Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Frugalista School?

I've always seen a connection between fashion branding and school branding.

High fashion and elite education are both luxuries but clothes and school are necessities. If a pair of jeans can cost $14 or $400; if you can go to high school for free or for $40,000 a year, anyone selling these luxury options better be able to explain why they're worth it.

When it comes to schools, each family uses its own subjective set of scales to weigh and balance a school's prestige, cost, quality, experience and outcomes to determine if that school is worth it. By necessity a school's brand tries to weave the perfect blend of these same factors to attract its market.

For some people, prestige trumps cost. They'll go into debt to get it. For others, affordability is king. But what if you could have both? That's the allure of elite magnet schools and public honors colleges. And that's the sweet spot of the new Target "Frugalista" campaign. For several years, Target has done the seemingly impossible -- marrying cachet and low prices by bringing top designers to Target without cheapening the prestige of those designers (Anyone remember the disaster of Halston and J.C. Penny?)

But now, Target has gone further, giving its affordable prestige brand a persona -- the Frugalista. Emerging victorious from the post-2008 economic wreckage, she's just right for our times. She's a Mini Cooper not an Escalade. She believes, as Oprah declares in this month's O Magazine that small is the new big. The frugalista's sensibility is one that the marketers of elite private schools, colleges and universities should pay close attention to.

The crucial fact to note is that the frugalista is not a wannabe wearing knock-offs. She chooses not to spend more but she still wants the real thing. (Look, there's Project Runway's own Nina Garcia now loading up a red Target hand basket with frugalista chic to prove it.)

So how can schools, colleges, and universities market affordable prestige? First of all your school has to have the elements of legitimate prestige -- successful outcomes, excellent faculties and programs. Second, to be a real frugalista you have to make cost and affordability a key message. I'm working with an Ivy League institution that is marketing two degrees for the price of one and graduating debt free as part of its primary message. Another Ivy League client is heralding "the good news about cost."

Schools that are in the best position to take a frugalista approach are those that produce great outcomes but really do cost less than their competitors. I've worked with two independent schools that have superb college matriculation lists (face it, these lists matter to parents) and are priced more like parochial schools than their independent school competitors. Now is the time for schools like these to forge a single powerful message out of quality at a low price.

How does Target do it? By getting fashionistas like Nina Garcia to embrace the ethos. Schools have known for a long time if they can get one influential family to value their program more will follow. So, once you have your affordable prestige message in place, who are the frugalistas in your parent and alumni community who will spread the word?

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