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How to Define Your School’s Brand — A Recipe for Success
Tracy Tigchelaar

While the idea of school branding certainly isn’t new, as anyone who’s worked in education marketing will tell you, it certainly isn’t easy either. Getting your school branding right is the elixir of marketing. But what does ‘getting it right’ actually look like — and what are the ingredients you need to ensure success?

Before we can start to create a strategy for defining a school brand, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re trying to make — that we’re all about to head into the kitchen with the same goal in mind. I say that because having a common understanding of what we mean by ‘branding’ is critical. From the work I do with schools, I know firsthand how wide-ranging peoples’ understanding of that word really is. 

Your school’s brand is not just a logo, tagline, slogan, or campaign. Your brand is what you do and how you do it. It’s your culture. It’s how you express and present yourself every day — the why that drives you and the way you achieve your goals. It is how your customers experience your school — the emotion they feel when they see your logo or hear your school’s name. It’s a complex set of emotions and thoughts that combine to create a perception people have of the service you provide. 

Or, to paraphrase Jeff Bezos, your brand is “what other people say about you [your school] when you’re not in the room.”

Getting the ingredients right

Although most of us like to wing it in the kitchen now and then, we also know that following clear steps in the right order is the best way to a successful result. The process of defining your school brand is no different. And although one chef’s personal technique may differ slightly from another’s, the overall approach is the same. 

Here’s my recipe for developing a successful brand strategy:

1. Define your school's purpose

Understanding your purpose improves your chances of communicating your brand in a way that will help drive both enrollment and retention goals. It will provide the foundation on which to build your branding and marketing work going forward. 

Your brand purpose should provide a concept that your community identifies with. It should help them speak with one voice and instill a sense of pride — and in so doing it should connect with right-fit prospective families. 

Your school’s name (your brand name) and your visual identity (your branding elements — logo, colors, fonts, mascot) are what people can see, but your brand exists in their minds. If you do not define your brand — if you have not provided your community with the words to express what your school does and why you do it —you can be sure that someone else will do it for you… 

This is important work, so I recommend creating a (small!) branding committee so you’re not going it alone. You need to approach the process with the support of leadership, and enough time to do it properly. 

Engaging with your current community is a powerful way to help create clarity (or highlight a lack of it) around your current school brand. So reach out to your parents, students, and staff and start by asking questions like:

  • What do you believe our school stands for? 
  • What are our core values, and how important are these to you?
  • What problems do we solve for our students?
  • What do we do well?
  • What do we not do well? Does this matter to our community?
  • Why did you choose us instead of going somewhere else?
  • When you think of this school, what comes to mind?

Undertaking focus groups and surveys provide you with the opportunity to understand what your community sees as your school’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. It helps highlight what families value and allows essential insight into how aligned your school is with the needs of your community.

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Digging deeper

It is far from unheard of for a branding project to trigger leadership to engage in deeper discussion on the overall mission and vision of the school. 

While some branding exercises serve to affirm the school’s current direction, others can lead to the discovery of a misalignment between school and community. While you should never try to change your school’s ethos, priorities, or direction if it’s not in line with your core values, you should also not ignore the red flag that this disconnect uncovers. 

So even if this delays your end goal, embrace the opportunity to dig deeper.

2. Develop your brand promise

A brand is like a promise, and successful brands deliver on their promise. 

A logo is just a graphic unless and until there is a meaningful promise behind it: a brand promise. A brand promise is an internal expression of intent. It defines what your customer can expect of you. It should be clear and to the point, something you can say in one sentence. It should inspire trust and confidence and describe the experience you deliver. Delivering on your promise is how you create brand value. 

A brand promise does not need to be a public statement — it’s not a tagline for your families. It should be succinct, but it does not need to be wordsmithed and go through a thousand iterations like a tagline. It’s not exactly secret — it should never be damaging if it got out into the public — but that’s not its core purpose. Its purpose is to align people’s efforts and keep an organization (AKA your school) on brand and on mission. While your brand may ultimately be summed up with a tagline or phrase, a truly successful brand promise can help direct and focus your school and create sustained movement along a desired course.

In a school context, you can think of your promise as a pledge about the primary benefit students will receive from attending your school. If you think about it, marketing is built on promises: What you will do… how you will go about it… whom the student will become…so developing a set of promises that you can turn to is a valuable tool in “keeping you honest” as your messaging and campaigns develop. Here are some examples of a brand promise from schools:

To deliver an approach to learning that has the exponential power to transform education, communities, and the lives of students in our care.

We will create an environment that puts the student at the center of their learning, nurtures curiosity, and will inspire and challenge students to achieve deep learning and become independent, creative thinkers.

