Being the brand custodian

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It is seldom mentioned in job interviews, position descriptions or Board meetings, but being the brand custodian of your school lands firmly in the Head’s portfolio … but what does it actually mean?

Ensuring consistency in brand identity, strategy, marketing, internal communication and execution is a core role and responsibility of a school Head. For this you are sometimes awarded the title of Brand Custodian, but the day-to-day realities of drawing together and fulfilling these nebulous brand-related demands is arguably harder for school Heads than comparable roles in a commercial setting.

By classical definition, a brand custodian is someone who is the architect of a brand, designing and deciding how the brand appears, what attributes it should possess, and how the brand speaks to stakeholders in various media (Campaign India, 23 October, 2009).

In a for-profit organisation, the brand custodian is almost always the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The reasoning is straightforward: the wellbeing of the brand is a responsibility delegated by the Board to the CEO; a company’s brand is one of its most valuable assets and therefore deserves a slice of the CEO’s valuable time and attention. It follows that the leader is personally invested and involved in understanding what the brand stands for and, importantly, what it does not stand for. The brand is so important that the CEO usually employs specialists who dedicate their time to enhancing, protecting and shepherding the brand toward its desired future state.

In not-for-profit organisations like schools, leaders do not usually have the time or budget to act in the same way as their commercial counterparts. The responsibilities and reporting lines of brand custodianship are similarly structured, but the ability to employ a team of specialists is usually just a dream. Even if the resources did exist, there is a consistent and powerful argument that they could be better applied in other ways to achieve the school’s missional objectives.

The dilemma you face, as a school Head, is how to fulfil the requirements of being brand custodian while not having enough time or money to do it the justice your school’s brand deserves, and your Board requires. This is a tightrope all independent school Heads must tread daily.

This tightrope walk is further complicated by the audience dichotomy inherent in schools that rely on tuition fees for a significant portion of their overall funding. Communication and marketing in a school context can be pragmatically defined by the target audience. Communication — perhaps more accurately described as internal communication — addresses the stakeholders who already know and trust your school brand.

They are usually parents, staff, students and alumni. It is right that much of your school’s marketing and communication resources are directed at serving these audiences because they represent your current customers, past customers and those dedicated to serving your customers. Aside from government funding, they also represent all your current income streams. In contrast, the audience for your marketing efforts is usually prospective families who do not yet know and trust your brand, with the aim of drawing them closer to your brand and an eventual offer of enrolment.

Communication and marketing staff in Australian schools usually spend the vast majority of their time (often more than 80 percent) crafting and executing internal communications and the associated administrative functions. This can lead school Heads into the trap that active brand custodianship is not critical, leaving them frustrated in the belief that the best they can do is to act as brand police, prosecuting every instance of brand violation. Ultimately this leads to exhausted Heads and an erosion of trust in their leadership, as the only times brand is mentioned it is to alert perpetrators to the error of their ways.

The role of a school brand custodian should not be to descend into micromanagement and act like a cruel enforcer of rules. There is a much more positive role requirement to be a guide and mentor who can advise communication and marketing teams, administrative support staff and academic staff on strategic issues such as brand guidelines, brand positioning and facilitating the exchange of knowledge and best practices between individuals and departments. In short, the role of brand custodian is to give general directions and make sure the brand stays within the defined parameters.

It is tempting for Heads to contemplate delegating the role of brand custodian to their school marketing officer. If they are good at their role, they will often pounce on the opportunity because it holds the promise of moving at least a portion of their brain space into the strategic realm. Another alternative is to rely on an external agency to act as brand custodian, but this approach usually fails because they are not based onsite, lack specific school experience, or have not devoted the time necessary to execute custodial oversight.

Finding a brand partner is a proven path – they can be school staff, an external agency or agency-embedded staff. A good brand partner straddles the divide between high-level brand custodian to on-the-ground day-to-day execution activities. How then to decide what can be delegated, what can be outsourced and what needs to be kept within your office? How can you identify a potential brand partner? Here are eight considerations to help you on your journey to becoming an effective and efficient brand custodian:

Time served: To have worked on your school brand for ten years is impressive, but is it ten years of experience and forward progress, or one year repeated ten times? Academic environments have a tendency to weld future activity to past success, but being successful in today’s fast-moving communication and marketing environment simply means you know what used to work. Be on the lookout for people, both internal and external, who have a track record of continually winning the ‘brand trust’ of others rather than resting on their laurels. It is what they have done this year that really counts, not their ability to give a brand history lesson.

Media neutrality: Look for people and partners who are media neutral and whose advice is always in your brand’s best interest. In imageseven’s experience, it is common to encounter individuals or firms that have deep expertise in one or more disciplines or technology sets, but who will see all problems or briefs through the lens of that specific expertise. This raises the question of whether a specialist in one particular discipline can ever be a true brand partner. Of course, they can and should bring their unique expertise to the table, but a brand partner needs to see the big picture.

Wider reputation: Look for people and partners who tend to enjoy a wider reputation for their expertise. A potential brand partner frequently operates at Board level, and their competitor is just as likely to be a management consultancy as it is an individual marketer or agency.

More than executional: The deepest brand development relationships are based on far more than answering the brief presented. The brand partner is helping to shape the strategy and formulate the brief. They are involved in the stages prior to creative execution. Their view of the brand is bigger than the next project.

Proactivity: Proactivity is the crucial difference between merely functional supplier relationships and great brand development partnerships. The brand partner shares knowledge, monitors competitors, keeps asking questions, initiates research and brainstorms new ideas. It is easy to be proactive in isolated bursts but more difficult to be consistently proactive.

Ability to work collaboratively: Great brand partners concern themselves with effective teamwork rather than claiming the glory.

Ability to be self-critical: Brand partners are, by definition, long standing relationships. Seek out brand partners who not only pat themselves on the back and seek your praise, but ask the question, “How can we improve or do better?”

Prepared to challenge you: The ‘custodian’ part of your role as Head means ‘responsibility for taking care of or protecting something.’ Ideally your brand partner achieves this in a balanced collaboration with you, but it can also involve challenging you when they believe a particular course of action is not in the brand’s best interests. How far are you prepared to let a brand partner challenge you? How far is the brand partner prepared to go?

As school Head, you are the brand custodian, but that doesn’t have to be a burden. Knowing what your school brand stands for is the first step. Add in some robust brand management protocols with a large dose of consistency and you are well on your way to success.

Insight applied

  • As Head, you are the brand custodian of your school.
  • Being custodian of a school brand requires a fine balance of obligations and available resources.
  • Brand partners (internal or external) are a vital link between the Head and the teams who will execute your brand strategy.
  • Knowing what your school brand stands for is the first step toward being a successful brand custodian.

Andrew Sculthorpe, aka Scully, is Managing Partner of imageseven. With a wealth of experience gained in both the UK and Australia, he is perfectly positioned to deliver insights that create a world class impact for schools and their Heads. imageseven.com.au

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