Nowadays, the town a student lives in doesn’t necessarily dictate the school they attend.
Geographic boundaries are all but extinct in a K-12 world where school choice is a new reality.
Parent dissatisfaction, prolonged school closures, and a mass teacher exodus have all contributed to declining enrollment and waning trust in public schools. One recent survey showed more than half of parents said they were considering or had considered choosing a new or different school option for one of their children in the last year.
When more and more families are seeking other public, private, virtual, charter, and homeschooling options, an emerging question among public school districts is, “How can we stand out from the crowd?”
Standing out is one obstacle, but standing out, staying true to your school’s mission, and conveying the right message requires a whole different strategy.
Signs with school names and mascots, school colors in the gymnasium, and a website with a tagline is not going to cut it. You need a strong brand, and branding is a constantly evolving strategy. You can’t ‘set it and forget it.’
The good news is that once you have a strong brand foundation in place, the majority of the upkeep includes analyzing your current strategies and adjusting them as needed. But how do you know if your school or district needs a new brand, or needs a better strategy to help your brand come to life?
We’ll get to that, but first...
What is a brand audit for schools?
A brand audit evaluates your school’s position in the marketplace, identifies brand strengths and weaknesses, and guides how to strengthen it. A brand audit usually covers three areas:
- Internal branding — your brand values, mission, and school culture.
- External branding — your school or district’s logos, print and online ads and marketing materials, public relations, your school’s website, and social media presence, as well as email marketing and communications.
- User experience — your current family’s level of loyalty and satisfaction with your district.
Now, ask these questions to a better brand and identify where your branding currently stands and what direction to take it in next.
1: Do you want an engaged community?
Yes! An engaged community unites around your brand. Branding works internally by improving school-to-home communications, but it also influences external communities through user experience, public relations, and communications.
Remember, you're in control of your communications. Since your website is often the first place families go for information, it’s a critical area for your brand to make an impact and engage your audience.
2. Do you want to maintain or grow enrollment?
You might not know it, but you're competing for students. Enrollment at New York City Public Schools — the nation’s largest school district — is down. It’s lost some 50,000 students over the past two years. All together, the country’s public schools have lost at least 1.2 million students since 2020, according to one national survey.
Does your brand inspire others to join your school community? The future of your district may depend on your ability to attract and retain new families, and that’s where your brand comes into play. A strong brand is needed to stay competitive in an increasingly unpredictable landscape.
3: Does your school's brand represent what you do best?
A brand is more than creating a new school seal. Redefining who your school is can require different language, updated imagery and colors, a redesign of your website, and so much more. It all comes together to represent what your district does best. If you feel it’s not representing your students, teachers, parents, and greater school community, it’s time for a change.
Keep Reading: How to Define Your School’s Brand — A Recipe for Success
4: Compare yourself to your neighbors. Do you stand out?
Many districts struggle to make themselves understood and relevant within a competitive school landscape. Evaluate your school or district to neighboring schools — how do they represent themselves to the public? How are they presenting what their experience offers? Your school or district needs to define its unique sales proposition both within its own community and the external marketplace.
5: Have you received positive feedback about your identity from your parents and community?
Your opinion matters, but the opinion of your parents and community matters more. You’ll want to determine the needs, attitudes, and behaviors of your stakeholders so you can continue to meet and exceed their expectations. Use feedback forms, hold small focus groups, and check your data sources, like Google Analytics, to see the patterns and trends to gauge whether or not your audiences are engaged with your brand through newsletters, your school website, and social media posts.
6: How old is your visual identity?
Over five years? Appearance matters! You want to give off a positive and modern vibe with your branding’s logo, colors, font, website design, and other visual elements. Even the language you use can become dated.
If it’s been less than five years, consider if your brand still fully conveys your district's mission. It may be time for a brand refresh.
7. Is your brand consistent across all your communication channels?
Consistency is key when it comes to brand. When you’re communicating your brand at every click of your website, mobile app, or mass notifications, you’ll need to be using the same language, imagery, colors, fonts, etc… to describe your programs and student experience. Doing so presents your district’s mission through a unified front. If not, you’re eroding the trust of your community.
8. Do you have internal standards in place so everyone uses your logo and mission consistently?
With so many users contributing to web updates and communications for the district, it’s so easy to dilute a brand with constant tweaks and adjustments to a style guide’s logo, language, and visual elements. Those discrepancies can be that much more apparent at the individual school level. For branding, it’s death by a thousand cuts.
Keep Reading: Unlocking the Power of your School’s Website Style Guide
Take a look at this example. To help bring a consistent look and feel across the district and down to the school level, Issaquah School District developed a new approach that brought a cohesive look for the identities of each of its schools and helped establish a strong overall brand.
9. Does your community understand and identify with your brand's identity?
Logos, fonts, and mascots are elements of a brand, but brand is more about the way you feel — the perceived emotional value of your school. Does your community respond positively to your brand? Parents and friends of your school can either be indifferent, your biggest brand ambassadors, or in some cases, a community can actively pressure districts to change.
For example, a recent memo from the State Education Department will enforce New York City school districts to end the use of Native American mascots and nicknames by the end of the year, a mandate that will require updated brand elements for about 60 districts across the state.
— NYS Education Department (@NYSEDNews) November 17, 2022
Whether or not it’s expected, planned, or welcomed, a brand update presents an opportunity to offer a modern, accurate representation of your school.
A strong brand can help your district stand out from the competition during a time when school choice is pulling more and more families away from public schools. It’s time to build better brand strategies and identify an action plan to stay competitive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.