Sarah Lee from Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools shares her experience of a major rebranding exercise
William Jones was a local boy who became a London Haberdasher, and part of his legacy led to the establishment of Monmouth School in 1614. The school has seen a lot of changes over the past 400 years, the most recent of which was in 2017 when the school rebranded. But it was much more than that – the school structure, efficiency, vision, purpose, philosophy and values were all re-examined and re-defined.
What was the impetus for the rebrand?
We have a 10-year schools’ strategy and as we worked to develop our next 10- year plan, we became increasingly aware of the huge changes in the education sector and the challenges that lay ahead for us as educators and for our students.
Set in a beautiful semi-rural area in the Wye Valley, there are not that many children in our day catchment area. We have, therefore, always had to work hard to attract students and have been fortunate to benefit from a large number of regional British boarders and forces families.
We have over 1,300 children across five schools, so are really quite a big school. But when they are broken down into their smaller parts it means you still have the friendliness, where everyone knows each other. It’s a lovely set up. We wanted to ensure we were offering a progressive education suited to modern life for all our students.
A key issue to address in the review was affordability. We felt parents could not be expected to continue to pay constantly increasing fees to off-set costs which were often outside the schools’ control. The increase in employer contributions to teachers’ pensions, changes in legislation, minimum wage — combined with increases in building and maintenance costs — have all had a big impact over the past decade.You have to deliver best practice across every single area which meant we had to examine everything we did to improve our efficiency and our offer.
How did we go about it?
One of the great strengths of these schools is that everyone loves them and that means they are passionately involved. But with a brand review you need clear thinking, and a level of objectivity. We commissioned an external branding agency, Heavenly, to undertake the review to maintain the necessary objectivity, and because there were so many different strands to the project. It was a sound investment because we wanted to be as consultative as possible, and when you gather all that information you really need someone who can present it in a clear and unambiguous way.
Initially, we had shortlisted six agencies. We had a very clear brief and the companies pitched for the project. Our selection panel included the senior heads, chairs of schools, an external marketing executive, representatives from the Haberdashers, staff, governors and me. We were very brave – we went for a company that had a really fresh approach with masses of experience outside the schools’ sector. We started gathering information in 2016-17. It was very intense.
We were trying to run parent focus groups in the evenings, pupil focus groups at lunchtime, online staff questionnaires and staff focus groups with a mixture of different subjects, different disciplines, and roles – support staff as well as teaching staff.
We also ran a series of one-to-one interviews with governors, Haberdashers and active alumni. It was a couple of months of intense co-ordination. A lot was done in-house to save costs but we worked closely with the team at Heavenly throughout the process. For example, we worked on the questionnaires but the consultants sent them directly to staff to maintain anonymity.
It was an unusually large piece of research for an independent school. We involved parents and pupils, including alumni, our governing body and trustees. We spoke to people who were prospective parents, people who hadn’t taken up a place and even reached out to parents who were not on our database at all. Among the questions we asked was what they felt were the key strengths of the school and what they would like to see change?’
How about budgets?
My team is small – three people and one part-time – and we did not have a large budget put aside. Knowing that we wanted to undertake this project we made real savings over several years, which meant that we kept our prospectus for an extra three years and eked out our stationery.
I used to feel a bit embarrassed about my old-fashioned prospectus and signage. But we felt strongly about the long-term value of such an in-depth brand review, so that we could decide on the best way to move forward. Our governing body also recognised the importance of having this clarity and consistency. We are all under pressure to maximise returns from our marketing budgets but sometimes I think you need to step back. It can be easy to produce a one-off brochure or film without defining your core message and whether or not it will appeal to your existing and potential parents and children.
‘We wanted to really understand our market and our USPs, and then to communicate them effectively. And so, the information gathered was analysed to develop our brand DNA. This covered all the elements of what makes us different, the way we work and what our core values are.
We worked closely with Heavenly to define our vision, purpose, the way we operate, and how we want to plan for the future. It influences everything we do – from our behaviour to our performance; it inspires the way we work with each other and the way we communicate both within the school and when outward-facing. We produced a brand folder to communicate this to every member of staff.
