International schools: what really drives decisions?

Piers Lee
Piers Lee

Managing Director, BVA BDRC Asia

International school choices

System 1 thinking: a fast process; it happens automatically, intuitively, emotionally, and with less effort.

System 2 thinking: slower and requires more effort. It is conscious and logical.

Over the last 15 years, there has been a significant shift in the market research industry’s approach to System 2 thinking. Does the multitude of System 2 responses produced in market research interviews, focus groups, and online surveys really reflect what consumers will do in real life?  This observation is valid in many sectors, particularly in FMCG, where decisions are often instantaneous and influenced by our subconscious. Even if we are making more ‘effort’, for example, in deciding to buy something new or switch to a new brand, our underlying decisions to do so can be quite illogical.

Clearly, purchases with a drawn-out process, or where people can advise on options, involve more System 2 thinking.  Examples include buying a house, financial services, choosing a holiday, and business purchases. These all have a higher value, more complexity, and often the involvement of others in the process. That said, even for these categories, irrationality, intuition, and emotion still creep into decision-making.

One of BVA BDRC’s specialist research areas is international schools, a decision process that exemplifies System 2 thinking. Choosing a school is a high-value purchase decision; an eight-year enrolment at a secondary school in Singapore can cost S$300k-400k. Trade-offs need to be made in choosing schools, e.g. curricular options, facilities, length of commute, school fees, etc. On top of this, choosing a school is a highly emotional decision with dramatic ramifications for a child’s future. Hence, parents spend a lot of time researching their final decision on schools.

Each year, BVA BDRC conducts a market-wide survey of parents in Southeast Asia to assess the brand equity and image of the leading international schools in major markets.  In addition, we look at factors that affect how parents make choices on schools. In our recently completed 2023 survey, we observed System 2 thinking by assessing how parents make trade-offs on various elements of the school value proposition.

Conjoint analysis is often used to assess the relative importance of attributes, but this approach can sometimes be unrealistic when asking people to state a relative preference between just two options. It can be more informative for consumers to see what they are trading off in ‘totality’ as this shows them the end product they are buying for themselves.

To assess choices in international schools, we asked parents to ‘construct’ their optimum school based on a limited budget. This involved getting parents to spend ten units (their ‘budget’) across five ‘added value’ elements of a school proposition, including academics, the teaching of ‘life skills’, parent service, sports, and arts.

With ten units across five elements, it was quite easy for parents to undertake trade-ups and trade-offs. Essentially, a spend of two units would indicate the parent viewed the importance of this element as equal to others; any trade-up in one area would ‘force’ a parent to trade down in another.

Prior to the exercise, parents were asked to assign a rating to each attribute to see how the stated importance compared to the trade-off. We found that initially parents had given equal, if not higher, importance to the teaching of life skills compared to the core academics.  The trade-off exercise then revealed how much more parents expect the school to invest in academics over life skills teaching. It also highlighted the greater perceived importance of sports compared to arts, at least at an overall market level.

Beyond this, we can drill down further into which specific elements of academics and life skills are important by undertaking further trade-off exercises, again with the ‘easy to manage’ 10-unit exercise.

Another advantage of the trade-off approach is that it allows us to easily identify segments in the market that can be examined in more detail.  Some schools are very strong in arts, and while most parents trade these facilities off, the one in three parents who think this is equally, if not more important than other elements, can be profiled and targeted.

While System 2 thinking is important for the international school category, some irrationality can still creep into the purchase decisions made by parents on schools. The ‘wow factor’ of some schools, e.g. the Olympic-sized swimming pool, the theatre, the number of tennis courts, etc, can do a lot to swing parents’ final decisions towards the preferred school.  Therefore, in parallel, we also undertake derived importance analysis via brand imagery correlated with propensity to recommend the school.

As you can see, when decisions as complex as choosing a school are being made, it’s important to understand what choices really drive purchase intent. Our International Schools Survey does just that.

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