Big Ideas And Big Results Don’t Need Big Budgets

After a decade of declining enrollment and school closings Detroit Public Schools (DPS) was losing millions in funding. DPS was advancing their curriculum and wanted to evolve every school into a “Center of Excellence” despite its dire finances. But the Governor declared DPS to be in a fiscal emergency, a result of enrollment declining by nearly 80,000 students in the last decade.

The campaign to save the schools was built in a simple metaphor. A blue door represented the opportunities that lie behind the front entrance of every DPS school. They partnered with Home Depot and created an event to make the doors. More than 500 parents, students and DPS supporters painted 172 blue doors – one for every school in the district with the rallying cry “I’m in!”

Instead of yet another “ad campaign” they tried to truly inspire people to act and become vocal advocates for DPS. DPS needed a movement. Key insights that drove tactics included the fact that: inner-city families don’t have access to TV, only 20% of Detroit residents have access to the Internet; city residents are active, social and move throughout the city; city residents distrusted DPS; word on the street would hold more credibility.

The 172 doors made their way around Detroit; at Hart Plaza downtown, at Belle Isle, the state fair and a back-to-school rally and parade complete with floats, bands and thousands of DPS supporters. Some TV, radio and newspaper ads were produced, but what really got people motivated was the ability to get involved with rallies, yard signs, lapel pins, T-shirts, window signs, door hangers and word of mouth. “I’m in!” was put in the hands of the people and they took ownership.

What were the results? DPS exceeded their enrollment goal, capturing 6,500 above their goal and an incremental $49 million of funding. This kept DPS financially viable – all for less than $500,000 in total media expenditures. DPS also exceeded their press coverage goal by 500%, generating $1.5 million in pres.

How can you apply the lessons in this case to your product or service and its marketing? Or with so many schools in budget trouble these days, perhaps we take a step back and look at successes like these.