Creating a Bold School Brand

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Building and refreshing a school brand is an elusive goal for many Heads, but a new book reveals a branding framework specifically for Australian school Heads.

In his groundbreaking book, The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design, Marty Neumeier says your brand is “not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.” His overarching argument is that a chasm exists between logic and magic in most organisations. He suggests that a greater focus on brand could close that gap and generate even greater success.

We couldn’t agree more.

At imageseven, we define brand as: “Who you are, what you promise, and your ability and willingness to keep that promise.” It’s a simple premise, isn’t it?

Yet schools often remain fuzzy on how to grow or influence the development of their school’s brand. Somehow the idea that “it’s what they say it is” feels like a reason not to try to improve the brand. If the brand is created only in people’s minds, somehow the very exercise of branding seems like trickery — intentionally trying to mislead stakeholders such as parents, staff and students.

Your brand encompasses every element of your school. It’s in how you deliver your educational product or service, your buildings, your visual identity, your use of language and everything from an email signature to sounds and images on your website. In short, it’s everything from your school’s physical existence to its reputation.

So if brand is everything that surrounds your school, what good is branding?

It’s important to remember that much of a brand is passive. We can’t possibly control or influence the conversations teachers and support staff have about our school on the weekends, or the reputation we have for poor customer service, right? Wrong. Branding certainly can’t take a lousy school and help it look like a great one. However, focusing on what needs improvement from the ground up and the inside out, and repackaging the school in a new light, can successfully and completely recreate the public image of its brand. That’s why they call it a rebrand.

Your school’s brand is like a living, breathing, malleable and pliable entity. It’s greatly influenced by intentional positioning and differentiation but is also responsive to the feedback of your staff, parents and students.

Brand is what keeps your school not only top of mind in the marketplace, but also preferred.

Why are schools so far behind?

If branding products and services is a worthy endeavour, why has the education sector been so overlooked by marketers, branding and design companies?

We have two theories.

The first is that working for better-known business-to-consumer clients such as consumer packaged goods, vehicle manufacturers and sports franchises seems more exciting than schools.

The second is that school Heads — and often the marketers who try to serve them — don’t know where to begin.

Developing a unique brand for a school is a collaborative effort, often between multiple stakeholders, and schools conform to an academic culture and norms. ‘Selling’ their institution doesn’t come naturally. Building a great brand from these conditions is no simple task. That’s why in today’s marketplace, you are more likely to find educational ‘bland brands’ — a collection of undifferentiated, me-too school brands that do things the way they always have.

The roots of their marketing problems are not in the quality of their execution. They’re in the absence of an overarching, holistic brand strategy and a failure to find, leverage and express the most distinguishing elements of their brand.

Create a Bold School Brand

Bold School Brand is a framework and best practice approach designed to help schools identify a niche, position themselves within that niche, and build a compelling brand. This framework guides Heads and their teams step-by-step through the process, illuminating potential pitfalls along the way.

As varied as schools may be, why would they all benefit from operating from the same branding framework?

It’s as simple as knowing where to begin, what to build from, and which elements of your branding and marketing can and should evolve over time. In today’s online marketplace, even brilliant marketers can quickly waste energy and resources on the wrong tactics at the wrong times.

While branding is at its heart a creative process, for many school Heads it often sounds too soft and nebulous to have any tangible value.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bold School Brand framework is a proven process that shows how to find your school’s niche, position it, and develop a Bold School Brand.

Brand strategy

Strategy can appear very self-important and complex when it’s wrapped up in marketing jargon. However, it is simply a word that means ‘plan of action’.

It’s true that the kind of holistic branding exercise we’re advocating does require input from all your school’s stakeholders. Every party involved (school Head, teachers, support staff, parents, students and your communications and marketing team) must commit time to it.

But it isn’t hard, especially using the step-by-step DRIVE qualitative research and brand strategy development process we’ve developed at imageseven. Based on our signature communication and marketing strategy development tools, it helps schools create a robust and comprehensive Bold School Brand strategy.

To give you an idea what that looks like, here’s how we do it at imageseven. Let’s go for a DRIVE … Discovery, Research, Insights, brand Voice and brand Essence.

Discovery: Discovery is all about learning from our clients and seeing the world from their point of view — from the inside out. We meet with all internal stakeholders so we can better understand the school’s goals, perceptions and concerns. This usually involves extensive consultation in the form of a discovery meeting and interviews with the school’s leaders, educators, student body, parents and even alumni. There might also be a series of exercises with the internal or external marketing team to envision the school’s future state, and find out which initiatives are the most advanced and which are the most hollow.

Research: Research is our attempt to flip the lens around to see how the world sees our clients — from the outside in. We survey parents, interview alumni, review competitors and perform a brand audit. This generally involves reviewing anything and everything the school touches, whether it’s the website, signage, on-hold messaging, open days or brochures.

Insights: Once we’ve gathered opinions and done qualitative research, we compile our thoughts, findings and recommendations for moving forward. These insights may include a recommended brand architecture, positioning ideas, or a SWOT analysis that pinpoints the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the school’s brand. When we present this information, we start to see heads nodding around the room, but it’s also an opportunity to make adjustments if there’s anything we’ve misunderstood or where we’ve failed to get the phrasing just right for the stakeholders. Sometimes changing one or two words makes all the difference between being rejected and resonating with the audience.

Voice: This is all about the tone and how your brand sounds across written communications and messaging. We typically present a few headlines and longer-form paragraphs, coupled with mood boards implying where the school could go with the visual design in the future.

Essence: The brand essence in your process should probably precede developing a brand voice, but we present voice and essence together, with the brand essence as the capstone to our brand strategy process.

Building your school brand within our Bold School Brand framework isn’t easy. It requires you to dig deep and make serious strategic decisions about who you are — and who you want to be as a brand. Most importantly, this framework provides a proven process for you and your internal and external collaborators to build a great school brand from the ground up.

Insight applied

  • Your school brand is “not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.”
  • Schools don’t know where to begin.
  • Developing a unique brand for a school is a collaborative effort.
  • ‘Bland brands’ need to be replaced by Bold School Brands.

 

This article is adapted from the book Bold School Brand: How to leverage brand strategy to reposition, differentiate, and market your school, by imageseven partners Brad Entwistle and Andrew Sculthorpe with Josh Miles. To find out more, visit imageseven.com.au/BoldSchoolBrand.

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