Having a good style guide is important, but using it properly is even more important. No doubt most schools may have a style guide or brand guidelines; some quite good and detailed, some that need improvement or updating. But when it comes to actually using this guide effectively to do what it was created for – to uphold the school brand – I think most schools might admit they could be doing much better.
As you may know, all communications and interactions impact your brand. Your brand is always on a journey and it evolves over time. So all these interactions build memories, create associations, and change perceptions of your school in the minds of your audience.
It can be easy to underestimate the style guide as a useful tool. But using one properly, like a map for the journey, can have huge implications that will significantly benefit your school in the long term.
What is a Style Guide and why you need one
A style guide (or a brand guideline) is essentially a document that defines how to apply and use the school brand. If thinking about branding in schools is a new concept then you may like to start by reading one of our other articles – why branding is important for your school.
A basic style guide outlines use of the logo, the colours and fonts to use, writing styles, document templates and other general guidelines for your branding across various channels. Ultimately, a style guide helps you with two important things: consistency and credibility.
A style guide used well, will naturally help to bring consistency to your brand execution – making sure that the logo is used correctly, the images, colours, fonts, and messaging or tone of voice are the same across all channels. Brand consistency expresses basic professionalism – it tells others that you’re an organised institution that cares about its reputation and therefore, more importantly, cares about delivering on the promise it is making to its audience.
A few things that consistent, thoughtful branding communicates, include:
- Distinctiveness – what’s unique about your school
- Trust – can I trust this school with my child’s education?
These types of things add up to credibility.
Consistency will bring credibility. Consider a parent researching a school and they find the website looks different to the social media page, which looks a little different to the brochures or prospectus they received. The colours are different, the logo is a little pixelated on the brochure, and the messaging seems to communicate different things, leaving them a little unclear on what the school is all about. These things make them doubt the credibility of the school which essentially means they don’t trust the school – if they don’t trust the school, they are unlikely to send their child to that school.
A style guide is a simple step towards gaining consistency in your branding and building credibility for your school.
How to use a style guide
Once you have your style guide right, the first piece of advice is, don’t let it be forgotten. If you or your staff aren’t using it, it has no value. If your school isn’t using it to champion its brand, then there’s little point having it in the first place.
So now might be the time to recover your style guide from the deep recesses of your marketing drive, or perhaps introduce a new and improved one, but you also need to use it, and use it properly. So here are some tips for using your style guide well:
Use it internally
Many will only pull out the style guide when they are getting an external designer or agency to do some work for them, and of course it’s very useful for making sure they deliver something that is in line with your brand. But, your style guide isn’t just for external agencies.
It’s actually just as important to use internally within your school. Schools are generally fairly large institutions, with numerous staff teams operating across different departments and faculties. As a result, it’s certainly a challenge for the communications or marketing team to uphold the brand and maintain consistent and professional communication across many touchpoints.
A style guide is one of the best assets you have to help your staff both understand and uphold the school brand.
For your style guide to get any traction or be used internally, you need to sell it. By this I mean continually reinforcing the value of upholding the brand to the staff, and the importance of the style guide as a tool to facilitate this. Sell it to your leadership, executive, and department heads, who will then help sell it to the teachers, coordinators, and admin staff.
Andy Nobbs, Marketing Manager at Covenant Christian School, has some helpful advice on selling the style guide internally. He says: “Start with the brand narrative: why do we do the things we do, why do we sound this way, what is at our core etc. People will remember stories before rules, and if we can get them to engage authentically with the brand narrative, half the battle is won.”
Selling it isn’t about enforcing rules or command and control, it’s about your staff really embracing the story behind the brand – the ‘why’ of the brand – and as a result, having a desire to uphold the brand in their everyday practices and interactions with parents.
Make it accessible
The first step to making it accessible is obvious, but important. Make sure the style guide and all associated brand assets are easily accessible on a network drive. Not stashed deep in the marketing drive or locked away for ‘marketing only’ – that’s a sure way to stifle the brand.
Even better than keeping it as a file on a network drive, is publishing the style guide to a website, Sharepoint site or cloud platform like Frontify, so that it is accessible from anywhere on any device. Furthermore, think of the style guide as a ‘live’ document, so you can make simple updates at any time and publish to the site. Not many have the budget of Uber, but here’s a fantastic example to inspire this idea – view the Uber Brand guide.
