificates: Modern Kids Hit the Target! We give these and badges away, and our students, hopefully our raving fans, continue our branding and marketing for us as they leave the classroom.

In 15 years of advertising our products, the following forms of advertising have been our most successful, in order of greatest number of new leads at our head school: magazine ads, others, flyers handed out at the station, word of mouth, signs, regional magazines, web searches.

These figures are very useful, but don’t tell the whole story. Leads from regional and local magazines have gone down to virtually nil, as print media gradually moves online, and will be overtaken in time by flyers and web searches, with SNS also coming into play. Word of mouth – the best kind of adverting there is – can’t really be tracked efficiently. Although we have systems in place to encourage and track it through an official introduction and discount scheme, we actually get far more random recommendations than official ones, as people are happy to recommend our services – and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Perhaps ‘others’ is our greatest success. People are so well aware of us that when they call and are asked how they know about us, they don’t know. They can’t remember where or how they first heard about and know us – but they do. I don’t know where I know Coke from, but all the impressions they have put out have made a very big one on me.

Furthermore, we also do posting flyers, but they hardly register in our leads. That, too, only tells half the story – just because you don’t get any direct hits from a mailing shot, doesn’t mean it doesn’t make an impression, and as the cliché goes, and as any ad exec will tell you, I know that half of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.

There a lots of ways of doing marketing, branding and advertising cheaply. Get the name of your school on t-shirts and jackets and wear them all the time. Your local supermarket wouldn’t like you handing flyers out between the aisles, but probably wouldn’t ask you to remove a branded t-shirt. Similarly being in local parks hosting parties, visiting local shops and tradespeople, will all leave an impression.

The more daring may like to try some guerilla tactics, and there are some great books available on this subject. The main idea is to leave a good impression and get people talking.

Hand out flyers, have them posted, put ads in the local paper, in the Yellow Pages, put signs and flags outside your school and be sure to ask everyone who calls how they heard of you. Advertise a course or a sign-up period at a discount with a deadline – a call to action. ‘Join before October 10th and get one month free.’ This also means you’ll need someone to answer the calls and turn them into customers. This will have to be done in the local language and is a difficult skill.

You also need to make sure your services are not only excellent, but ‘sticky’ and continue to market to both your existing customer base and their friends and families outside. Don’t make it too difficult to leave, or people will resent you for it, but make it easy to stay within the service offering somehow – if all your students’ study records would be deleted on them leaving, they’ll think twice about doing so. Send out newsletters that give away something free, and mention your successes – show a photo of Akiko getting into a university in the US, or Daiki on his working holiday. Keep them all in the family.

We’ll look at how much to spend in more detail next time, in terms of cost of acquisition, expected revenue, etc, but if you’re not spending at least 6% of your gross income on advertising alone, you’re not spending enough. If I had three words of advice for the small school on a low budget? Flyers, flyers, flyers.

Next month: How to cost the business – start-up or buyout?



« Sign them up! | Main | Start-up or buyout? »

Comments

Hi Simon

Enjoyed the article, except for the bit at the end about spending 6%. I help run a medium eikaiwa school (single location, 200+ students) and we don't currently spend anything on advertising apart from running our website.

Close classes between September and February, and find 40% or so of our prospective students come from word of mouth, and 60% from web searches.

We're not really looking to grow, and I think we will hit capacity next year so not sure what the point of us advertising would be ;)

All the best

Hi Ben,

Thanks for the comments and congratulations on the school. I think this highlights how different locations and what people want can be. As the article says, it may be as simple as 'build and they will come.' Often it isn't, and advertising is necessary.

Either way, if your word of mouth or internet leads dry up - and in our experience, nothing ever stays the same for ever - let me know how the suggestions in the article work out for you.

All the best,

Simon

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