This article is a little longer than planned as I've added a section to highlight why branding is so important amongst the current COVID-19 pandemic. I'd encourage you to read the full article of course, but if you want to skip down to the 'Why branding is even more important right now' section, go for it.
A school shouldn't really be known for its excellent branding, it should be known for excellence in education and the distinctive elements of the school vision & mission. But this doesn't mean that a school can't have an excellent brand, or that branding isn't important for a school.
In doing some reading and research* while writing this article I confirmed what I already suspected, that the term 'branding' isn't particularly prevalent when paired with 'school' or even 'education'. Or if it is, it's generally referring specifically to brand design or visual branding like logos and design execution. Even more rare is talk of branding in primary or secondary level education - you only get a little smattering of branding for higher (tertiary) education. There is however, plenty of wisdom and noise about marketing for education and schools, but as I go into below, there's a distinction that needs to be draw between marketing and branding.
It follows that many in the world of education think that 'branding' is reserved for the corporate and commercial world. However, I would suggest that it is naive to think that branding has little to do with a school, or that branding is reserved only for the marketing team.
Consider this - branding is unavoidable.
Every school has a brand - that much is obvious. But you may not realise that every single day, branding is already happening. Whether you know it or not, every single communication, interaction and touch point with the school is building memories, associations, and perceptions of the school brand. All this branding activity is either building the brand up, or bringing it down.
Before we go on, let me clarify a couple of things…
Firstly, let's dispel that common and dangerous misconception that a brand is just about your logo. You may not be looking to change your school logo, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention to your brand - far from it. This article is not about your logo, but it is all about building your school brand, which is far more valuable than having a nice logo.
"Your school brand goes beyond the logo or crest on the students' uniforms. It is the set of values that differentiate you and your educational offerings from competitors."
Secondly, it's helpful to clarify the difference between branding and marketing. Branding comes first, marketing follows. As such, marketing strategy sits under the brand strategy. Marketing tactics are often changing and evolving to meet the needs of a changing market and audience. Branding is always focussed on the same goal - to communicate and deliver on the promise your brand is making. This rarely changes - so branding is all about the long game, the long term commitment - consistency over time. Branding is more strategic than operational, it is vital, not functional.
"…simply put, it (branding) is the act of your school keeping its brand promise."
Marketing activity is the cogs turning and the hands-on work to implement and execute strategy. It is the obvious stuff that people see - website, brochures, emails, social media, events, campaigns, etc. This is where the distinction can get blurry as branding underlies all the marketing activity. Branding however, is much broader. It happens with no effort or intention of the marketing team at all - coming back to my point above that branding is happening whether you know it or not. And it is these unintentional elements of branding that we need to carefully consider. Furthermore, branding is not just the responsibility of the marketing or community team, it actually falls into the hands of everyone that has a regular involvement with the school.
I often see marketing and community teams busy in lots of vigorous marketing activity, and much of it is good and helpful, but it's just the daily grind trying to keep up with the marketing program. Marketing is rarely overlooked, whereas branding however is too often disregarded, or not even considered. Don't feel too sorry for branding though, as it will happily tick along whether you give it any attention or not - but beware, if you don't give it the attention it deserves, it may well be working against you.
Same Same, but Different
A school is a unique entity in many ways - certainly distinct from corporate and commercial entities. While different, I believe schools have much to learn and benefit from by applying current techniques and methodologies used in the corporate world.
"School marketing needs to change because prospective parents already have"
You see, in this customer focused, consumer culture, parents of your school don't differentiate too much in their expectations between a tech co. like Uber or a retail giant like Amazon or a big brand like Nike, and your school - they come to expect the same experience from whoever they interact with. If your school is not quite delivering, then this has an immediate impact on your school brand, which overflows to impact the community sentiment and ultimately, student enrolments. So generally speaking, from a parent perspective, your school is one and the same as any other brand.
That said however, applying best practice marketing and branding techniques in a school is not straightforward - it must be done differently. You can't just drop these techniques on the school marketing program - I know from experience that this doesn't work. Schools are a unique entity, so this means that the techniques need special crafting to make them relevant and effective for a school.
