Managing Disruption With Your Brand

Posted on April 14, 2016

Michael Horn wrote this article in Forbes a few weeks after writing this piece on disruption in the independent school market caused by charter schools, technology, and the presence of micro-schools. Horn writes, “As many students and their families in the independent school world struggle with ever-rising tuition prices, institutions must figure out ways to rein in their expenditures and remain attractive while confronting the disruptive threats that are just beginning to appear so that they can stay successful—and, in some cases, simply survive.”

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Horn uses Ikea’s brand as a case study in avoiding disruption. By focusing solely on a singular ‘job to be done’, Ikea has avoided disruptions in the discount furniture business over the past fifty years. It doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t, nor does the company invite complexity of mission in order to capture more market share. Instead, it knows it has a very simple job (to furnish an apartment or house cheaply and quickly) and focuses all of its energy as a company on successfully completing that job for its customers.

I would argue the mission of an independent school is far more complex than that of Ikea. Families demand a myriad of athletic and arts programs, and high level academic courses in a multitude of disciplines. A rapidly changing landscape around technology and the constant pressure to have the newest, fanciest facilities adds additional complexities to the situation. Meeting your prospective families’ expectations not only feels like an impossible uphill battle, but every time you believe you have nailed your marketing in one area, a new program is born, requiring yet another pivot.

But what would happen if your brand truly transcended programs, academic courses, and facilities? What if, instead, your brand was so deeply rooted in what you do and how you do it that the manifestations of that identity were interchangeable? Having a central, wholly unique mission around which all aspects of your school operates allows you to focus intently on the job your school does rather than ‘keeping up the Jones’.


When you focus solely on the job your school does, your content, website, and other marketing materials become aligned in a way that clearly communicates your value proposition to your prospective families. Proctor Academy’s homepage above does just this. Without question, learning at Proctor comes from experiences, not in a classroom. Content throughout the site, and especially in its blog posts, reinforces this brand for families. They quickly come to understand who Proctor is and the impact it will have on students. Programs may come and go, technology will evolve, and academic courses will change, but the school’s brand is founded in something far more permanent.

If your school is struggling to find this internal alignment of mission (not that this ever happens at schools) you may want to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would there be consistency to the answers provided by the teachers and administrators at my school when asked, “What is our job as a school?”
  2. Is your school’s answer to the question “What is our job as a school?” truly distinct from the answers your peer schools would provide for themselves?
  3. Would you have to change your marketing plan if your most popular program had to be canceled?

Conduct some internal brainstorming and research in order answer these questions. You may realize your marketing efforts are not built on the firm foundation you need in order to navigate the significant disruption coming to the independent school world.

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