Interview with Dr. Karen T. McNay by Megan Youngblood

Ursuline Academy of New Orleans is the nation’s first all-girls’ Catholic school — founded almost 50 years before America by 12 Ursuline nuns from France.

The Sisters blazed a legacy of firsts for Ursuline Academy, establishing the first convent; first free school; and first classes for female African-American slaves, free women of color and Native Americans. The academy’s trailblazers also include the first female pharmacist and first female photographer in the nation.

Even with its rich history of innovation, its brand hadn’t kept up with communicating its girl power of today.

Dr. Karen T. McNay, president of Ursuline Academy, shares how re-envisioning the brand to encourage every girl to blaze her own trail, like generations of Ursuline women before, changed the conversation on and off campus. Her partnership with Zehno garnered international acclaim and is changing the school’s position in its crowded local market.

Ursuline Academy has such a strong history. It has been empowering girls for nearly 300 years with innovative approaches to education. Why didn’t people — and your prospects — have much awareness about Ursuline and its alumnae trailblazers?

Dr. Karen T. McNay: Before our rebranding, we were stuck in this mindset of being the oldest Catholic school in the nation and described the academy in a stately, prestigious way. We had forgotten to attach the story that makes us that.

Instead of talking about the oldest Catholic school, we now talk about it being the first. And we’ve featured our firsts — the great things our alumnae have done — and reframed the work our Sisters did as trailblazers in education for New Orleans and our country.

Women could read and write here in New Orleans before the men — because of our Sisters. They did everything from teaching women how to turn a profit making pralines to sharing their faith to providing a diverse environment in which to learn.

So how did Ursuline reframe the story?

When we talked about our Sisters doing those things, we had never attached words like “trailblazers.” And, they were! St. Angela wanted women out in the world, and that’s exactly what our sisters did when they came here.

But if we didn’t share that story in a way that was exciting and current, it would fall on deaf ears.

We also never had a way to focus everybody on the same message. Now we’re not just sharing pieces of the story, but we can share the whole story — even down to our Facebook posts. Did we have individual Facebook posts before? Yes, but we weren’t getting our bigger message across.

We do now, in terms that meet the needs of 2020. I think that’s been the biggest blessing.

How would you describe the New Orleans school market for people who may not be familiar with it?

Well, I think it might be the most competitive market in the United States. Before the charter system existed, the options were not as numerous as they are now.

The charter system that blossomed after Hurricane Katrina brought in so many outside ideas and new ways of educating. Each individual charter school can embrace the values that they want, so now a family has the opportunity to seek out those shared values in a more consumer-driven market.

Instead of having a public system where you just go to your neighborhood school, students now have a choice of all of these schools in Orleans Parish.

Many families viewed the city’s public schools as underperforming, so they sent generations of family members to the same private schools. Is that changing?

New Orleans has been a place where its residents have always lived here. But Hurricane Katrina changed that. We’re seeing that more and more New Orleanians — the parents of our students — didn’t actually grow up here.

That also changes the market because you have people coming from other places who experience public and private education in different ways. They might be used to having a strong public educational system in other settings in the United States.

Here they’re asking, “Why would I pay for a private education?”

With so many good choices for parents to sort through, what’s the biggest challenge for schools here to get a prospect to commit?

I really believe you have to live your mission. One of the things we know is if we can give them a tour, more than 90% of the families will apply. By taking a tour, they understand our values and mission.

For schools in general, you have to understand where you are in the market. We have a niche: we are educating women to go out and be a certain kind of person. We know that and we follow through on it. It comes through in our Ursuline values and project-based education.

You have to know who you are, and go after those mission-appropriate students. Not every student who comes through the door fits what your school is doing.

If you’re sitting there thinking that your reputation is going to take care of your admissions problem, well, it won’t. That day is over. You have to get your message out so that it targets your best-fit students.

After your rebranding, are you seeing a shift in your parents and students?

The younger the parents are, the more they love how we tell our story. Parents today want their daughters to have every opportunity available to them. Talking about confident women who walk out the door empowered to do whatever they’re called to do really is a message that our parents want.

Our branding is also retaining the parents we have. Our current parents may not have always heard our message the way we wanted them to hear it because we took for granted that they were already here and maybe didn’t need convincing.

Being consistent with messaging across the academy — teachers, administration and communications — has really drilled home who we are, both internally and with our key audiences.

Why do you think marketing matters for today’s schools?

We’re all exposed to marketing all day long. We’re sending millions of messages through email and social media, where people can shop and be tracked. We are a marketing society.

