A ‘brand’ new Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School

| October 14, 2011 | 3 Comments

By Fiona de Villiers with Daryl Bennewith

Daryl Bennewith knows about branding.

Managing Director at Red Sky, the communications and brand solutions arm of TBWA/Hunt Lascaris based in Durban, he agrees that 10 years ago, the marketing landscape looked very different. “Today, though, however we may feel about it, we live in an age governed by brands. They influence how we think, feel and behave.”

Succeeding in the brand-saturated market of the 21st century, says Bennewith, is understanding that consumers no longer automatically place their trust in a commodity or ‘bricks and mortar’. “Nowadays consumers construct perceptions about, form relationships with, and ultimately develop trust in, and loyalty to, something more elusive.

“A brand is really a promise either embraced or rejected, depending on whether or not its essence conforms to the aspirations and expectations of the target market.”

Branding an emotional business

Surely, though, I asked Bennewith, a school is its ‘bricks and mortar’ – one of the last remaining bastions of an age when excellence was measured in simpler terms?

It’s apparent that the answer points to a complex mix of tradition and trend. “A school relies a great deal on people’s desire to be part of something bigger than themselves,” muses Bennewith. “Parents choose a school based on intangible elements, like heritage, reputation, values, as well as the concrete opportunities – the facilities, resources and superior teaching staff – which will be afforded to the pupil.”

It’s all these aspects, says Bennewith, which differentiate one school from another, and combine to make up a school’s brand identity.

Schools must consider niching and life cycles

Our conversation moves on to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of education institution branding. It’s vital, Bennewith points out, that schools understand the benefits of ‘niching’ – behaving as a brand in order to connect with a specific prospective market.

I’m also fascinated to learn from Bennewith about brand longevity. “The majority of brands have a life cycle that can be measured on the common bell-shaped curve. An effective brand often gains popularity early on and then reaches a peak of success. The challenge is to maintain this success in a rapidly changing, competitive environment. Often an in-depth evolution has to happen before reinvention can occur or a change can be initiated to stimulate a new life cycle.”

Many school heads in this country – particularly in urban areas – are all too familiar with rapid change made necessary by competitive forces; yet another new school offering a similar ‘menu’ to a limited prospective–pupil population. “Schools must remain relevant,” observes Bennewith. “They cannot afford to stagnate.”

We all know the DBCS – or do we?

Nobody wants to accuse the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School (DBCS) of stagnation, Bennewith and I agree. It’s more as if this South African icon, offering superlative choral training and a unique style of schooling in the idyllic Champagne Valley in the Central Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, has become wreathed in a mountain mist. Bennewith offers some accurate commentary: “The DBCS had become an enigma, everyone knew about it, but few people really knew it. This great South African institution had got lost in a whirlwind of education change in South Africa. Pre-1994, it was really the only South African school dedicated to choral training. Then, after 1994, a multitude of new schools started popping up, and investing heavily in arts and culture programmes. It was time for the DBCS to do a full reassessment of itself, choose a distinctive brand identity and then get out into the world and reintroduce itself.”

Independent schools – and what they offer – multiplying

DBCS’s status as an independent school was a significant factor in the rebranding process, says Bennewith as the public’s understanding of what it means to be ‘independent’ underwent a generalised shift. “Before the end of apartheid, many people understood independent schools as ‘private’, and thus elitist. Post- 1994 there has been a rapid growth in the number of independent schools that are not just ‘good rugby schools’, for instance, but that have focused on providing quality multifaceted education accessible to a wide range of South African consumers. This has increased competitive pressure in the marketplace. The DBCS needed to ensure that its brand was clearly identifiable, so that prospective pupils and their families could make an informed decision, rather than guessing from hearsay what the school is all about.”

Rebranding about honing the message – with care

It seems this was the consensus in the DBCS ‘family’. Old boy and passionate school-supporter Brad Glasspoole approached Red Sky to reposition this much-loved school, which opened in 1967, on the national – and international – stage. “Our goal was for the school to attract boys to take full advantage of the varied opportunities that the school offers, such as the academic facility built in 2006; the 600-seater auditorium complete with modern lighting, sound and stage equipment; the ongoing revamp of the boarding house; the increased focus on the provision of bursaries to prospective pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and, of course, the opportunity to tour the world with superb choir masters and to return home to the country atmosphere for which the DBCS is famous.”

