I was delighted, humbled, and excited all at the same time ... and I’m not too proud to admit to a conservative fist pump under the cover of the boardroom table.
What I had experienced in the previous two minutes of the otherwise fairly normal meeting was the combination of nearly two years of work. A senior executive who had joined the organisation only four months earlier said, “I was looking for an organisation like this to work for, but your brand really stood out. It was clear — and I now know it to be true — that this was a truly professional outfit that I wanted to be part of.”
It hadn’t always been that way. Two years earlier the brand of this particular organisation was confused to the point of desperation. They had no clear concept of their ideal customer and their visual identity was optimised for internal competition rather than presenting a united front to stakeholders. There was no doubt that they were leaders in their market, but even the staff had begun to lose confidence.
The unintended — and delightful — consequences of a brand that is in alignment with your mission can never be underestimated. Just two years earlier this organisation would have had no chance to attract the calibre of talent that this senior executive represented, and yet, he was in the room, fully engaged in taking the organisation to a whole new level. The investment in brand paid handsome and unexpected rewards.
What is brand?
Simply put, brand is everything associated with your school – both tangible and intangible. Yes, your logo (your visual identity) is part of your brand, but that is certainly not where your brand finishes. Your brand is what you stand for, what you do, what you say and what you look like. Your brand is who you are, what you promise and your ability and willingness to keep that promise.
The truth is of course that every school already has a brand. Staff, parents, students, board members, neighbours and many other stakeholders already have perceptions and experiences they associate with you. The real million-dollar question is: do you know what your brand is, and are you consciously managing it, leveraging it, and strengthening it?
Transforming your core values and your unique approach to education into a brand platform that can consistently and effectively communicate builds common ground. It becomes faster and easier to connect with your community and advance your cause with purpose. It is the key to being the master of your school’s destiny.
The good news is that people with passion fuel strong brands. There is a very good chance that you already have a strong base of passionate people advocating for your school. The problem for many schools is that they are so intent on advocating that they don’t hear the needs and desires of their audience. Successful brands are infused with a clear set of shared values.
Revealing your brand
Capturing and defining your school’s core beliefs is best done through an audit of those who you come into regular contact with. This means you need to survey and talk to all segments of your community and stakeholders. The interviews need to go deep and are qualitative rather than quantitative. The purpose is twofold: reveal all that they think of you and what is truly meaningful to them.
Schools often suffer from mission myopia. They care so much about what they’re doing that they forget to find out what parents — and increasingly students — concerns and desires really are.
While a comprehensive brand audit is best conducted by an experienced consultant, you can begin to mine the vast wealth of brand knowledge locked up in the heads of your community with just a few simple questions. Select 30 people as a starting point. These people should represent a cross-section of parents, future parents who are already enrolled, staff, board members and perhaps a sprinkling of representation from the broader community — perhaps a local government representative. Ask qualitative, open-ended questions that reveal the essence of the brand, such as:
- What do you first associate with my school?
- What are its strengths?
- What are its weaknesses?
- What do you value the most?
- How would you describe our school’s personality?
- How would you describe our school’s style?
- If you couldn’t send your child to our school which would be your next choice? Why?
- What do you think makes our school unique?
When is the right time?
Of course the best answer is always to build your brand from the very beginning. That’s not very realistic for most school leaders. It’s important to recognise branding is not an event ... it is a long-term investment requiring consistent application over time. However there are some particularly opportune times in the life of the school when brand-building is likely to pay significant dividends.
When your school is making a change in direction you may need to ensure the shift is meaningful, noticed and understood. Changing your brand signifies that something at the core has changed and deserves a second look from your audience.
When there is growth in your school stakeholders start to expect more from you. You will need to demonstrate that you are reliable, credible and can be trusted with their child.
When you broaden your reach into new geographic areas with a new campus or even a new bus route. You’ll need to push your brand to audiences in a new territory and ensure sustainability of your new venture.
The bottom line is that you are already investing in your brand. The question for schools is seldom about investing enough resources, but rather is the existing investment effective. If you develop a strong brand foundation it perpetuates itself and you save money in the long run. The true value of a school brand is much deeper then just next year’s enrolments. Every interaction at every touch point is an opportunity to strengthen or dilute your brand. There is no middle ground.
This blog was written by Brad Entwistle
Brad Entwistle is founder and Managing Director of imageseven. For more than 25 years he has led the imageseven team on a crusade to lift schools’ brands and reveal the true value they deliver to students and their families. When he is not working with schools on their marketing strategy, Brad sits on the boards of two national not-for-profits and enjoys looking at antique maps.