Secondly, make templates. Here’s some good advice from Brendan, Marketing and Community Relations Manager at Green Point Christian College: “…provide some branded templates like letterheads, PowerPoint slides, Word docs for staff to use… Make this all accessible on a portal or share drive.”
Templates should be created using Powerpoint or Word, not Adobe Indesign or Photoshop. It’s one thing to have templates, but they will not be readily used if they are only accessible to staff with access to, and knowledge of these technical design programs. So create your templates for Word, Powerpoint or other simple to use programs that you know the whole staff can easily use.
Brendan continues, “Resourcing staff is the best way to engage them in the brand and empower them to share the ownership of adhering to the guide… it’s about resourcing and providing access to the brand assets so our brand ambassadors can represent the organisation well!”
Keep it flexible
Another sure way to stifle a brand is to be too rigid. There are a few things you shouldn’t budge on, but you also need to allow for creativity in expressing the brand. Dave Gray from Belmont Christian College offers some wisdom here saying, “Protect your logo at all costs, but get creative and drive a recognisable brand, not necessarily a strict colour palette. For example, consider some of the corporates who have a bit of fun with their colours and themes based around campaigns… otherwise it starts to look a tad bland and predictable, and parents stop engaging.”
There’s also wisdom in maintaining flexibility with your communication tools and collateral. Think carefully about that next long print run for your prospectus, and set up your website in a way that you can easily pivot without huge investment. Dave continues, “Don’t get locked into a look and feel for the next 10 years and then create yourself a mountain to climb over when you want change.”
Flexibility combined with compliance will be rewarding as you seek to use your style guide effectively.
More than the logo
Practically, your staff might be accustomed to using the logo correctly, and most likely know the school has a set of colours to use – that’s branding 101. But does their writing accurately represent your brand voice and use the right tone? Remember that your brand is much more than just visual, it also needs to speak to your audience(s) in a way they can embrace and understand it. Every aspect of your style guide should be reflected in your schools’ communication.
So firstly, make sure your style guide has some pointers on tone of voice and style of writing, then make it part of your process to monitor all aspects of the branding activity that happens around the school.
It’s not just for new prospects
Most of the communication that goes out from a school is to the current community of parents and students. But generally speaking, much less effort goes into the quality of communication to this group. There are obvious reasons for this, but what it means is that you are potentially missing a huge opportunity to solidify the brand and improve brand perceptions for the best asset you have for future growth – your existing school community.
So your style guide isn’t just for the flashy brochures, advertisements, and website aimed at attracting new families – after all, there is no value in presenting a flashy facade, if behind the scenes you actually present like an unprofessional, clunky organisation stuck in the 90’s. So use your style guide across all communication channels, both externally and internally. You will find that investing time and effort into the branding created for your existing community will create brand ambassadors for your school who will bring in more enrolments than any flashy advertising ever could.
It’s relatively easy to manage the quality of communication that goes out to market, but it’s a whole other thing to manage communications to the school community. No one likes a micro-managed autocracy, and you certainly don’t want to double check every piece of communication that goes out to parents. Setting up some processes will help make the style guide a practical tool so that brand compliance will be a natural part of the school communications.
Here are a few practical ideas you might want to consider:
- Hold a segment at each in-service or staff development week to reinforce the importance of upholding the brand (back to ‘the why’) and remind staff where to find the style guide, templates to use, workflows to follow…
- Set up some simple approval workflows so staff know when they need approval and how to get it quickly without creating roadblocks. Review and assess these workflows regularly to make sure they are effective, and adjust as needed.
- Each month, pick a faculty or department and do a light brand audit – spend 30 minutes reviewing some of the communications that have gone out in the past few months. Make notes, encourage staff when they are doing well and prompt for change where improvements are needed.
- Every term, check templates are up to date. Templates have a habit of morphing over time, or multiplying (which template is the actual one?), or they simply get left for years and you find one day someone had been using a template from 2005.
Branding is a journey, so remember that perfection isn’t the goal, but rather a movement towards greater brand consistency, which will build credibility. A style guide is the map for your journey, so make good use of it and share it with the others on that same journey. Even small changes can have a huge impact that will help you to deliver communications that genuinely resonate with your audience and make your school brand memorable.
Read more about school branding: elevatecreative.com.au/why-branding-is-important-for-your-school.
At Elevate, we create brands, products and systems that facilitate meaningful experiences for school communities. Learn more about how we can help your school.