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The future of school marketing

By G. Balasubramanian

If someone had asked me to author an article on this title four decades ago, I would not have been ready. The schools found their value by the trust they earned from the community and the way positive messages flowed by word of mouth from one stakeholder to another. The profile of the teachers of an institution, the kind of leadership sent immensely powerful messages about the ethos of the school and triggered the appropriate demand for them. Every institution, whichever level they were catering to, created an institutional aura around them which gravitated people from far and near. No external inputs contributed either to the design or the development of such an aura. The words ‘School” and “Marketing’ were indeed considered an anti-thesis to each other. Education was considered as sacrosanct, an exclusive human endeavor and a vital social obligation of a community, a State, or a country. The role of philanthropists working for education as a divine commitment and as a spiritual exercise was visible. Family and community counselling to individuals provided the much-needed counsel for the choice of the institutions, though they operated in a small universe.

Some factors that impacted the thought architecture of education during the last few decades are:

a. Declining philanthropy

b. Increased demand for institutions

c. Consumerist attitudes for professional branding

d. Projected inferior quality of state-run institutions

e. Declining passion and commitment from the teaching community

f. Derailing education through competition to certification

g. Poor investment and allocation to education by Government

h. Increased glorification of private institutions for profits

In the last two decades, the concept of school marketing has gained grounds as a profitable business venture with a number of business and market strategies being positioned and applied to the educational ecosystems.

The following instruments were used for effective marketing in a progressive manner:

1. The institutional infrastructure

Though the quality and quantity of institutional infrastructure is a vital component for delivering effective, meaningful, and organized educational inputs for long, the expanse of infrastructure and its grandeur, was used as a gravitational force to ‘make believe’ the quality of education. While it did create a fascination, a purpose, and a comfort zone among the affordable, there was no correlation between the expanse of infrastructure and the performance profile of these institutions. The quality of infrastructure was used as a marketing tool to expand the area of its operation from near to far. Though in many cases, such an infrastructure could have facilitated access to a larger population, the costing reduced the access and affordability of such institutions. In respect of those who had the access, these inputs more scope for variety of experiences which were not necessarily related to the quality of education they provided.

2. The cost of education

Over a period, the enhanced cost of entry and sustenance in institutions was used as an effective tool for gravitating a market of those who could afford. Exclusive privileges offered to the comfort of the learners, starred facilities for food and beverage supplies, external coaches for scaffolding experiences, inclusion of branded members of the community on Board, extravaganza in performances to populate the media provided the much-needed ground for influencing and targeting an audience. Further, creation of fantasies about the quality of learning did not fail to impress a mass which were waiting for such experiences whatever be the cost. The privilege to be mentioned as a student of such an institution was immensely gratifying to a community of elite. As such, many considered the referential cost of schooling as their brand value and input to their brand image. However, there was no correlation between the quality these institutions provided and the impact they made among all its frontline customers.

3. Modeling the patterns

Modeling the patterns of other countries to create a magic spell of difference between the local and the global became another effective tool for institutional marketing. The projection of a global reach to every learner or at least an exposure of global trends to local experiences did help many institutions to grow, survive and develop. This trend gathered a huge momentum among the tier-2 levels of cities and institutions as an oasis in a thirsty landscape. While such an advocacy was warranted to some extent for a progressive nation to remain aware, alert, and appropriate in a universal context, the advantage taken by a number of mediocre business adventures to turn it to profitability without any meaningful inputs was quite evident. With no questions being raised about quality in such largely private endeavors because of decline in quality delivery of state sectors due to messy political interventions, the institutional marketing opened its wings to a newer level. The number game played in other market operations found their way with many market statisticians counting increase in population by hours. In a few cases, the professional life of the school leaders was decided by these numbers.

4. The Name Game

Once when I walked down the lanes of a populated city watching the name of an international primary school providing an international brand of education, I landed up at the three bed-room apartments of a multistorey building with two youngsters running a small school. Naming of the schools as ‘international’ ‘global’ ’world’ and other adjectives became a fancy. While the intent of many of such enterprises are neither questionable nor challenged, the advantage taken by a large number of players to play with such names to catch the emotionally turbulent audience was something which was neither controlled by regulation nor population. Interestingly, many institutions who had established their credibility and quality in their environment got trapped to this idea of starting parallel institutions with such nomenclature, which possibly was for better financial access to get out of strong regulatory procedures. In doing so, some of them liquidated their existing profile.

5. The window dressing

Window dressing of the institutions with recent technologies and appliances provided another gateway to effective marketing. A number of institutions did provide access to technologies like computers, smart boards, and robot labs. Well, such interventions were indeed necessary to modernize thinking and to enhance learning opportunities to newer levels of achievement, in a large number of cases, they were not supported by experts, resources and trainers who would do a reasonably decent job. At one end, they were not available in the market and at the other end, they were adequately empowered. Positioning innovative technologies with their existing empowered staff did not give the adequate result because of skill mis-match and the situation continues. The mismatch between the availability and their effective use will be a problem to be dealt with for some more time. However, they do help as progressive institutional marketing tools.

The Challenge

The impact of Covid 19 has psychologically impacted the social dynamics world over and sg strategies adopted over the decades are likely to get challenged. The hybrid models of schooling, the blended approaches to pedagogy, the financial constraints in running and management of huge institutions with lower profit ranges and changing work-life patterns demanding safer domains of operations for preventive health - are some of the reasons which might affect the current operating strategies in the institutional marketing. With more compromises to their own needs for quality, with wider web access to information and acquisition of knowledge, with personalized online training available at doors, the number game will become more terrifying. Market strategists with institutional marketing might have to put their ideas into newer and unfamiliar paths for experimentation.

The Future of School Marketing

With increasing intensity of personal and social emotions, the nucleus of the future marketing will be to engage with ‘the emotions’ of the clients to gain an advantage. However, such engagements should be based on trust building exercises. The existing mismatch between brand images and brand identities of institutions would call for a lot of homework to be done by the people concerned. Building an emotional equity among the clientele would be a great challenge to ensure both the sustainability and growth. Possibly newer models of access, inclusion and sustainability of the audience have to be strategized. As emotions and equity grow together complementing each other, personalized customer modeling might have to be developed. Holistic strategies which would cater ‘freedom to learn’ ‘anytime anywhere learning’ ‘institutional reach exercises’ ‘time-bound’ or ‘periodic’ support models as marketing strategies might have been debated. While the future of institutional marketing opens a variety of opportunities for crictical and creative thinking, it does demand a quicker and safer transit from the current models. The acknowledgement of ‘learning gaps’ even among learners seeking admission to global institutions like Harvard and their willingness to review the processes is a case in the point.