The term is now firmly entrenched in the lexicon of school district communications – Branding. How strong is your school brand? Is your school brand clear? What are you doing to improve your school brand?I'll answer those questions then provide some practical direction by sharing the five essential steps to building your school brand.
Yeah, sure colleges have embraced branding. Many private schools too are figuring out branding and marketing, thanks to the efforts of private school marketers like Brendan Schneider, himself a private school communications practitioner. But school districts?
With its word roots in the searing a ranch’s mark/logo into livestock to clearly differentiate which animal belongs to whom, ‘brand’ can make an equally important and lasting impression on your school community.
Step 1. Build a brand foundationWhether you’re creating, re-creating or even tweaking your school brand, you should borrow a chapter from the marketing communication experts and take a systematic approach that starts with building a brand foundation.
In most cases, really what we’re talking about here is rebranding. For purposes of this article, I’ll refer to it as branding. But whatever you call it, it’s a chance to make an accurate, current, forward-thinking statement and create a foundation that helps you stand out from other schools.
Tips for building your school branding foundation:
- Form a branding team – It’s critical to include executive-level administrators (superintendent, a principal or two, communication lead at the very least) Select a good school branding partner.
- Audit existing brand – Conduct a thorough audit, chronicling executions of your current brand in the most widely used formats – print and digital applications.
- Survey your audiences – Involve all your major audience groups to Confirm how they perceive your school. Their perspectives can provide insights into your district’s strengths and weaknesses.
Step 2. Define your school brand
Arriving at your new school brand – that distinctive personality, culture and voice for your school – first requires developing consistent messaging. More than just a new logo or color scheme, your brand derives from your messaging, which must be carefully considered.
Start by writing a concise statement, your branding communications mission statement. Not to be confused with your school’s mission statement, a branding communications mission statement serves as a springboard, helping you develop talking points, and helping guide the design process that your design partners need to articulate your brand.
It's not just about a cool-looking logo or new mascot. This statement serves as a source for many facets of your school messaging. Think of it as a summary document or a practical abstract that your communications team can visit and re-visit to draw inspiration and craft messaging.
Considerations to help define your school brand:
- Reputation – Credibility goes a long way in building recognizable trust. Your school's reputation is an essential part of the brand – history of school, academics, arts, athletics, broad, total development of the student, etc.
- Future – Expansion, major renovations, bond levies, referendums and planning initiatives can provide a catalyst for new school brand
- Audiences – How do you want to be perceived by each of your key audiences? For students, Is your district a cool place to learn? For families, Is it safe, diverse and motivating? For staff, Is it a good place to work with an up-to-date physical plant and support
Step 3. Create your brand identity
It’s now time to mobilize design resources. This is the fun, conceptual stuff: the phase the uninitiated think of when they think of branding.
This is where the messaging foundation you’ve created is translated into visual elements. Design concepts, logos, color schemes, sub-brands mocked up in various executions in typical formats. Designing a look and feel that reflects the expectations and school culture is a pivotal piece of your entire communications planning, so jumping to this step without completing steps 1 and 2, is asking for trouble. Without the due diligence of a strategic framework, design is ill-conceived. For a longer look at how to create a strategic communications plan for your school, see this article.
Keys to creating a great school brand:
- Logo(s) – Your district, school and ancillary logos that are part of a larger family of logos are the very core of your branding charge. Be diligent and critical in getting this part right.
- Invest – There isn’t a branding firm that will turn away your business, but many are cost prohibitive for many schools. Invest in quality, but invest wisely and insist on getting cost estimates up front.
- Specialize – It’s a good idea to work with a designer focused on schools, but watch out for overused, mediocre designs. There’s nothing ordinary about your school; same goes for your brand.
Step 4. Create branding style guide
Now, once you’ve selected your design partner and approved designs, you need to pull it all together – or more specifically, your design partner should pull it all together – and create a branding style guide. Do not proceed with using your new look without a branding style guide.
Your style guide should address all the visual design fundamentals: typography, color palettes, logo usage, positioning, sizing and ratio restrictions/considerations. It should also address the extensions of the brand that occur throughout your entire district. A well-conceived ‘brand family’ reinforces the mother ship (district) while affording each school or campus within the district to assert a distinctive sub-brand that fits within the larger brand architecture.
Why a style guide is necessary:
- Multiple personnel – Because you have more than one person using the school brand, the style guide keeps anyone from going rogue.
- Multiple schools w/in district – The various schools and campuses that comprise a school district present both challenges and opportunities for brand consistency.
- Multiple media – And with multiple people and multiple schools you have all the various media, digital and non-digital that compounds the likelihood of brand misuse
Step 5. Execute your school brand
While the guide is the fruits of your labor, your work is not done yet. In fact, in many ways, it’s just starting. Now comes the time to begin executing the school brand.
It’s crucial that you let those closest to your school mission – your internal audiences – in on the new brand. Faculty, non-teaching staff, school board members, etc. Use staff in-service days and board meetings to give them the first look. You need to get their buy-in and then use a coordinated roll-out plan and your new style guide to kick it off.
Your other key group, of course, is your external audience. But before taking it to the streets – parents, public, business and community leaders, etc. – give your local media a sneak preview. They love good news.
Keys to successful brand execution:
- Full digital immersion – It starts with designing a website where your brand is clear and consistent and looks good on any device.
- Social media integration – Besides your website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are the most popular ways they’re recognizing your brand.
- Non-digital communications –School signage, advertising, media relations, athletics uniforms, mascots
If you want to engage and keep engaging members of your school community, distinguish your district from the other districts – some of which are most definitely can be called your competition – and just generally capture the essence and beauty of your school, embrace the definition and need for understanding and applying branding in your school district.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.