Branding is expecting. Marketing is parenting

In the education sector, the various functions of communication often get blurred, especially when it comes to branding and marketing. While related and interdependent, these are entirely different stages of communication that require different approaches.

I am a father of three kids and I lead a design studio that has guided dozens of non-profits through the process of branding (or rebranding). After many years of playing both roles in parallel, I noticed striking similarities between expecting and nurturing children and expecting and nurturing brands.

Branding is like expecting

You and your partner have decided that you are ready to try to have a baby. It feels like the right moment in your life to take the leap and you are determined.

You, as the Head and leader of marketing at your school, are anxiously and eagerly embarking on the process of growing and nurturing your school brand. You’ve secured internal buy-in, you’ve identified your stakeholder team and you’ve got a budget ready to go.

You’re a ball of emotions. You feel scared, expectant, hopeful! You’re entering uncharted territory and you know it will change your future. Already, you feel the weight of enormous responsibility on your shoulders.

The journey will be long. Nine months seems like forever — and also like an impossibly short time for all the things that need to line up to pull this off. You have so much to learn, and you immediately feel overwhelmed by the situation, so you seek comfort and support.

First, you seek advice from your close ones. Your research, and the more knowledgeable advice givers, help you realise that there are experts who have been through this a million times and know all the ins and outs.

For both expecting parents and school Heads, deciding on a team that provides the right mix of coaching, emotional care and subject-matter expertise will be one of your first big decisions. Trusting you’re in good hands will allow you to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

First trimester: brand strategy

The first three months are full of new milestones. This is real! It’s happening. It’s all slowly taking shape. It’s really intense at times, but the progress is palpable, meaningful. It’s so exhilarating to imagine the future. This newborn will be the quintessential reflection of everything that you stand for in the world — so no pressure!

Throughout the brand strategy phase, you and your team will reflect deeply and have discussions together that you’ve never had the opportunity to have in earnest. You’ll reconcile different perspectives, and you’ll align on the values you’ll want to instil in your baby from day one. You’ll also realise how much your work matters to your people — how deep, complex and impressive it is. Ultimately, guided by your organisation’s values, and the expertise of your branding partner, everything will begin to crystalise.

Second trimester: verbal and visual identity

Everyone knows you’re expecting and has paid you a visit to share memories, to commemorate this landmark moment. These stakeholders in your life journey have witnessed so much. They provide a wealth of knowledge — some of it validating, some of it humbling, some of it eye-opening. Coupled with what you’ve learned so far, things are starting to come into focus and you can identify some key learnings. You’re feeling better about how things are progressing.

You’re starting to see fuzzy, abstract pictures that help you imagine what your child is going to look like. Your core brand idea and creative brief will anchor the work moving forward and help you imagine what your brand will ultimately look and sound like. They will serve as the foundation for the verbal and visual identity design phase of the journey.

Third trimester: building out your brand and preparing for launch

You’re in the homestretch now. You’re now at a point when your new brand is almost fully developed — the strategy and idea are clearly reflected in a strong verbal and visual identity. You’re convinced your baby smiled at you in the latest ultrasound. You can’t wait for the world to be able to see what you’ve gotten to see so far!

Delivery day: launching your new brand

But first, you must prepare for delivery day. You pack your bag with all the essentials: comfy pillow, a change of clothes, a good book, a tightly designed brand guide and all the templates you need to breathe life into your new brand. You even put together a new website to share this special moment with everyone you know.

You’re also ready to tell the world! You’ve queued up your social media launch posts and scheduled the newsletter blast you’re going to send to the thousands of people on your mailing list once your baby is born. Contractions start kicking in. Let the brand rollout begin. This kid is ready for the world!

Marketing is like parenting

Congratulations! You have a healthy new brand with curly toes, big cheeks and real loud pipes. Everyone you’ve shared images with has swooned. Your team is so proud and so invested in what you’ve made together. You feel more synergy than you ever have before.

Then you realise you have to teach this baby how to do everything. Factory settings are limited to crying, sleeping and waste removal. Walking, talking, drinking, eating, thinking, strong values, empathy, making a living — that’s all up to you now. Buckle up: it took you nine months just to get to the starting line. Now that you have this baby, what are you going to teach them?

How are you going to guide them as they evolve and grow?

Your new brand will help focus your school’s culture and communication like never before. It will inspire your people to new heights, but accomplishing it will require consistent, careful stewardship.

Your new brand is the tool your organisation has been waiting for. You and your team now have to make sure it’s always a living brand that never forgets what you stand for.

How will you leverage it to continue building on the ideals at the heart of your school? How will it inform prospective parents and convince them to enrol? How will your new brand help you rally and strengthen your community? How will you use it to help you change the world?

You have a big responsibility ahead of you to shepherd this newborn through the world, but the potential is endless. Let the parenting fun begin.

You can’t have one without the other

My years as a parent have taught me the importance of having everything we communicate to our kids be rooted in a clear, consistent, shared understanding of what we value most. When we veer off and behave in unexpected ways, they spot it and question it immediately.

Some schools pay little attention to branding, thinking their dollars are better spent on marketing — or they speed through a surface-level rebranding effort that ignores the absence of internal alignment and clarity about how you communicate your work. These schools run all kinds of siloed campaigns and events without a strategic or visual foundation. Their communication ends up feeling inconsistent and dispersed. Their teams waste precious time and energy searching in the dark for a unifying idea and tone to guide their work.

Others invest resources and energy in a rebrand, but lack the discipline and long-term commitment to communicate it to the world and truly leverage their investment.

Branding — and I promise this is my last swing at the metaphor — takes a village.

Marketing is the expression of your school’s DNA, as it is encoded in your brand. It has the potential to enhance and activate your school’s behaviour. And, like parenting, it doesn’t ever really stop, not even when your school has reached maturity and is succeeding in living up to its mission.

Deroy Peraza is a Partner and Creative Director at Hyperakt, a Brooklyn-based studio specialising in purpose-driven branding and design for non-profits and social initiatives. He was previously a professor at Parsons School of Design.

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