How to write a marketing strategy

How do you define your school’s values and communicate your passion and purpose to achieve results? Marketing expert Justin Smith explains


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Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care’. When it comes to defining your marketing strategy, this should sit at the heart of how you think and what you do.

Some of us work in primary schools in rural communities, others within MATs in urban conglomerations, but we share the same commitment to do the best we can for our pupils. It’s easy to forget this when labouring over strategic approaches to income generation or devising cunning new ways to engage on social media!

Let’s define ‘marketing

What do we mean by marketing in the education arena? There are many definitions but my favourite is by Davies and Ellison (1997): ‘The means by which the school actively communicates and promotes its purpose, values and products to the pupils, parents, staff and wider community.’ Ask yourself, do you really understand your school’s purpose and values?

There are many who doubt the value of marketing our schools. And if we indulge in ad-hoc and wasteful campaigns then we deserve to invite scepticism. On the other hand, if we’re clear on what we’re looking to achieve and are able to demonstrate a return on our investment, then we have nothing to shy away from and the results can be hugely positive.

It is important to have a strategic plan that can be properly costed and evaluated. It’s equally important to get away from thinking of marketing as an isolated activity (an advert, a poster) – marketing is something that all stakeholders should be aware of and appreciate.

Students, staff, parents and governors should be thought of as ‘brand ambassadors’ – engage with them and they can be very powerful advocates of your school. Avoid the natural knee-jerk reaction to issues and instead deploy an approach that sits alongside the over-arching school improvement plan. Placing adverts in your local newspaper is the cherry on the cake (so to speak!), whereas school leaders should look for the cake ingredients first – defining key messages, providing clarity on your brand identity and understanding your purpose. Your marketing plan should address some or even all of the following:

  • Define brand and values and promote key messages.
  • Manage your school’s reputation – reinforcing or modifying?
  • Attract and retain the best staff – talented staff drive up standards.
  • Communications, PR, media and crisis management.
  • How to sustain or recruit more students – why your school? Key messages and USP.
  • How to attract funding and support – sponsors, funders, commercial engagement. Aligning of values.
  • Engage with former students.

I often refer to ‘Start With Why’ from Simon Sinek’s TED Talk. Simon extols the virtues of defining your ‘why’ and articulating this to your community, rather than focusing purely on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. This works for us in education, as we operate in an emotive, human-centric environment – the language and tone we choose is critical in connecting with our audiences.

Astute school marketeers should also recognise the part that culture has to play. But how can we measure and define our culture? One way is to run a brand-mapping exercise – pulling together a set of shared core values, involving students and staff. This will underpin your key marketing messages.

Attract funding support

Marketing and income generation go hand in hand. Strategic marketing can help define and articulate key benefits to potential supporters and position your school so that it’s attractive to investors. Similarly, if you’re fully aware of the contents of your income generation plan then you can easily segment your target audience(s) and approach them accordingly. These two strategies need to support one another.

As an example, we might have identified a group of willing former students who are keen to support the introduction of a hockey coaching programme for Year 7 girls. So, your income generation plan would explore how this fits with the wider development of sport and associated facilities, and what funding and other opportunities might exist to support the initiative. You would also look at ways to make the project financially self-funding – sustainable initiatives are far more likely to attract funding support. Meanwhile, your marketing and communications plan would aim to engage potential funders, elicit support to pump-prime the initiative and determine how best to promote the project to a wider audience.

Nurture relationships

Developing sustainable partnerships with other organisations can be very fruitful and can deliver tangible benefits. Soft outcomes could include work experience opportunities, guest speakers and valuable insights into the world of industry.

Some schools have taken the idea of collaboration one step further and have integrated these relationships into daily school life, as Liam Deacy, Fundraising and Comms Manager at Dorothy Goodman School in Leicestershire, explains: ‘Like many special educational needs schools we rely on businesses to support us with fundraising donations, grants and volunteering. This plays a huge role in being able to provide the best possible facilities, equipment and opportunities to our young people. Leicester City FC is a prime example - some of our students lacked aspiration and self-confidence so, as a way of getting them to believe in themselves, we brought Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy on board. The support he has shown our young people has given some that feeling of “Well if he believes in us, maybe we can do it!”.’

Start with a plan

The importance of having a marketing plan in place cannot be overstated. Each school operates in its own unique environment and has its own individual needs and expectations from a marketing strategy. So, take a little time and give some thought to completing this exercise. We have created a template, available to FundEd members, that has been designed so you can follow the simple steps, with helpful notes to encourage you to think about your key messages and longer-term planning aims. The plan also gives you the opportunity to consider resources and budget – reminding you that it’s a team effort and that marketing your school is not something to be carried out in isolation – your staff and students are your best ambassadors so make sure you engage with them first!

Download the marketing template


Identifying your core values

When I joined Wymondham College as Marketing and Development Director, one of my first tasks was to revisit the mission statement and redefine our core values. There was clearly some confusion over brand identity – materials lacked consistency, while a mission statement, written some years earlier, was buried within the website!

We conducted a value-mapping exercise with staff and students, with the aim of defining the essence of the school – words that summed up how we felt about one another, how we saw our community and our place within it. Essentially, we were trying to articulate our culture, putting together words and phrases that defined our core values. This may sound complicated and overly corporate, but the exercise used a simple template with quadrants for staff and students to jot down how they felt, their gut instincts and reaction to key prompts. I was able to summarise their views and found commonality.

I then took the five most common words and phrases: trusting and respectful, committed, passionate, sharing and caring and aspirational. We expanded these to produce five core values and introduced these into the prospectus, into our boarding houses and onto the website. Simplified versions appeared around the campus on large perspex signs. Taken directly from students and staff, these core values reflected our culture far more effectively than a page of text on a website.

  • Justin Smith is MD of Chameleon Consultancy and Training Ltd, which provides marketing and fundraising support to schools. @jus_chameleon

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