Be Different. Be Memorable. Above All, Be Yourself.

It once was a truth universally acknowledged that “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” Be safe, the reasoning went. Then along came Apple with its motto “Think Different,” to counter IBM’s “Think.” And we all know how that has worked out.

Independent schools are not computers, but when it comes to marketing pieces, it’s still okay to be different. Just remain true to who you are—your brand.

When I write for schools, I ask clients to describe their culture, their students, what makes the place tick. They may say, “We’re a little quirky” or “We have a great sense of humor.” But when it comes to describing the school to external audiences—especially when a piece goes through committee—showing that sense of quirkiness or humor meets with resistance. Might being witty convey a lack of academic seriousness? Could appearing a little unconventional turn some people off? Schools talk about encouraging their students to “think outside the box,” but in marketing pieces, adults are afraid to. Messaging reverts to the tried and true—“educating the whole child,” “providing a lifelong love of learning,” and yes, “encouraging students to think outside the box”—rendered unmemorable by overuse.

Instead, make your pieces stand out from others crowding our mailboxes and inboxes. Know what your school is and whom it serves, and trumpet it. With alumni, authenticity trumps generalities. In admissions pieces, don’t try to appeal to everyone, just to right-fit parents and students, who are increasingly involved in the decision.

I love this series of bump faux travel postcards that my daughter received from Macalester College. (My apologies that it’s from higher ed.)

Takeaway: A place for activists and world-changers. This college has a pretty clear point of view, and it’s not afraid to show it, even if it’s not right for everyone.

Takeaway: Rather than sidestep its Minnesota location, the college hits the cold, snowy climate head on—and shows it can be a positive, if you’re open to the possibilities.

Takeaway: Who doesn’t love a camel? He (she?) certainly gets your attention, and the playfulness doesn’t undermine the college’s academic chops. Beyond the typical “we have study abroad” fare, there’s subtext here: 1) Clever people—people who appreciate some fun while doing serious learning—come here. 2) You can go anywhere, even Tajikistan, which we assume you’ve heard of because you’re smart (if you’re the kind of student who’d like Macalester). We also assume you might be interested in studying somewhere exotic because you’re adventurous and have a global outlook (if you’re the kind of student who’d like Macalester).

Though my daughter didn’t have this college on her list previously, she considered it BECAUSE OF THESE POSTCARDS.

If this “wisdom” sounds familiar, it should. It’s what independent schools regularly impart to their students—so well, in fact, that each bit of advice has an associated cliché that school marketers (myself included) are guilty of overusing.

  • Do something new (the aforementioned “think outside the box”). That’s how you grow. It’s also how you get noticed.

  • Take risks (“go outside your comfort zone”). When you get that urge to play it safe, try being bold instead.

  • Discover and be proud of who you are (“find your voice”). Articulate for yourself, with or without outside help, what makes your school distinctive—truly distinctive—and then articulate that to the outside world with the same distinctiveness.

Be different. Be memorable. Be yourself. Your marketing efforts will be the better for it.

Andrea Lehman

STRATEGIST, WRITER, AND EDITOR  Andrea Lehman is a freelance marketing strategist, writer, and editor for independent schools and colleges as well as for travel guides. Author of Fodor’s Around Philadelphia with Kids, she previously was Editorial Director of the School Division (college and independent secondary school guides) for Peterson's Guides. She and her daughters are the proud products of terrific independent school educations.