The Soccer Field Sidelines: Ground Zero of Your School’s Brand, Part 1

I have spent most weekends the last few years on the soccer field sidelines (or, depending on the season, lacrosse or basketball). In between my fervent prayers for rain (just enough to cancel the game but not ruin the weekend) or a tiny clap of thunder (no play for 30 minutes! everybody go home!), I find myself talking to other parents. I barely know these people, so we stick to what we have in common: kids of similar age, most of whom attend school.

For the uninitiated, let me back up a moment. These sports teams that I am referring to are not school teams. Rather, these teams that play their games on the weekends are community teams. The kids typically come from a variety of different schools…many of which, in my area, happen to be independent.

Personally, I love these conversations about schools. My marketing research instincts kick in, and I sit back and listen. It gets particularly interesting when a family says that they are thinking about switching schools for their child. All of the parents jump into the fray, and a lot of really tantalizing information gets bandied about. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, but it sure is interesting! You feel like a school expert by the end of the game.

Word–of-mouth has always been something that schools need to be aware of and manage. Yet, while a lot of attention has been paid to the role of social media in revving up the word-of-mouth engine, I believe that in some communities, the sidelines are equally, if not more, powerful channels. Participation in community sports teams has exploded in recent years; in some communities, the vast majority of kids under age 14 – regardless of their athletic prowess (or even interest!) – take part in at least one community team sport. That means that parents of kids from myriad schools have a lot of time on their hands to sit on the sidelines and “watch” (wink wink) their kid play.

The upshot? Every weekend, your school is a topic of conversation. Your school’s name and reputation get kicked around and headed more than the soccer ball.

This chatter can’t help but have significant impact on a school’s brand, which, in turn, is directly correlated with enrollment (and other) success. When prospective independent school parents, for example, are asked in surveys how they first learned about a school, “word of mouth” is by far the leading answer.

Given the reality of idle talk, ever-growing opportunities to spread information, and the importance of such information on consideration of independent schools, what’s a school to do?

I think the answer involves both reactive and proactive steps, simultaneously.

  • On the reactive side, schools need to understand what kind of information/misinformation is being kicked around about them. What is the current reputation/brand? How did it get there? How widespread is the information – both that which is accurate, and that which is pure rumor? The Melior Group often conducts these kinds of studies for our clients that allow them to get a handle on fact from fiction.
  • At the same time, schools need to develop a longer term, proactive strategy for shaping their reputation/brand for the future. A school needs to craft intentional messages that communicate its strengths, and to make sure internal constituencies, i.e., current and recent past parents, alumni, faculty and staff, can – and want to – repeat those strengths on the soccer field sidelines. Here, we use both qualitative and quantitative research to understand which messages truly resonate with intended audiences.

Part 2 of this post is now available here, where I present my thoughts on the impact of interscholastic sports – that is, school-based teams playing other school teams – on school brand.

For more information on Melior’s work with independent and religiously-affiliated day schools, please visit our Education page or contact Elizabeth Cohen at [email protected] / 215-545-0054 ext 103 or Linda McAleer at  [email protected] / 215-545-0054 ext 104.