Hold Your Breath! Jumping into the Deep End of the (Marketing) Pool

August 4, 2015 Bruce Mutch
Hold Your Breath! Jumping into the Deep End of the (Marketing) Pool

Ashbury College has long been considered “the” independent school in Canada’s National Capital Region, arguably since the school’s founding in 1891. Enrollment has always been competitive, with the admission office staff serving as keyholders for the future success of students attempting to gain entry.

Historically a neighborhood school in the Rockliffe Park neighbourhood of Ottawa, Ashbury’s enrollment was built on legacy students (second and third generation families of alumni), diplomatic families representing their countries in Canada, and relocated expat parents who chose boarding for their sons and daughters.

Ashbury Historic

With a century-old school came many traditional marketing theories, such as:

Let’s advertise in the big daily newspapers (We’ve always done this - see image left)
• Why bother with new marketing initiatives? (The school is full, isn’t it?)
• Too many ads will make us appear desperate for students (That’s what comes with big budget marketing)
Word-of-mouth marketing is the best advertising you can do for your school (I don’t disagree, but I also think the admission solution is more complex than that).

Fast forward to the present: with a new head of school came a new strategic plan, which included the following fundamental directives:

• “Expand access to an Ashbury education for students with merit and potential through a meaningful financial assistance program.”
• “Leverage our stakeholders and community connections to access the student experience.”

This led to lively debate, and to Ashbury asking the Ottawa community about its general perceptions of the school. Almost immediately, we learned that there were many misconceptions outside both Ashbury and Rockliffe that ranged from the school being a college (not a coed school for children in grades 4-12) to not knowing anything about our financial assistance and scholarship programs.

From there things got fun, interesting, scary, and definitely challenging. We developed a marketing campaign designed to tackle these misconceptions Boys Cloudand familiarize the entire National Capital region with the Ashbury College brand. Recently we have seen branding taking the place of marketing in major industry -- look to Proctor and Gamble’s move in July of last year to understand the rationale.

We created a block chart that kept the Ashbury brand front and centre for 12 months. We expanded our budget and focused on increasing our visibility in our city. It was a huge challenge for both the admission and marketing offices, but we were up to the task.

Many people across the region know about some of our more resource-intensive projects: partnerships with the National Arts Centre, the Ottawa Senators hockey team (hey – we are in Canada), a television commercial that aired on the local affiliate of our national broadcaster and on screens at Cineplex cinemas across the city.

Ashbury Hockey

What I am most proud of is that, as a school, we connected with the community in so many ways. We had a presence at Diwali through sponsorship of the annual Festival of Lights here in Ottawa. We invited current families to host receptions (outside of Rockliffe), where new families learned more about the Ashbury education. We participated in the local Ottawa Youth Awards, which "empowers youth to spark change and take action.” We offered our facilities to the Kiwanis Music Festival, where we found the most talented pianists in the city. We participated in local farmers' markets, educating families about our school’s green roof and offering free samples of seeds that our students had harvested. All these events were run with admission officers and current students, and we were busy! While these endeavors did require the allocation of people, actual costs were extremely modest.

We do have the data to show which events engaged more families, and which were less successful. We’ve crunched numbers and calculated ROI per dollar spent. In the end, we saw an increase in applications, but I would contend that it was not the return on investment that was the most significant or rewarding. The return on investment for the admission team is the number of families who will be sending their sons and daughters to an independent school for what might be the first time in their family’s history—like the first-generation Canadian family, who previously had no idea that this was even a possibility for their child, and the father who personally thanked me, with tears in his eyes, for the opportunity being provided to his son.

Ashbury made a bold decision to jump headfirst into a new marketing pool last summer, and while it was difficult and onerous at times, the fact that it has allowed the school to build life-changing relationships—and welcome great kids through its doors—made it all worthwhile.

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