From a brand strategy perspective I want to say that schools operate in a unique and special place unlike many other organisations. There is a highly emotional connection between parents and the the school brand- a school has a crucial role in looking after their children, even playing a role in raising and shaping them into who they grow up to be. Not many brands bear this huge responsibility like a school. So parents generally have a very close and passionate connection with the school, and genuinely care about what the brand represents, and how this is executed.
So while we need to learn and benchmark from the corporate world of branding and marketing, a school is not the same - so we need to carefully consider how to apply these techniques and strategies so they are effective in the world of education.
Let's be clear however - the weight of responsibility to educate and shape students falls on the teaching staff. But before the teachers even get a chance to teach and take on that weighty role, branding (and marketing) needs to take place to convince parents that your school is worthy of educating their kids.
Who's Job is Branding?
The simple answer is that the community and marketing team does the branding work. True. But let’s take a quick look at who else might be taking part in branding at your school…
School parents - sure they're not employed by the school but their kids attend and they're involved on some levels. Instinctively, they already have an embedded perception of the school, positive or otherwise. So whenever they talk about school to others, in person or online, they are either advocating or criticising the school brand. I'd argue that parents actually have one of the most crucial roles in promoting the school-word of mouth is still after all the best way to sell anything.
Students - yep all those little rascals and growing teens are literally wearing the brand on their backs. Again, the way they talk about school to their friends, the way they wear their uniform, even their behaviour in public while wearing the uniform - unintentional branding. I recently heard a story of a young student who stood up and gave their seat to an elderly person on a local bus - everyone who saw that, possibly without even knowing it, logged a positive perception of that school brand in their brain. How to get students to do a good job of representing your school brand is probably the toughest job of them all.
Teachers - no surprise here, but of course teachers play a critical role in branding of the school. But don't worry, teachers don't need to learn the art of branding - they just need to stick to their main game of educating, nurturing and raising the students. If teachers do a good job of this, then so many positive things flow out of this in terms of branding - the students are educated and raised well, the parents are thus happy and as such, they both go about spreading positive brand experiences throughout their communities and circles of influence.
Principal or Head - of anyone in the school, the Principal or Head is the face of the brand. Most brands have a 'face' - a human to connect with the brand identity. This human element is so important to add something that a logo, a product or a building can't replace - personality and relational interactions. Now I'm all in favour of humble leadership, but I believe as leader of a school, a Principal needs to be visible and active with not only the staff and students, but also with the wider school community.
School Board - the role of the Board in branding is to keep the true north. To make sure that all the branding activity is all pointing in the right direction - straight towards the vision and mission. This is not an easy task, as it not uncommon for motivated and busy community teams, even the executive, to stray - all with good intention no doubt, but if the ship is heading anywhere but toward the vision & mission, it will impact the culture of the school and potentially the change the identity of the school.
I could go on to the school executive, the business manger, the support and admin staff, the Association, even the grandparents, but the point is - everyone has a role to play in branding.
Coming back to the school community or marketing team. If you are part of this team, perhaps now you feel a little weight off your shoulders in terms of bearing the full weight of responsibility for the branding of the school. That's good, you should, as it is indeed a shared task. But remember that you are on the front line of branding and this is an essential part of your job - you are doing the intentional, tangible work, the work that is most visible and evident to all. And this work will have a big impact on how much of the unintentional and intangible branding plays out.
Ok enough of the theoretical, here’s a few practical things to consider how you can be very intentional about building and nurturing your school brand. This is mostly for the marketing and community team, business managers and school executive or leadership team, who should take an active role in branding, but certainly still relevant for all those engaged or actively involved with the school community.
Possibly the main thing that many community teams overlook, purely due to time constraints and general busyness of school life, is to stop, watch and listen. Pay attention to every day interactions that are happening all around you at school — in the playgrounds, the classrooms, assembly, the staff lunch room, the office, at school events. Also go beyond the school grounds if possible — look and listen for things happening externally, like the story above about the student on the school bus. Monitor social media and online brand mentions (there’s a few good tools for this). Keep you ear to the ground with discussions about school between parents at Sunday lunch.
This is just research right. But the type of research I’m talking about is very organic. It’s being intentional about having your ears to the ground, and being present and involved in as many community events as possible, rather than too busy locked away in an office punching out clever marketing campaigns.
