When many parents select a school for their child, they are selecting with their heart, not their mind. This is actually how we make most of our purchases as well. Branding is about winning the heart. It is an intangible. A feeling. An emotion.
All the other “things,” you probably associate with a brand, like a logo, colors, and website design, are only the visual identity of that brand. Unless yours is a well-known brand, it isn’t likely that most people who see your school logo or school colors will have a strong emotion associated with those images. But creating emotion and a feeling of belonging that others associate with your school is the goal and what branding is all about. When you can accomplish that, you’re a rock star, and your school will be as well.
A book that educators who want a deeper understanding of school branding should read is called BrandEd: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning. In their book, authors Eric Sheninger and Trish Rubin translate traditional brand strategy into its educational counterparts. They summarize that a brand is basically about belonging. We all want to belong, and when we identify with a brand, we belong to that tribe. Businesses work hard to encourage us to identify with their brand and become members of their tribe—and they spend massive amounts of marketing and branding dollars to achieve it.
But what about schools? They don’t have massive budgets to spend on branding. They aren’t “selling” a product. But, they must create a strong brand if they hope to be influential and effective and to build trust. When communities, families, and schools work together to support learning, research shows that children tend to do better in school—much better.
To create that unity, with everyone working toward the same goal (student learning and hopefully a lifelong love of learning), you must invite others to believe in and identify with your brand. It’s about telling your stories, sharing your successes, and providing an inside look to those who are outside. Why bother with branding? Because you want your students to have the best possible chance at success. You want your community to be proud of and support your school, especially in this environment of school choice. You want to attract the elite teachers and staff. Branding can help you make that happen.
What do you think you stand for?
The first step in building a positive brand for your school is to understand what the current perception is, or if it even exists in the minds of your public. It is easy for those who work in a school to assume they have a good handle on how parents and community members think about education. But, it is likely their viewpoint is biased. Those whose school experience was negative, or even painful, are unlikely to go into education as a career. So the mere fact that you are working at a school means you may have a different perspective about the value school provides than many of your parents and community members.
So, step one would be to gather other’s perspectives. And the more you engage parents and other community members in the process of building your brand, the more powerful that brand will be. Consider a survey. They are easy to implement and provide you with valuable information to discover your current brand status. Promote it through your students (offer rewards for the first class that gets 100% completion of the survey by their parents). A pizza party will work wonders. Post it on your mobile-friendly website. Here are some sample parent survey questions to give you some ideas. Or, keep it simple and start with simple parent survey questions like these:
- What three adjectives (or emotions) immediately come to mind when you think about our school? (Examples: welcoming, supportive, inclusive, inspiring, intimidating, boring, etc.)
- How likely is it that you would recommend our school to a friend or neighbor? (rated from “not at all” to “extremely likely”)
- What changes would our school have to make for you to give it a higher rating?
- What do you like most about our school and our services?
- What suggestions do you have to help us improve our school and services?
Be sure to survey your staff and students as well (although you may need different survey questions for them). Or, if you really want to simplify, just ask what three words come to mind when you say (insert your school name here). You will learn a lot about where you are now from a brand perspective.
What do you want to stand for?
Your next step is to come up with your key messages. What is it you want your school to be known for? What three words do you want people to associate with your school? If you don’t create your own messaging, people are likely to think of the last negative thing they heard about the school. Your branding goal is to provide a steady stream of messaging that provides proof of the many positive things happening at your school.
You could start by making a list of your school’s 5–10 best attributes. Now, see how those might align with your survey results. Are there areas where the perception doesn’t match with your known strengths? If so, those are your branding weaknesses and something you can work on changing. For the attributes that do align with current perceptions, create messaging to highlight those strengths.
It is also likely that your school has similarities with nearly every school in the country. However, you need to identify some differentiators that you can express. It might be the students you are targeting (ages, interests, parent concerns, culture or religion, etc.). Or maybe it is specialized curriculum or services you provide (arts, STEM, athletics, values, 1:1 technology, etc.). Maybe it is location, history, reputation, or status. Identify why you should be the first choice for parents looking for what you offer.
Naming your brand vision
Now, how would you describe your school to someone in a 30-second elevator ride? That is the next step in your school branding adventure. This includes your school’s value proposition—what value you bring to your audiences. Not sure what yours is? This value proposition worksheet might help. Whether you use your school’s mission or vision statement or simply a series of words that define what you want to represent, everyone must believe in the goal. Your vision statement or tagline (whatever you use to define your brand description) should become a reference point in your communications goals. It should be a reminder of what your school’s focus is.
