The problem with school brands

Historically speaking, marketing activity for schools can be summed up in one word: relationships. However, market changes mean this is no longer enough.

With the model changing, why are so many schools resisting new ways of building their brands and marketing themselves?

According to The Independent Schools Council of Australia, there are more than 1,169 independent schools in Australia. These schools are among the most sought after in the world. And, until recent years, having a large ad in the phone book, networking alumni connections and a brochure-style website were the only types of marketing activities these schools needed to do.

While most schools have been sticking with the basics, a marketing revolution has been taking place. Companies have been spending billions of dollars worldwide to market their business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) products and services. The goal? To create and leverage unique and memorable brands in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Today, school marketers are realising they need to join the revolution. It all starts with a solid understanding of what makes a brand — especially in the context of a school.

What is your school brand?

The genesis of the modern brand can be traced back to 1876 when the UK’s Trade Marks Registration Act came into effect. As branding has evolved, brands have become more subjective — more about perception and accrued meaning. The notion of what a brand is has become more and more difficult to define and a single definition is hard to pin down. There seem to be a few reasons why.

  1. Brands mean different things to different people at different times.
  2. Brands are amorphous.
  3. Brands are about feelings and feelings are complicated.
  4. Highly recognisable, well-known brands are often used to define what a brand is.
  5. Defining the impact a brand can have is often easier than defining what a brand is.


Even though it’s a difficult exercise, establishing a shared understanding about how you define your school’s brand and what it means to your enrolment success can help guide both your brand and school strategy forward. With alignment around what makes your brand distinctive, you can build a marketing strategy around it. This, in turn, allows your brand and your school to reach its full potential. Understanding your brand, how you define it, what it means and the impact it has can do great things for your school.

In his groundbreaking book, The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design, Marty Neumeier defines brand as “the sum of everything you are.”

Neumeier says that 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 we have education clients with years of marketing or design experience who 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.

We believe 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. Just as importantly, it’s in your student and parent experiences, policies, service levels and the conversations being had about your school. 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. It’s what allows you to charge a premium for the same education services your competition offers.

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

Why are schools so far behind?

As world-renowned sales trainer Zig Ziglar once said: “People buy from people.” So, 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 B2C 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 in the absence of an overarching, holistic brand strategy and a failure to find, leverage and express the most distinguishing elements of their brand.

Building a bold school brand is 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. As new social networks, mobile technologies, cloud-based apps and other new media emerge as the latest and greatest marketing channels, even the most experienced marketers wonder if these approaches are where their marketing dollars should be spent today, if at all.

When talking with school Heads and marketing professionals, we hear the same problems and concerns over and over. We’ve been questioned about the permanence of social media. Listened to stories about the challenges of standing out in a crowded marketplace. Been regaled by tales of schools growing out of control, with no consistent way of sharing their culture with new staff. And we’ve heard the frustration of bringing an unmatched education offering to market, only to have to compete on price against dozens of lesser qualified me-too schools.

There’s a great deal of confusion and apprehension when it comes to tackling branding and marketing issues in schools. 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.

Branding is the process of creating and enhancing your brand assets, leveraging your school’s personality to create a customer relationship and delivering what’s promised — or even more — but never less.

Brand definition for schools

“A school brand is who you are, what you promise and your ability and willingness to keep that promise.” imageseven

Brands defined by the tangible and intangible

“The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging and price; its history, its reputation and the way it’s advertised.” David Ogilvie

“A successful brand is an identifiable product, service, person or place, augmented in such a way that the buyer or user perceives relevant, unique, sustainable added values which match their needs most closely.” Leslie de Chernatony

Brand defined by customer perceptions

“Your brand, fundamentally, is the bundle of thoughts, feelings, actions and impulses about you that people have out there in the world — and that’s why it’s so powerful.” Robert Jones

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organisation.” Marty Neumeier

“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Jeff Bezos

Brand defined as a holistic system

“Brand is a delicate dance between intended meanings sent by the company and perceived meanings elicited through customer responses.” Giep Franzen and Sandra E Moriarty

“Brand is like a film production: it’s about bringing everything together with a purpose, knowing what you want to say, having a sense of the story, and finding an original and compelling way to get it across.” Jane Wentworth

Brand defined by a promise or contract

“A brand is the contract between a company and consumers.” Simon Clift

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.” Seth Godin

Brand defined by vision, values and actions

“[It’s] about values. It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us.” Steve Jobs

“Authentic brands don’t emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does. If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.” Howard Schultz

Brand defined by a sense of social grouping

“It’s about belonging. Belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that sense of belonging. It has this function for both the people who are a part of the same group and also for the people who don’t belong.” Wally Olins

insight applied

  • Relying only on relationship marketing is no longer sufficient.
  • There is no commonly accepted definition of ‘brand’.
  • School Heads often don’t know where to begin.
  • Marketing problems often reflect the absence of brand strategy.
  • Branding is core business for school Heads.

Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness. 

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