The state of school marketing? Strong! Why education depends on sponsorships
The state of school marketing? Strong! Why education depends on sponsorships
It’s the same every year: children starting or getting back to school receive promotional items. Aimed at providing expert advice, SEO-optimised texts are piling up all over the Internet. What’s remarkable: they all more or less reflect the same experience, making them interchangeable. But school or education marketing, respectively, is in demand all year long – and that’s where it gets exciting and where real specialists are in high demand.
They’ve long been a common practice in countries such as the US and the UK: school sponsorships. Here in Germany, it goes without saying, we’re still far, far away from such levels. But we’re well on our way. In the first instalment of our “Field trip to the world of commerce”, we said this, for example: The state of school marketing? Strong! Better than ever. Decades of slashing education budgets have thrown education into a state of calamity. If it weren’t for private-sector initiatives, the education engine would underperform completely.
Little wonder then that the education sector created not just its own Didacta association but also the dedicated didacta trade fair, which is highly popular among teachers (link at the end of the article). The largest trade fair of the education industry currently moves between Stuttgart, Cologne and Hannover every year. Exhibitor numbers have levelled out at over 800. Visitor numbers, meanwhile, range from 70,000 to 100,000, depending on the location.
Fluid boundaries between sponsorships and surreptitious advertising
No doubt: anyone who gives something expects something in return. Thinking long-term, that means building brand loyalty and investing in the consumer of tomorrow. In the short term, it means boosting sales. In school marketing – a topic that could fill its own small library of specialised literature – we can meet representatives from both camps as well as mixed types. This rule of thumb can provide some guidance: the beneficial effect for pupils must be greater than the advertising effect.
School marketing and sponsoring comprises a diverse set of fields, ranging from one-time sponsorships (Lufthansa is setting up a cafeteria for a school and, as the sponsor, is allowed to design the Crane Café with CI insignia and place advertising materials) to the distribution of product samples, sports and educational events (environment, nutrition, traffic training etc.), and the sponsoring of classroom materials (books, for example) to established continuing education selections such as workshops and training for teachers and pupils alike.
Not only is it beyond dispute that the boundaries between sponsoring and surreptitious advertising are fluid, it actually feels like the limits are pushed further each year. Schools are in dire financial straits and need the money, need the hands-on relief that comes from sponsored training for their staff and accompanying extracurricular educational initiatives.
No significant resistance is to be expected from the political sector anymore, either. The accumulation of offices and the mostly non-transparent intertwining of politics and the economy frequently create lobbying-dominated processes at the top, which then trickle down to the base. To the chagrin of many parents, leftist-green politicians, extra-parliamentary initiatives like Germany’s LobbyControl and large swaths of the press.
Unquestionably illegal, product samples from the branded goods industry, especially the food industry, are nevertheless a hit (not only with advertisers but also with many school decision-makers, teachers and their charges on site): though not permitted, the practice is difficult and spotty to police. Sports sponsorships offer an escape to what supposedly is more innocuous sponsorship territory.
The sponsorship format “Kindersprint” (German for Children’s Sprint – see link at the end of the article) offers computerized running tracks, where participating pupils can qualify for a final. The latter can then be “outsourced” and staged in supermarkets, at car dealerships and at shopping centres – depending on the sponsors.
A whopping 50,000 children participate each year. The sponsors aren’t skimping on advertising materials and promotional items; the sponsored prizes are held at their outlets for in-person pickups. The sponsorship event is potentially polarising: welcomed, on the one hand, and disqualified as a no-go, on the other.
For example, the non-profit organisation LobbyControl (link at the end of the article) is fundamentally opposed to any kind of school sponsorships. They also were the ones recently pushing health insurer BEK, a key sponsor of the running competitions since 2016, to jump off the sponsor wagon.
Officially frowned upon but nevertheless highly popular are campaigns inviting pupils and their families to visit the investors’ (consumer) empire. Often intertwined on the CSR track with free social commitment.
The credo: we’ll teach you something, and we also have a little something for you. Come to us, bring your parents, and you’re sure to score a present. Examples: in 2017, furniture retailer Porta organised a traffic education course for third- and fourth-graders at 72 primary schools and 24 furniture stores. Dubbed “Helm auf!”, it promoted the use of helmets.
And there was a present at the end: a voucher for a Porta-branded bicycle helmet, which – how practical – could be redeemed at one of the organiser’s furniture outlets. The ulterior motive: getting parents to make impulse buys or take care of long-delayed purchases.
This campaign was hit by a massive media headwind – but after the fact and, except for temporary and bearable image dents (motto: non-compliant), without legal consequences. Forecast: CSR and compliance are locked in a tie in this area, which helps sponsors more than their opponents. For this type of sponsoring, too, all signs are pointing to growth.
Digitalisation and technology workshops
Digitalisation opens up an entirely different level of education. Key competence, fit for the digital evolution: teacher and pupil workshops on how to handle software and hardware, programming courses, introduction to design thinking, and dealing with VR (virtual reality) etc. Almost all of the major digital and high-tech companies (Microsoft, SAP, Google, Apple, Samsung, Siemens, and others) lead the way when it comes to serving as long-term reliable education partners.
One of the undisputedly important and indispensable tasks of education sponsorships. A permanent challenge and responsibility for our educational institutions, far away from fleeting trends. And thus fertile ground for promotional products agencies that have mastered their profession in areas beyond mere buying.
The gatekeepers: School marketing agencies
Of course, the following truth applies to this niche market, as well: without a “scout”, i.e. a savvy school marketing agency, things get amateurish pretty quickly. It can’t be denied that there is a certain quality gap between school marketing agencies. Last but not least: many of these agencies have specialised in certain segments, such as sports marketing, for example.
Then again, entering the field of cross-school education marketing means covering a vast terrain, which starts even before school at daycare centres and continues beyond the generation of pupils into universities. Marketing terrain, that is, which can’t be developed in passing.
The small number of top agencies that have mastered the entire education marketing spectrum have large teams of sales reps, which support the contact with the education marketing entities by providing help and advice, thus keeping it fresh.
Bottom line: Education requires sponsorships
Without private-sector marketing investments, the education sector could fully say good-bye to its core educational mission. Without sponsorships, everything is nothing, or at least precious little. In the concert of marketing tools, object-based communication is a set variable, and one that hasn’t been fully exhausted yet.
This applies both to the widely accepted forms of school sponsorships and the regularly criticised excesses. Growth beckons both.