The reform of education – it’s products, policies, processes and people – poses all kinds of wicked problems, from what should (and should not be) in curricula, to how classes and schools are designed to achieve better outcomes for students and parents, how success is measured, and what the role of school personnel are in this most modern of ages. Innovations are widely touted, but few seem to be broadly adopted. Top-down approaches are rarely swapped out for more bottom-up processes (see these examples from the BIF Student Experience Lab for some exceptions). In over 4 decades of work in social marketing, I have seen few examples published in the literature that apply marketing ideas to solving some of these issues. And I wonder why?

I have many different hypotheses ranging from total indifference to ‘outside the box’ thinking to real or imagined concerns that introducing ‘marketing’ into education will somehow trivialize and contaminate the lofty aspirations (and ideologies) that educators and policy makers have of their calling. In work I have done with STEM education initiatives and school readiness, my involvement seems to start and end with the ‘planning’ meetings (“We’d like to have a social marketer’s POV”). And then…nothing seems to take shape. At one meeting a brand marketer also involved in STEM issues and I were pushing the idea to explore student-driven STEM communication and programming strategies. Our progress was summed up when he shouted out in exasperation near the end: “Doing it the way you’ve always done it (expert-driven directives and ‘messages’) is DOOMED!” [See The change we need: New ways of thinking about social issues]

ReqadingThe opportunities for me to insert a marketing perspective into education discussions and arguments are few and far in-between. So when I learned that a noted education reform specialist was coming to town to talk about initiatives underway in Sarasota and Manatee (Florida) county schools through the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, I decided to drop in and listen.

Ralph Smith, the campaign’s managing director, had many encouraging things to say about what he experienced during his visit. We also heard from the principal of one exemplary grade school in Sarasota. You may have been in similar types of discussions. Philosophies and data are cited to make the case for “Why this problem [reading at grade level by 3rd grade]?” Emotional appeals to do what’s right for children and their parents. Exhortations that ‘we must all work together’ and that it ‘takes a community to educate a child.’ Glimmers of hope, such as offered by the school principal, into what might be working. Calls for ‘scaling up.’

What can a social marketer add to these discussions?

Near the end of the 90 minutes of the town hall meeting there was time for a Q+A session. I had several questions going through my mind:

  • How do we focus people on an objective of children in the 3rd grade reading at that grade level when there are so other many competing concerns and issues that schools and communities face every day?
  • How can nonprofits (not just the Casey Foundation, but local nonprofits who are supporting the program) who invest in these innovations design sustainability (or exit) strategies and not endanger the systems, people and processes they put into place to make the program work in the first place?
  • How can local media continue to set and keep visible a public and policy agenda to support growth and long-term durability of attaining the objectives?
  • What are the most important barriers that need to be addressed to make community action feasible – to cross the line between the schools’ and the community’s interests and bring them together?
  • What are the most important elements of success (at least so far)?

Near the end of the Q+A I was able to ask ‘one question.’ So with three panelists (the local paper’s editorial page editor was the host), I wrapped up the last three into one. What I received in response was intriguing: the editor committed to a Sunday editorial on the issue and outlined his three main points, the principal pointed to the success of her schools efforts to bring community residents into her school to volunteer as reading tutors (something my wife already does with her), and Ralph Smith talked about the first and most important step being the building of trust between schools and communities. His central concern was that schools have to learn to not be afraid to share their data, regardless of the flaws and problems they expose. Communities, in turn, have to refrain from using those same data as a club to beat up the educators. Who is going to share their data when they fear the consequences [See The costs of fear]? And how can we have a meaningful conversation to address a problem without data? My take away was: until school and community leaders shift from being problem describers and blamers to solution seekers, with data driving their discussions, not ideology, bringing together the necessary community and school resources to improve education seems doomed (to quote a colleague). To start that process we need to earn trust from one another.

As social marketers we often talk about programs, policies and behaviors to improve society and the need for partnerships to make them happen. But rarely do we get down to the fundamentals of what makes any potential partnership work. It’s not the quality of the people and organizations at the table, the creative ideas that are expressed, or the evidence that supports a proposed strategy or intervention. It is the trust that exists, or is developed, among the participants. That is not a new idea for social marketers; trust is one of the pillars of the Value Space I proposed in Transformative Social Marketing [pdf]. As I said in that article (Lefebvre, 2013, p. 126):

“Trust is a larger idea than just a variable of interpersonal relationships or a characteristic of sources of messages. It also extends to organizations and companies that support and sponsor social marketing activities… We live in a world where trust is no longer a commodity that is acquired, but rather a value that we receive from the people we serve and our stakeholders. Without trust, social marketing risks slipping into coercion, liberal paternalism, propaganda and irrelevancy. Trust also underlies important concepts including social capital formation as well as the development of effective partnerships.”

The education system may not yet be ready to use social marketing as a tool to develop new products and services, promote innovative reforms and initiatives, or to build demand for more effective, efficient, equitable and sustainable programs. But could it be ready for trust? Is this an opportunity to bring new light to education about what life might be? To begin to contemplate the answers to some questions social marketers ask?

And for those of you who might go to similar types of meetings and stumble over what question to ask, here are ten suggestions I wrote about some time ago. Be sure to check #10.


Lefebvre, R.C. Transformative social marketing: Co-creating the social marketing discipline and brand. Journal of Social Marketing, 2012; 2:118-129.


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