Whilst the academic structure of the individual schools was maintained, the recommendation in the brand review was to rename them all. It was radical and no mean feat! They had always had different names: Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls, Monmouth School, The Grange, Inglefield House and Agincourt. Now we have a cohesive Monmouth Model with an overarching brand for the family of schools – Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools – which we launched in September 2017.
Once the brand consultancy had defined the tone, look and feel of the brand, it was given to our lead design agency to refresh the full spectrum of marketing material. Every element had to be redone. We are incredibly lucky, we had all the aces, it was just that we needed a framework.
In our quest for efficiencies, the organisational structure changed too. We now have a Foundation Bursar working across the family of schools to see how we can share resources. We have one catering manager, one set of suppliers. IT is run as a whole, savings on licensing are ploughed back into upgrades and improvements. The mini buses are all shared, and schools can take advantage of visiting authors and guest speakers. The benefits are significant for our pupils.
We also created a new role – a principal with overall responsibility for all the schools combined. Mr James Murphy-O’Connor started on 1st September 2019 and has already made a really positive difference. We have been measuring the impact of the changes implemented. Things are now really beginning to move along and we gained a record number of qualified enquiries in 2018/19. There is a clearly defined offer for children aged 3 to 18, boarding or day, British or overseas. It has provided us with a blue print for our future and put everything into focus. It was a huge project and one that would have been easy to put off until another year!
Was there resistance to change?
‘People don’t like change, particularly within schools. Tradition and continuity, and the way that the term structure runs, means there is a predictability about what happens. There is a comfort in that. So, an exercise like this is not for the faint-hearted. But if you love your school and you can see challenging times ahead, you really need best practice in every single element of what you do. From teaching, to the sports provision to the curricula programme, to your support staff. And you need a structure and strategy to do that.
Once people understood the tangible benefits, we did not have huge resistance from any quarter. In fact people could see that there were common goals, values and aspirations across the schools and were keen do more things together.We now use resources much more sensibly.
Understandably, there were people who were upset about the names of the schools changing. Even small changes, such as adding “for boys” was difficult for some alumni. It’s simply because they care so much and we recognised that. We found quite a good solution by using the original school names to name some of the buildings. That way we retained the history.
We have a brilliant team of three and a half. A multimedia manager, an online supremo who does programming, development, targeted campaigns, online presentations etc. A PR and social media manager who is an ex- journalist and brilliant at writing. He pulls together the news stories and adapts them for different platforms. And a part-time marketing assistant who is amazing at negotiating prices with the media.
We do all our media buying, placements and tracking in-house. Every four years we check we are getting the best prices and to-date no agency has been able to match the prices we get. A local design company makes up the ads. We try to use local suppliers whenever we can as community is one of our core values.’
How does marketing fit into this?
As you can see we are a small department but we have excellent admissions teams with whom we work closely. They are singled out in parental research for offering an incredible service during the whole entry process. However, we believe that everyone within the organisation is involved in marketing. So we develop and maintain good relationships with colleagues across the schools, and draw on their skills whenever we can.
We work to an annual marketing plan and each year we look at budgets, resources, and manpower. We also do a SWOT and PEST analysis.
We develop different marketing strategies and a budget is attached to each. We monitor and track how many enquiries are generated from each, so that at the end of every academic year we can calculate a cost per enquiry and refine our plan for the forthcoming year.
We also look at key messages, aiming for consistency and clarity in all our messaging. That includes our website, social media, print, film work, posters, banners, presentations, invitations, stationery and signage. We promote the family of schools, but each individual school still has its own name and identity. And you wouldn’t want to change that.
Like many schools, regional recruitment is challenging and so we recruit internationally, focusing on specific overseas markets. We have a lovely broad mix of nationalities but work hard to retain a high number of British boarders.
We also do regular parent surveys with RSAcademics where we can benchmark parental satisfaction against the sector and over time within our schools. I prioritise that in my budget because parental endorsement is the best. Happy children equals happy parents equals good recruitment. I am very research led. I like to know there is a firm foundation for everything we do and that it is going to have resonance and appeal. I see the role of marketing as being customer-focused and that there has to be a way of feeding that information back into the schools. So it’s important that the admissions teams – who receive feedback all the time – have a good working relationship with heads and the senior teams who go out to help with exhibitions and our outreach programmes.
All of the information and feedback we receive needs to be shared in a virtuous circle to help us develop strategies for the future.