Rebranding is a delicate process, says Bennewith, only to be undertaken with the requisite sensitivity, support and planning. “Our first step was to conduct research to understand public perception of the school, both positive and negative. We also made numerous visits to the DBCS to interview key stakeholders in order to be totally submerged in the challenges which the school faced. The School Board was actively involved in each stage.”

Rebranding is also not about whimsical refashioning of tag lines or logos, confirms Bennewith. Once preliminary research had yielded crucial knowledge, his team at Red Sky conducted a series of workshops using a propriety tool called Disruption. “We use it to look at aspects of a brand that can be changed for the better. It seeks to evolve the mediocre, and to eliminate the irrelevant, and embodies our belief in the saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet this remarkable tool is not about destruction, or seeking change for change’s sake.”

It’s clearly a complex process best left to the pros, who at Red Sky undertook to look at the conventions that define schools similar in some ways to DBCS. Then, says Bennewith, “the next step was to ‘disrupt’ the conventions in order to reach our vision.

“Once we established a ‘big idea’, we held a blueprint workshop to formulate the important elements of the brand to benchmark all activities going forward.”

Intense challenges, but rich rewards

It’s a lengthy process that is still unfolding in the Champagne Valley, and one that’s taught everyone involved some key lessons. “The experience has shown us that schools share many characteristics with consumer brands. The rebranding challenges are intense, because schools are the locus of deeply engraved emotional attachments. It’s vital to carefully analyse every decision to maintain an even balance between the need for change and the need to retain core values,” Bennewith advises.

Issues to do with identity change can be traumatic for schools, but Bennewith’s been impressed with the way everyone at DBCS ‘got on board’. His team’s unique approach may have had a lot to do with that. “The DBCS brand required evolution, rather than revolution,” he says.

The reworked school emblem and other core brand elements have been positively received, and the next phase of the project will see the replacement of all fixed branding, followed by an upgrade of the traditional choir and school uniforms.

Get professional help

Old Boy Glasspoole has the following sage advice for other schools considering brand ‘refreshment’. “Keep an open mind and test concepts with your stakeholders. Make sure that you are clear in your mind that you know who you are, and if you are not clear, make sure you have support from a professional organisation to lead you through the process. They are able to provide a structured format for answering the big question ‘who are we?’ and guiding you through to ‘this is who we are!’” Adds Bennewith, “The most important thing is first to establish if the school requires rebranding. It is a complex and emotionally charged exercise. But it is also a uniquely satisfying and rewarding process which will ensure that your school establishes an identity in the hearts and minds of your target market now and in the future.”

Thanks to Red Sky, that veil of mist in the Drakensberg mountain region is lifting. Indeed, quips Bennewith, “Those hills are alive with the sound of music!”

For its work with the DBCS, TBWA/Hunt Lascaris/RED SKY was a f inalist in the Sponsorship in Kind, Mentor of the Year category at the 13th annual Business Day BASA awards in 2010.

Category: Spring 2011

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Comments (3)

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  1. georg knoke says:

    Hi I’m a Brand lecturer at Vega and the case study of the rebranding of the Drakenberg Boy’s Choir is part of the Disruption process we’re focusing on.

    Please help-as I cannot find any physical examples re the changes implemented. Would be great to look at the old and then the new!!!

    Appreciate your feedback.
    Kind regards
    Georg

  2. John v d Berg says:

    hi there, might be able to help

    was in the choir from 2001 – 03

    the choir has changed a lot since then

    i dont have any pictures from that time but i have a fairly good memory of it.

    i also have a contact currently working at the school who has been there from before my time.

    hope i can help in some way…
    my email: johnadamvdberg@gmail.com

    your servant
    John

  3. Elihle says:

    Can girls go to the school

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