We empower our students to exemplify compassion, independence, and a lifelong love of learning through an innovative education model grounded in Montessori principles.

3. Create your tagline

Once you’ve done your research, defined your purpose, and distilled your mission into a succinct brand promise the next step is to look outward to your marketplace and develop the holy grail of marketing. Your tagline.

As anyone who has gone through a branding process will tell you, hitting on a unique school tagline is anything but easy. It can be a challenging and frustrating, but also incredibly rewarding process that can truly make a difference if you get it right. 

There’s absolutely no shame in looking for help with this — or for any of this process for that matter! In fact, I strongly recommend it. Creative branding agencies are called "creative" for a reason. They have skilled minds able to develop original ideas. Professionals who will work with you to develop a tagline and wordsmith associated messaging that will serve you for years to come.

The Way Education Should Be

Learning That Lasts 

Challenge The Norm

4. Establish your brand identity

So you’ve gathered all your ingredients and baked a masterpiece. Now all you need is the icing on the cake.

With your purpose, promise, and tagline in place, you have the basis of your brand identity. The last piece of the puzzle relates to the visual (and to a lesser extent, verbal) expression of this brand. That includes important visual cues that convey positive qualities about your brand:

  • Logo
  • Color Palette
  • Typography
  • Graphical Elements
  • Imagery
  • Voice

These qualities are often hard to express in words, but they can be psychologically persuasive. The use of color, a particular font combination, and your logo combine to create a compelling visual impact.

Remember, your visual identity does not exist in a vacuum. Your prospective families and faculty will be combining these cues with the other information you are sending: 

  • the tagline and messaging on your website
  • the speech delivered by your head of school at graduation
  • the principles you’ve highlighted in your email nurture campaign
  • the social media posts you’ve been posting, and so on

Consistency across all the platforms you use to communicate your brand is essential. Every single external expression should support the brand you have worked so hard to define. How you roll out and then control your brand will be critical to its success.

Mockup of the Academy of Charter School's style guide

For example, the style guide for The Academy of Charter Schools details the appropriate use of the school's logos, language, fonts, taglines, and other visual and branded elements to ensure consistency across different platforms.

Your recipe book

Making sure that everyone knows the precise ingredients needed to make your perfect dish is an essential part of the branding process. Establishing and communicating strong brand rules from the beginning is critical to success.

Developing a brand style guide will provide you and your wider community with a clear set of parameters within which to operate in relation to your new visual presence. Creating a formal document and sharing this with your constituents is the traditional approach, but the creation of an online resource can be just as helpful.

Providing easy, yet controlled, access to your new brand assets (logos, fonts, presentation templates, email signatures, email headers, stationery, etc) is also key. If people can’t find your new logo easily and quickly you can bet that they will soon resort to the old one they have on file.

the Mead School Style guide

As part of their partnership with Finalsite Advantage, The Mead School created a cohesive style guide to preserve the integrity and consistency of its brand, while ensuring its visual elements remain consistent across different mediums.

5. Roll out your new branding

This consists of all the ways you highlight and bring awareness to what you do. You do this by connecting your values and your brand voice to the things that matter to your target audience (your community). This might consist of social media, SEO and website design, email marketing and communication, local advertising through postcards, flyers, etc.

Look at your website. Is it designed so that your brand, vision, and voice are clear and consistent? Does it look good on desktop and mobile devices? Is it easy to navigate and find information?

Next, look at your social media integration. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever you decide to use — are you utilizing them efficiently and sharing your story in alignment with your brand strategy?

Finally, look at your non-digital communication, such as signage, promotional materials, newsletters, press releases, sports uniforms, your mascot, etc. Everything you do and every way you interact with your community should clearly and consistently communicate your brand.

Key takeaway

Branding is not just worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  While there are definitely aspects of this work that schools can tackle on their own, this is one of those areas where bringing in professional support really does pay.  

While you may feel you know your school better than anyone else, sometimes that can be more of a hindrance than a help. Getting a different perspective allows you to create a clearer picture of how others really perceive your school. And when it comes to providing feedback on the results and putting forward new ideas it can be invaluable to have an independent voice.

Timing can be key. If you know you need to tackle this and you’ve got a website redesign in your sights then look ahead and plan well — give yourself time to do it right.

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An education marketing & communications expert, Tracy has almost 25 years’ experience in the independent and international school sector. She now leads 'Finalsite Advantage' - Finalsite's Strategic Marketing Service designed to provide tailored advice and strategic marketing support to schools, working directly with a wide range of schools in the US and internationally, providing one on one advice and guidance to help schools develop and their marketing strategy.

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