Unlike so many mission statements that are a laborious creation that ends up as a meaningless statement tucked away in a handbook, yours should be a living, breathing goal. So, make it count. If your school’s goal is to produce responsible, self-reliant, and contributing adults, how is responsibility modeled and rewarded? Are the values your brand claims being taught? Are teachers incorporating teachable moments in the classroom that highlight one of your brand goals? Do some of your school stories show evidence of that success? If you say you meet the needs of each child, do you have stories about how you differentiate instruction for individual students or use small group instruction successfully? This is how you create an honest brand image and make a brand goal a reality.
Be sure everyone knows what that vision (brand goal) is. Share examples with your staff when one of their peers models some aspect of it. Repeat your school’s vision in your morning announcements. In the excellent book, The Power of Branding, the author describes how one of his elementary schools went so far as to include the community. He told parents on Facebook that the first five people to find the principal and tell him the school’s vision (tagline, mission, etc.) would get a school t-shirt. He says the response was amazing, and they had all internalized the message as a byproduct.
Telling your school’s stories
So, you have selected a brand goal, or maybe it is only a wish at this point. You know what you want and strive to be. This is called your brand promise. The next step is to provide evidence that this promise matches up with their brand experience. This is where school communications matters, when you’ve earned their trust, and success thrives. We also mentioned that an effective brand creates emotion and a feeling of belonging. The most valuable way to create an emotion and help people feel an affinity for what we believe in or who we are is to share a story.
Our brains don’t typically remember facts and figures for long, but a story can be 22x more memorable. Listening to facts only activates two areas of our brain (language processing), while listening to a story activates our whole brain (including emotion and sensation). So, building a positive brand for your school will in large part depend on your ability to gather and share your stories. Learn more about Telling Your School’s Stories.
Making it visual
Now it is time to tie your brand, the “what you want to be known for” with your visual images. They will need to be consistent with your vision. Do they enhance your reputation and reinforce your brand image? If not, it is time for a redesign.
Once created, you need to maintain the integrity of all your careful strategy by making sure everyone knows the brand “rules.” If you don’t, before you know it, the IT department will tweak the font to something techier. The high school art department will jazz up the mascot. And the kindergarten teacher, well…, you can only imagine. So, create a simple set of rules that everyone can follow. In the business world, it is often called a brand bible. It will include which fonts your school allows in print and on the website, font colors and design colors (both print and web), logo or mascot placement rules, and links to approved logos and mascots. Use it, enforce it, and remain consistent.
Include your logo and colors on your signage, busses, uniforms, spirit items, stationery, business cards,, forms, school website, and social media. Your school website is the front and center example for this, so check it in each of the following areas:
- Visually: Is your brand represented consistently across all channels (logo, mascot, colors, fonts, design elements)? They should also be the same on your social media, newsletters, and signage.
- Tone and voice: The overall tone should reflect your desired brand image. Are you welcoming? Artistic? Active and sporty? Techy? Your tone and word choice can build on your visual brand images.
- Fonts: The font choice needs to be consistent. Don’t switch it up just because you get bored with the tried and true—it is tried and true for a reason. Typically two fonts on the website are all you need (one for text and another for titles and subtitles). And PLEASE don’t use comic sans, period.
- Messaging: What are the key talking points that represent your school’s values? Are you using stories and testimonials to validate these messages and reinforce your brand?
- Design: Are consistent design elements reflected throughout your schools’ websites? Are the colors congruent from page to page? Does the design support your desired image, whether preppy, vocational, elementary level, or traditional?
Want to rate your website management in each of these five areas? Try our Website Branding Report Card.
Get your school brand out there
In summary, once you have the vision, design, tone, and rules in place, take your message to where your audience is:
- Include links to your school social media on your website and the newsletters or flyers you send home. Create hashtags for those important keywords for which you are branding.
- Let parents and the community become familiar with your brand and your values through the friendly, conversational medium of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
- Tell stories on your website and through social media that provide proof that you live your values. Use testimonials, videos, and photos to reinforce your brand.
- Involve staff, parents, and students in the branding process. Make sure everyone knows the focus and purpose, and then share the branding successes with them while acknowledging their efforts.
Finally, help all of your staff members understand the value of customer service, a welcoming atmosphere, and how their words, actions, and even facial expressions are a representation of your school’s brand.
So, get busy branding your school. Your school brand is what people think when they hear your name. It is your school’s reputation. It matters. It is worth the effort to do it right.
Note: For hundreds of additional strategies to brand and implement school marketing, check out our Marketing Your School Toolkit with 50 weeks of actionable steps. A year-long guidebook created by the experts at School Webmasters, which can be implemented by any school principal or even his/her secretary.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.