From mock courts to marine life exploration, hip-hop dance parties to poetry slams, today's full-time-learning programs are a far cry from the old-school after-school mix of study hall and intramural sports. Yet fierce competition for non-school time makes it tough for even the coolest programs to attract and retain students.
"Branding matters to kids," notes Colin Stokes, director of marketing and communications for Citizen Schools, a national organization that offers apprenticeship and academic programs for middle-schoolers. "Our product is achievement -- but we get them in the door with friends, fun, and unusual activities."
Branding is about more than a name, a logo, or an ad campaign. It's the essence of the product or company that strikes a chord with its audience at every exposure and interaction. Think Apple's techno-hippitude, or Disney's carefully controlled "magic." More than mere marketing machines, these brands exude an experiential essence that maps to the DNA of their audiences; likewise, full-time-learning brands should create holistic experiences and messaging that mirror the lives and needs of students.
Building Brands to Change Lives
Here are some of the tools for building an effective brand:
- Start with a vision and set of values. Establish what you want your program to mean in the lives of children before you try to put a name and a face on it. "That's what great branding is all about," says Stokes. "Being true to what you are and what you stand for, and being sure that everything you present to the outside world is a positive manifestation of that set of values."
- Know your audience. Mapping your program to your audience's identity is the key to success. To create brand loyalty, says Patrick Duhon, director of planning and implementation at the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), you have to "create something that students can identify with, that has certain human characteristics that resonate with them and that fit their identity . . . it's not just the look and feel."
That means researching and profiling your target audience to develop a deeper sense of what matters most to them. What will drive them to join a program? What will keep them there? And focus students who aren't yet participating. They're the ones who probably need your programs the most.
From a social marketing perspective, Jeffrey Jordan, president and founder of the innovative social marketing firm Rescue Social Change Group, says the at-risk youth who can most benefit from your programs are also the least likely to participate in them. "One of the biggest differences between social marketing and commercial marketing," he says, "is that, during the segmentation process in commercial marketing, you're selecting your most likely consumers; in social marketing, you're almost always selecting your least likely consumers."
- Know your competition. "Our competition isn't other after-school programs; it's video games, TV shows, musical stars, MySpace, et cetera," says Stokes.
Eleven-year-old Christine Dougan, a Campbell, California, sixth grader, agrees. If she wasn't participating in Citizen Schools apprenticeships in dance and environmental studies, she says, "I'd probably be playing on the computer, and watching TV, and not getting my homework done. And I'd be failing in class."
In many at-risk populations, the competition is less entertaining. For students in Providence, Rhode Island, which has the nation's fifth highest child poverty rate, "There are a lot of family constraints -- some kids have to pick up their younger siblings and go home to take care of them, to cook or clean," says Alex Molina, a PASA AfterZone manager. Molina also cites high detention rates and the lure of hanging out in urban neighborhoods as competition for PASA's AfterZone programs.
Knowing what those challenges are is the first step to overcoming them with a brand that matters to your population.
- Get creative -- but stay consistent. Branding is both an art and a craft. Rescue Social Change Group's Jordan recommends hiring a social marketing firm rather than a commercial marketing firm, given the unique challenges for non-profit branding and marketing. If you can't afford outside consultants, search within your team and community for help with design, messaging, and marketing. Just remember: Keep it real, and make sure that everything from your flyers to your Web site consistently reflects your program vision, audience, and experience. A brand "style guide" can help document the details (such as typefaces, color palettes, and voice and tone).
- Find your core messaging. To succeed, your brand must foster partnerships and relationships -- and not just with students. Stokes tailors Citizen Schools messaging to include four distinct constituencies: students and their families, school partners, volunteer teachers, and donors and funders. "But those messages and materials can't contradict one another," he says. "So I have to understand the values, the messages, the statements, the ideals, and the vision that each of those audiences responds to at the basic level. That allows us to grow relationships with them that are unique but that support our overall mission."
- Be authentic. "With young people, lack of authenticity is the one thing that they'll really sniff out," says Duhon. PASA trains its staff and partners to be true to the program as well as to themselves. Although the AfterZone program image has "somewhat of a hip-hop look and some Latino overtones," Duhon says, "some of our providers aren't that -- they're not young, they're not urban, they're not of color. But they don't have to be. They just have to be who they are, authentically, and really be earnest about seeing young people as participants in the process and not just recipients of the process."
And, says Katie Brown, campus director for the Citizen Schools program at Campbell Middle School, it's important to simply connect at the students' level. "We aren't afraid to be goofy or completely real."
- Connect online. A branded Web site is important for program communications, but to really reach your audience, try multimedia and social networking. Citizen Schools has a YouTube Channel, and they're also on Facebook and LinkedIn. Jordan's Rescue Social Change Group has recently launched two social networks -- WhatIDoLACO.com (for middle-schoolers in LA County) and whatIMIN.com (for high-schoolers) -- for use by client school systems such as Los Angeles and San Diego. The secured sites allow students to locate activities that match their interests and to share their experiences.
- Spark word of mouth. Truly "viral" marketing happens when kids become brand ambassadors, chatting up the program to their friends and expanding the circle of participation.
"I like being with all my friends!" exclaims twelve-year-old Asia Nguyen, a friend of Christine Dougan's from Campbell Middle School. Another friend, thirteen-year-old Fernando Mederos, whose grades have improved during his three years in the program, says he'd enthusiastically endorse Citizen Schools to any new student: "I'd tell them, it gave me new thoughts about the world. And if you ever come here, you should really invite a friend, because they might need the help, too."
"I see it all the time," says PASA's Molina. "Kids are sitting down with our brochures and planning their whole week together. You see friends inviting friends, saying, hey come here, do this with me, it's cool." And it pays off in participation -- in the second full week of the program during the 2008 fall semester, PASA saw its numbers double from the week before.
- Hand it over. You know the brand has been adopted by students when they start reshaping it in their own image. At PASA, students "rebranded" the program from AfterZone to AZ, "to make it more young and hip," says Molina. "This told me that the kids had really taken ownership of the brand."
Duhon is passionate about keeping a bright line between the official AfterZone brand and the student-created AZ version. He insists that only middle schoolers can wear the AZ logo. "It just weakens the brand if it's not seen as their thing," he says.
When he saw that a computer graphics student had created an image of the rapper 50 Cent wearing an AfterZone T-shirt, Duhon says, "I knew we were doing something right." He saw it as the highest compliment. "Here's someone who's a cultural icon for them, who has a very strong brand himself - and this youth thought that our brand was worthy of being on 50's chest."
Doing It Right
A brand is more than a marketing tool: It's also a promise that must be kept. One false step, and you can fall a long way down. So, if your program can't yet meet the promise of your promotional campaigns, it's time to step back from the ledge.
Social marketer Jordan warns that a shiny marketing campaign can't fix a broken program; in fact, a marketing makeover could be disastrous if it's not combined with a holistic retooling of the full-time learning program and its brand. "It can really damage this image that you're trying to change," he says, because after the campaign attracts new participants to the same old program, "all it's doing is telling students, 'hey, everything you thought before, that it was boring and dorky and dumb to go to this after-school program? Well, you were right. And now, go back and tell all your friends.'"
On the other hand, Molina says that the meaningful branding they've accomplished with PASA will have a lasting impact. "In Providence, we know that this brand will be here. Once we've built this consumer base, they will return, and they'll tell their friends, parents will tell other parents, and family members will tell other family members. So we have this constant base of new customers and returning customers coming back for the brand because they know it's a quality product."
Laura Bergheim has written extensively about marketing and branding. She lives in Los Altos, California, and is a senior editor at Google.