To say that marketing is not important is a mistake because this is the society we live in, especially for our younger, millennial families. They are shoppers and not brand loyal, so you need to constantly share your story even with the people who have chosen you.

Some schools may blow their budget on a single advertising campaign, which is a very short-term tactic. But you decided to invest in this longer term project to define your school’s brand. Why did you decide the brand was worth investing in?

I did some homework to start to understand the difference. The branding initiative rallied everybody together with a focus to discuss ourselves. There was great work in the surveys, the focus groups, the feedback to faculty and staff and to the Board of Trustees about how people perceived us.

Without all of that research, it would have been just hunches, “This is what we think people think.”

Can you gather information from exit interviews and other things to know why students might choose to leave or not come to this academy? Yes, but it’s better for somebody to sit outside of your community and give you objective feedback, instead of just accepting the loudest voice as the common opinion of who you are. We got a view of who we are without all the preconceived notions.

How did your new brand platform focus your marketing?

The branding gave us a clear message for each of our audiences, which are all different. When I’m talking to somebody who has an infant or a toddler, or someone who’s interested in elementary or middle school, I’m talking to the parents.

But when we are talking to a high school prospect, we’re talking to a fifth, sixth, or maybe a seventh grader, and her family is along for the ride!

Those discussions are different. And they need to be focused on who is walking in the door to make the decision.

How has the brand initiative been useful beyond marketing? Have you experienced any unexpected results?

Yes, and here’s the largest: We have great pride in how we present ourselves that we didn’t have before.

Before we were talking about what other schools were doing. Now we’re talking about how wonderful our school is presenting itself.

Our alumni are proud of how we’ve told the story because this brand also represents them. They’re trailblazers, too.

For the first time, we have other schools coming to us, wanting to talk about our brand.

Building our pride internally has given us momentum to continuously embrace more best practices, to be cutting edge and to push ourselves forward.

When I arrived seven years ago, I would have done anything to get my parents talking about the great things at Ursuline. Now they’re overwhelming us with praise about our marketing and how we’ve portrayed the girls so confidently.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently about the brand initiative?

I would have done it sooner.

Many of our leaders didn’t want to invest the money. They said you just need to change your colors and logo.

As I talked with brand agencies, I started to understand how important it was for us to have a consistent look for Ursuline so that people could recognize us. We had tried to do that through logos and mascots, but that left something out: it didn’t portray our message.

I had to convince the Board of Trustees, our alumnae and faculty that branding is important, and wanted them to participate. The worst thing we could have done would be to conduct surveys and develop brand messages and nobody be a part of it.

When I was in an alumnae meeting, I talked about the brand initiative. When I was with the board, I made sure they saw all the steps along the way and the results. We also chose wisely the people who sat on the branding steering committee, making sure we had the voices of all our different constituencies, especially our parents, who were living and breathing the Ursuline experience.

Do you have any advice for other schools with small marketing and admissions teams who are starting to assess their own brands?

Everybody has to be on the same page. It’s not going to help to embark on something like this and then decide you’re not going to use it and not change your brand. That’s a disaster.

For the smaller schools, you’re never going to have the expertise or objective point of view on staff that we got by hiring Zehno. A small school needs to leverage the support of a firm like Zehno to help them get where they need to be.

When we premiered the brand video your teachers cried. Was that a good thing?

Yes, because we finally told the story!

At Ursuline, we have a great pride in what we do. Sometimes as a whole community, we just don’t understand why people don’t see this, why they don’t know Ursuline and the value of our education.

So when you put faculty and alums in a room and you finally tell the story — a story that reflects them and the effect of their education — truly, they cry.

The focus of the video wasn’t on an administrator. It wasn’t on what I wanted to say. It was truly only about the girls and what they do here.

The Sisters are very humble about everything they’ve done across the history of New Orleans, and that humility is embraced and permeates the walls here. We finally have something that we can boast about that says who we are and who our girls are.

Ursuline won four golds and one bronze in the InspirED School Marketers Brilliance Awards for the brand campaign — that’s more gold awards than any other school. Why do you think Ursuline was such a showstopper?

We are trailblazers and innovators in everything. And if we’re not, we’re working to be.

Our new brand tells the whole story just by following our girls in their class work and what they do on campus. So that award says, “Yes, you are a trailblazer.”

Learn more

Go behind the scenes at Ursuline’s brand photo shoot and read more about Ursuline’s “blaze brighter” campaign.