Marketing Strategy

Creating Marketing Messages that Drive Participation: Applying an Ad Ratings Study to School Nutrition

When you’re marketing your program, I don’t want you to feel like you’re throwing spaghetti at the wall. Time is precious, so let’s make sure that the time you spend marketing your program is. And to help us strategize your marketing plan, we’ll turn to a recent study by System1 and shared by the American Marketing Association.

When evaluating what makes a five-star ad, the highest-ranking ads had at least one of the following five elements: familial relationships, pet care, summer treats, inclusive purpose and all-ages ad. All of these evoked an emotional response and as school nutrition professionals, you’re lucky. You already have the ingredients for crafting a campaign that would elicit an emotional response: food, children, and a lot of heart. But let’s refocus those to align with what System1 found helps create a five-star ad. That’s right, I’m going to find a way to tie each of these marketing angles to school nutrition – even the puppies.

Familial relationships are an easy one, right? Brands like Google Home and Dole fruit bowls created five-star ads that centered around the parent-child relationship and it created an ad that elicited emotion and was effective. So, when parents volunteer in the cafeteria (like a Parent Chef at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, pictured right) or eat a school lunch with their child, ask if you can take their picture and share it on your website, school e-newsletter, or your school or program’s social media page. Parents can be your biggest advocate, and they like to talk to other parents. Plus, I can promise you that if they are featured in a picture on your Facebook Page, they will share it with their friends!

Pet care seems like a tough one, but we can get creative here. Firstly, let me start by asking if you knew that the dog population is outpacing human population in the United States. Crazy, right? But if I had my way, my husband and I would be outnumbered by pound puppies, so I get it. Either way, if you can include a canine in your marketing, you’re sure to get more likes, comments, shares and overall engagement. But how can you do that in a foodservice environment? An easy way is the Talking Pet app. Inspired by Christine Clarahan at School City of Hammond, I shared this at the 2019 SNA Annual National Conference in a breakout session, and it was a huge hit! (If you missed that session, you can watch it on demand at Horizon Software’s website.) You can use the Talking Pet app to animate and add a voiceover for a pet, stuffed animal, school mascot… pretty much anything with a face! So get creative and dare I say, a little silly, and share your next marketing message from the mouth of your own pup at home. I’ll guarantee more people watch it than a simple post with a picture. Similarly, my good friend Stefanie Dove at Loudon County Schools used her furry buddy, Leo, to share details on an upcoming meeting with cafeteria staff. Now, who wouldn’t want to get news from this sweet face? And finally – this may be a bit of a stretch, but stay with me – do you have any therapy dogs that visit your schools? If so, what a great post to share that you gave a dog a bone from the cafeteria. Picture it: “We feed canines and humans alike at Alden Elementary!” Again, I guarantee a picture of a staff member giving a sweet treat to a visiting canine friend would get you a lot of likes and shares.

Ah, summer treats. We see a lot of lively, summer themed ad campaigns beginning as early as March and April, and the fact that many five-star ads were summer themed is a good reminder that you can’t take the summer off from promoting your program. If you’re doing summer feeding – great! The content is already there for the sharing. Share the locations, items you’re serving, feature your team, post pictures of the kiddos if you can. If you’re not doing summer feeding, you can still actively market your program during the summer. Nutrition education and food facts, behind-the-scenes looks at your planning for the next school year, and new menu items you’re trying out are all excellent content to share. And if you’ll be at your state association trade shows or ANC, share what you’re learning! It shows your stakeholders and parents that school nutrition is a business and you’re learning about the most innovative ways to serve and nourish your students. Go Live on Facebook from the trade show floor, share pictures and show them that being a school nutrition professional is serious (and fun) business!

I wasn’t surprised to see inclusive purpose on the list of five-star ad elements. Today, consumers emotionally connect with businesses that are inclusive and assume a social responsibility for the disadvantaged. And what better face for your purpose than serving students that are food insecure. Let your audience know that food insecurity is real, it’s in their area, and that through the National School Lunch Program, you are combating childhood hunger. We can all agree this is a bipartisan issue and we know the stats behind students that eat breakfast and lunch at school – decreased tardiness, increased test scores, fewer behavioral issues. But I think this is when we are too close to our program and forget that we must continue to educate our communities. So, make your purpose a recurring, natural element of your marketing and you will most certainly connect with your audience on an emotional level.

And finally, I was so excited to see that all-ages ads were among the highest-ranking ads in this study, because your program truly does have all ages represented! Showing diversity among your posts appeals to a wider audience, so if you can, feature your students. Feature faculty, cafeteria staff, and your central office staff. Almost everyone at every level is celebrating achievement, whether a lunchroom just scored 100 on a health inspection or a cafeteria manager that just celebrated twenty years of service, so be sure to shine a spotlight on all of them!

I hope these tips will help you focus your marketing efforts and that you see your customer engagement increase online, then you see that lunchline grow! If any of these ideas helped you, I’d absolutely love to hear about it and feature your story on our blog; email me to share your story so we can share your success and continue to grow together.

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