On top of this, I’d throw in the recommendation that more formal brand research is of course, a necessary and useful tool to get even more specific data. So in doing this organic research, coupled with formal research, you gain highly valuable insights into the reality of how the school brand is perceived — and with this data, collected over time, you will be able to make meaningful decisions, adjustments to strategy and tweak your execution to make sure your branding is working towards delivering on your promise.
Another major challenge school marketers and community teams face in terms of branding is consistency. I’m not necessarily talking about consistency over time, but consistency across mediums and channels. The most obvious example that I’m sure any community team would have experienced is the teaching staff communications to parents. The marketing and community team could be doing a fantastic job of brand execution with all the channels they control, but then you have teachers, essentially running their own individual covert campaigns to one of the key stakeholders in the brand voice — parents. We’ve all seen them, particularly in infants or primary — the weekly update from the teacher with fluro comic sans fonts, cartoon imagery and a tone that is way off brand.
Of course teachers don’t know they are doing a form of branding and what they do or more importantly, what they say and how they say it, has an impact the brand. There is something special and very authentic about how a teacher communicates to their students and parents, and this of course needs to remain. The real challenge here is to gain some consistency in the tone and appearance so as to uphold the brand standards, without loosing the authenticity of the message. This is not easy and I’d say a challenge for most schools.
I’d suggest that one way to begin addressing this issue is awareness. By simply giving teachers an awareness that all their communications have an impact on the school brand, so they need to carefully consider each email or message they send. This is a just start, you also need to work towards equipping all staff, not just teachers, with tools and information that assist them to understand the importance of upholding the brand, and ways to help them do this. Brand guidelines are a great way to do this. If you don’t already have one, I’d suggest just start small and let it grow. It might just start as a visual identity guideline, then you can work towards adding more elements like guidance on messaging and tone of voice.
The bottom line is that all communications from the school need to be consistently ‘on brand’ — anything else and you are sending mixed messages to your audience and ultimately damaging brand reputation.
Lastly, in terms of practical advice, I’d suggest to focus on your brand strategy.
"If you don't have a brand strategy, start today. If you've got one, don't let it lie dormant… revisit it regularly and don't let time erode your brand."
Why Branding is even more important right now
I started writing this article before COVID-19 became so serious as to now impact the world as we know it a major way. As such, I can’t finish off this article without addressing the current situation — not because I need to add to the vast amount of content already produced surrounding COVID-19, but because I feel that much of what is written above is so very crucial to any brand surviving the impending economic downfall. For it is times like these that refine and test the resilience of a brand. So let me leave you with a few last thoughts to consider…
Right now most independent schools are thinking all about enrolment retention. This is of course prudent and necessary as retention will be the key for now. Many will be thinking about marketing — how to adjust to cater for the radical changes in the market over the coming months. Many may be immediately cutting spending on marketing and reducing non-essential costs.
I’d suggest that it’s those who are thinking about the longer term and understand branding as vital, not a functional cost that can be cut, will see retention during the down turn, and return to enrolment growth sooner than most.
People at this time are hyper-sensitive which means that reason and rational thinking can go out the door — so more than ever, it is vital to stay ‘on brand’ with all your communication. Stray and you risk causing major damage to brand sentiment and quickly eroding trust, even from minor deviations. Right now is all about building trust in your school, your brand. So focus on your branding by carefully listening to your community more than ever, and ensure all the communication coming out of the school is as clear and consistent as it can be.
How your school responds to COVID-19 and the radical changes for online learning is at the core, a branding activity. Yes, there’s a very practical element to the communication around COVID-19, but if your school can deliver timely and effective content that communicates key information to help parents and students, it will certainly bolster your brand, solidify for parents why they chose your school, and also set your school apart from others that do not respond in such a way.
If you nail your branding right now — if you double down on your vision & mission, affirm your value proposition, remind people why they chose your school, and deliver on your promise — you will turn onlookers into prospectives, prospectives into enrolments and current parents and students into passionate advocates of your school brand.
*My research wasn't extensive, so I'd welcome any references or links that give some good wisdom on the topic of 'branding for schools'.
Anthony is the founder and Director of Elevate. After family, faith, and business, he loves to surf, play soccer and take a decent photo.