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“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”


This quote by American author Helen Keller helps to inform my thinking on the link between optimism and innovation. 


Keller was also a disability rights advocate, having lost her sight and her hearing after a bout of illness as a child.


Tactics versus strategy


I believe that effective short-term tactics are possible without optimism, but not effective strategy. The strategic nature of marketing, especially school marketing, requires an ability to look on the bright side, while being realistic and aware of the challenges involved. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to speak about school marketing and my own experience with positive and negative mindsets.


The case of the lost airport Uber ride


Just recently a friend of mine sent me a message on WhatsApp, saying: “Keryn, you inspire me to be more positive.” We’d chatted a week before regarding the Uber services at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, and how difficult it was to find them because they were not clearly signposted. It turns out they are now located inside the parking garage. 


My friend Lorna actually took a photo of the sign at the same airport a week later and sent it to me (see below). She wanted me to see that there is good, that yes, it’s not all bad news. She followed it with a comment: “And the Gautrain, what a fantastic service. World class.” (If you haven’t heard of the Gautrain, it’s a high-speed passenger rail network between Johannesburg and Pretoria).


Uber sign at airport

Uber sign at ORT airport in Johannesburg


Growing up with a positive mindset


Now, the reason I am using this example is because I am by my very nature a positive person. It’s in my DNA, it seems. 


My optimism probably comes from my mom, who was a successful property salesperson and an avid storyteller. Looking on the bright side is just what we did growing up, even though a lot didn’t come easily in our home. We were raised to be grateful for what we had. My father taught us to set goals and strive towards them, with the result that, as young girls, we grew up with a belief that we could achieve our dreams if we worked hard and pursued a good education. I’m thankful for that.


But we do live in a world that is broken. And we do have many challenges on a macro scale that will outlive our generation. Despite this lived reality, I make a point of sharing positive news and positive words, both in person and online. Why? I believe that there’s enough negativity in the world and it tends to multiply far quicker than the positive news. Darkness feeds off darkness. But darkness gives way to light.


As marketers, we’re aware of the algorithms working against authentic, user-generated, good news. And schools which are raising children in today’s world to uphold good values and be kind to one another do recognise that sharing genuine, helpful, encouraging moments and stories has the effect of reinforcing those values. It does have positive impact on the community, internally and externally. This is now so important for the mental health of children. I believe it’s a key role of the school in society. I follow the same approach in my personal and professional life.


Be kind words in chalk

A positive mindset encourages more kindness in our world


As a result, I now have a reputation for spreading good news! 


How optimism contributes towards progress


Of course, not everyone enjoys a positive outlook. Many believe it’s unrealistic.


But I have found that in all the entrepreneurs and successful innovators and leaders I’ve studied, negativity is seldom their approach. It is actively positive, always seeking open doors rather than sitting outside the closed doors waiting for them to open. In business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. And to grow, you need to look for opportunities. Opportunities are often in the same place as challenges. It was Jack Ma who said: 


“Opportunities lie where the people complain.

The bigger the problem you solve, the bigger the company you have.”


How does this play out in schools?


This leads me on to school marketing. There are big problems in education, and in schools, all over the world.


In marketing, we seek out needs to be met, problems to be solved. Marketing strategy requires an environmental (macro, market, micro) scan, researching your target market to understand what the trends are, where the needs are and where your unique strengths might meet those specific needs – Thus opportunities become a key focus (not threats), and building these opportunities on the strengths of the school (based on independent data).


If you’re thinking short-term and focusing on your weaknesses and threats all the time, you’re doing what Professor Michael Porter was criticised for doing in his early work on competitive strategy – By spending too much time analysing what your competitors are doing, you’re spending too little time distinguishing your school from them and not enough on meeting your customer needs. Marketing strategy requires a view of the way forward and sight of the green shoots. They are there, but you have to look for them. It’s easy to be distracted by the all the other trees.


Competitive strategy book

Competitive Strategy book written by Michael E Porter


In a school, there’s a further opportunity for positive mindsets in marketing. I follow many private schools on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. One thing that I find common across all the schools is the inspiring, uplifting, authentic, informative and often entertaining aspect of the posts. In contrast, I find many of my friends despair at their Facebook feeds, because social media can be very negative and superficial. Try it, and see if you agree!


What steps can school leaders take towards a positive mindset?


In my work with schools on marketing strategy, a positive approach has been essential. 


Your ongoing threats such as competition and a weak economy will not go away in the short term. Finding opportunities through a market research process reveals gaps you might not otherwise have seen. And if you emphasise your differentiators, keep understanding and meeting the needs of your current and prospective ideal customers in a unique way, this builds loyalty and these customers then tell others about you. Focus on the good. 


It’s the same with weaknesses. Work with what you have and leverage opportunities that fit with your ideal customer needs until you can remove some of those weaknesses completely. Often, through market research, the aspects that customers identify are not the same as what school leadership sees as weaknesses. This in itself can help significantly in ‘adjusting the sails’. Keeping with the theme of the earlier Helen Keller quote on sailing to uncharted lands, it was Jimmy Dean who wrote: 


“You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sails to reach your destination.”


A positive mindset helps you to reach your destination in school marketing too. 


Always look for the green shoots. Nurture them through the storms. And watch them grow!


Contact me here if you need market research or marketing strategy for your independent school. I work remotely and in-person. See my website for client testimonials and more of my blogs. To order my book ‘A Guide to Effective School Marketing’ published by ISASA, please go to the ISASA website.

I'm Keryn House

I enjoy writing on my niche in marketing strategy for independent schools. I’m inspired by global trends driving change in this sector – from consumer trends to educational trends to market and macro trends.

I like to draw from my background in strategy across multiple sectors as well as my personal and professional journey to craft short conversational and topical pieces.

I hope you feel informed, inspired and supported as readers of this blog from wherever you are in the world. I encourage comments and suggestions on content. Please also connect with me on my social platforms.