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More brands should get involved with schools

by Carrie Grafham on 06 June 2012

When my son was in reception, he made a Mother’s Day card for me at school. On the front was a teapot. Outside the teapot was a tag belonging to a teabag, which was hanging inside the card accompanied by a little rhyme encouraging me to put my feet up (yes, I still have it…),

The teabag was Tetley’s Drawstring. I was impressed. How clever of them to engage with schools and provide the materials for this, I thought.  Imagine the emotional resonance as mothers all over the country open their Mothers Day card to find a Tetley teabag swinging sentimentally within their child’s heartfelt message.

The following week I asked the teacher if Tetley’s did this every year. Her response surprised me, ‘if only! I go to Asda to buy a box of teabags and spend the night before cutting out 30 teapots!’

The activity is on Tetley’s US Facebook page, so I know they are aware of it – so what is stopping them from working with schools in this way? It seems they’re not alone. In spite of Michael Gove’s encouragement and agencies dedicated to producing some great work in schools, there is still reluctance from some brands to a) get involved with schools or b) admit to it.

Do they fear press accusations that they are cynically exploiting schools that should be commercial-free environments? Has the Bailey Review stretched its net too wide in corporate consciousness?

I have spoken to several teacher friends who would welcome more brand-sponsored materials in class. As long as junk food brands are kept away, there is no overt advertising message and the content is shaped to deliver a lesson, they see no problem.  Although there are no regulations in place about the level of commercialism allowed, they said these were unnecessary, as they would reject anything that they felt pushed the boundaries.

Neither is there an issue with parents. A quick ad hoc assessment of my own peers’ opinions supports research in 2004 by  Edcoms which shows that parents also view this kind of corporate help positively, viewing it not as an abuse of commercial power, but at best ‘giving back’ and at worse an acceptable ‘long-term brand building exercise’.

In the light of this, it’s very frustrating that a minority voice seems to be forcing brands to shy away from this much appreciated form of CSR. With reduced funding and squeezed time in schools, surely well produced materials carefully developed to link with the curriculum (and only subtly branded) can perform a valuable job.

However, the issue goes deeper than that. There are also brands that I suspect are using the ‘hot potato’ excuse and not engaging with schools when they morally should.

I’ve touched on this before when asking why technology companies don’t take some responsibility and produce school delivered programs which tackle the actual health and social issues raised by their products.  I do not believe there is one parent who wouldn’t welcome a corporate message warning of the dangers of addiction to Playstation, Facebook etc. The positive PR received on the back of it would surely drown out the dissenters.

So let’s accept that our kids are exposed to brands everyday, and at least show them that they can be positive forces for good. At the vey least it can stimulate a lively and honest discussion around the practice of marketing, perhaps giving the kids tools to – shock horror – make their own minds up….

Where do you think the boundaries lie with schools and brands?

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  • http://twitter.com/thehotiron Mike Maddaloni

    With the continuing reduced funding of education, branding and schools are a natural combination.  However there will be much resistance, and my thought is to pick at the low hanging fruit first, then work up the tree.

    For example, a school bus is ripe for display advertising, similar to public transit busses.  Yes, you could wrap a yellow bus in an ad, bus the bus is yellow for a reason!  Naming rights to schools is also an option, or parts of them, such as auditoriums and libraries.  Communications to parents can also carry branding and ads as well.

    As a parent of little ones that are more and more aware of branding, namely by the Walt Disney Company, I am increasingly interested in schools that require uniforms, namely for reduced hassle of wearing the “right” Tinker Bell outfit or that someone else may be wearing it that same day as well.  So starting from the outside, exposing parents more to it than the students, makes sense as an approach to this new arena.


  • Carrie Grafham

    Good point re: libraries etc. – why not allow corporate sponsorship of education – higher education is open to it; makes sense to link companies and schools to create meaningful symbiotic relationship. The company offers specific courses/work experience/post-A-level schemes etc, and the school provides willing and semi-trained recruits (while introducing the very real possibility of career without the need for university or college).

  • http://www.joannejacobs.net/ Joanne Jacobs

    I’m often astonished by the double standards applied in the education market.  While, on the one hand, people are conflicted about the prospect of brand investment in learning activities (and rightfully so), they are more than willing to accept the highly branded and often compulsory instruments of education – iPads in classrooms jumps to mind.  

    I’m in agreement with you Carrie, that in some circumstances, the use of branded products in some activities should be acceptable.  And donating a box of teabags to a Mother’s Day card activity should be one of those instances that is deemed acceptable.  (Indeed I would be surprised if the company would have rejected an application from the teacher for freebie teabags if she had explained her intention for use.)  Common sense should apply here: if a brand can become involved with education from a perspective of supporting learning activities it is entirely acceptable.  If engagement with education involves any kind of restriction of learning experience (including denying access to competitive brands), then it should be avoided.

    But any connection between brands and educationalists should be two-way.  Teachers do connect with each other via events such as TeachMeet, and they discuss their strategies for engaging students. If brands could listen in to such conversations, and to identify where they could assist, then perhaps more connections could be forged. And teachers need to connect with brands. If they have an idea for use of a brand in the classroom that will be appropriate/unobtrusive, then there should be a process for teachers to access those goods/services without compromising the learning experience. Institutions such as the Education Foundation could perhaps assist here?

    In the interest of transparency I guess I should acknowledge this: I’m a trained secondary school teacher and have written curriculum for graduate education programmes (teaching teachers about education).  I’m also on the advisory board of the Education Foundation.  

  • Carrie Grafham

    Thanks Joanne – it’s great to get an expert point of view. I just feel that so many opportunities are going to waste through fear of vilification. All it will take is a few great examples of how it can work to silence the dissenters (pointing no fingers, Daily Mail…)