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Claiming Your School Brand

Simple principles to help you discover, evaluate, and strengthen your school brand

Superhero revealing the word

In an Indian fable, The Blind Men and the Elephant, six blind men offer their definition of an elephant based on limited parts of the large animal. Each blind man defines the elephant much differently. To the man touching the broad side—the elephant is like a wall. To the man holding the tusk—the elephant is like a spear. To the man holding the ear—the elephant is like a fan. To the man holding the tail—the elephant is like a rope. To the man holding the leg—the elephant is like a cow. To the man holding the trunk—the elephant is like a snake. 

Like the blind men in this fable, the community members surrounding your school offer definitions of what your school means to them. Rather than let the blind men alone define what the elephant is, wouldn’t it have been better, in some ways, if the elephant could have spoken to the travelers and explained its various parts and their important roles? Well, realistically elephants don’t talk. Luckily your school can—if you give your school a voice! So, don't give your power away and let others define your school for you. Claim your school’s brand for future, current, and prospective students and faculty.  

Effective School Branding

So what is a school brand anyway? When thinking about “brands,” you might picture product name brands such as popular snack or soda items. In the school world, your brand is much more. Your brand is what defines your school. According to Alina Wheeler, a brand is known as the promise, the big idea, the guide, and the expectations of those involved. School branding also includes making an emotional connection with your institution. In this blog, we’ll help you see beyond colors and logos to identify your school brand; then we’ll discuss three core principles at the heart of effective school branding that facilitate successful marketing for schools. Alina Wheeler, a brand is known as the promise, the big idea, the guide, and the expectations of those involved. School branding also includes making an emotional connection with your institution. In this blog, we’ll help you see beyond colors and logos to identify your school brand; then we’ll discuss three core principles at the heart of effective school branding that facilitate successful marketing for schools. 

Identify inclusively your current school brand

When trying to identify your school brand, ask yourself: Who are we? What do we stand for? What is our mission? Also, remember, when looking at your own school, take time to look around at the variety of schools that pull from your potential enrollment pool. What is their school branding like and how are they marketing to the students in your area? 

Here is some “homework” to consider a valuable addition to your school marketing plan:

Task #1 List three adjectives that come to mind when you think of your school or district. 

Consider the following sample of school descriptions: new, local, old, American, urban, national, regular, independent, parochial, good, rural, small, Christian, different, special, traditional, normal, Indian, effective, suburban, able, important, different, open, eligible, hard, ready, better, concerned, bad, free, fun, great, difficult, boring, large, low, significant, successful, full, involved, responsible, safe, big, close, fine, nice, private, easy, empty, and friendly. 

Look to your mission statement or vision for adjectives. Think about what your school stands for—what things you focus on year after year. In this task, try to be more realistic than idealistic. 

Task #2 Ask stakeholders to share three adjectives they would choose to describe your school.

Are the three words you chose the same words parents would choose to describe your school? What about your students and staff? Reach out via e-mail or phone. Maybe hold a focus group with a few stakeholders. Engage parent-teacher organizations or poll your website or social media. You may even consider giving local business owners, realtors, or local government personnel a chance to describe your school or district from an outsider's perspective. You may consider combining this task with task #4. 

Task#3 List ten positive school attributes. 

Once you’ve narrowed down how people see and feel about your school, you need to identify the programs and services that define your school. Think of unique programs or offerings. Think of school culture or other attributes that make your school special. Don’t just think of things that matter to you as an educator; consider things that really matter to parents

Here are some ideas: 

  • Positively engaged students
  • Quality instruction
  • Strong curriculum
  • Reasonable cost
  • Successful sports program
  • Variety of extracurricular activities
  • Beautiful school facilities
  • Inspiring library
  • Involved parents

Task #4 Invite school staff, faculty, students and their families to share their thoughts about your school’s attributes.

Once you list your school’s attributes, ask others to make a similar list. Consider this for your next faculty, site council, or student council meeting. You may even consider sending out an online survey; it’s much easier to do that these days than in the past (ie. Google surveys, SurveyMonkey, etc.). Think about how these attributes speak to your school audience's needs and aspirations.

Task #5 Find common themes among the feedback. 

Good or bad, the words you received are your school’s brand—it’s what comes to people’s mind when they think of your school. What are the common themes among the feedback you received? How would you rate your school storytelling regarding these adjectives and attributes? Is your school brand promoting loyalty? Don’t ignore the negative. Negative adjectives highlight areas where some re-branding needs to be done. 

School branding involves the intricate weaving of values, key attributes, and experiences. If the brand you identified isn’t the brand you desire, re-work these tasks to identify your “ideal” school brand. Then apply the principles below to start implementing that brand. If you feel your school has a strong brand already, apply the principles below to reinforce that brand!

Principles at the Heart of School Branding

#1: Don’t do it alone.

Just like the blind men, it’s impossible to see the big picture using one person’s perspective. That’s why, as you identify your school brand, it’s important to get input from outside your offices. Similarly, implementing and building your brand is not something your school administration can do alone and do it accurately. You will need the help of the community, faculty, students, and parents. Just as the blind men described various aspects of the elephant, various voices in your school community can help in the school branding process. Remember, branding is about defining who you are, and that extends to all aspects of your presentation, including your website.

#2 Accuracy and consistency in your school marketing. 

You’ve heard it said, “trust is earned.” Accuracy is a hallmark quality when it comes to gaining trust from current and prospective students and their families. With so many people involved in your school and your brand, it’s impossible to avoid mistakes in accuracy and consistency. But mistakes don’t have to define you. For starters, as you identify certain weaknesses in your school brand, try your best to learn from them, and seek ways to turn them to strengths. 

Consider the many messages sent out from your school. How current and consistent are the images you use on your school website? Does your school letterhead match your school website? School branding also involves logos and images. Do you use different logos based on the platform you are using? Is it time to update your logo and website? Not only is it important to be consistent in the images on various school communications, but it’s important to look for ways that your school branding tells a story. Do you live in the mountains? Near the ocean? Look for ways your school branding connects your school to your local community's geography and history.  

In the previous section, you listed key attributes for your school. Take these attributes and compare them to your current school marketing plan. Ask yourself as well as your school community: 

  • Do the attributes listed communicate our school’s identity as an institution of learning?
  • Are there messages coming out of our school community that are contrary to our school’s key attributes? What actions can we take regarding negative messages?
  •  Does our school marketing plan appropriately represent these key attributes?

 #3 Share your daily realities with effective school storytelling.

Thanks to today’s technology, your school has an intricate web of stories shooting out into the World Wide Web every day. Through the use of social media platforms, your students and others in the community tell stories connected to your school every day. They post pictures, vent about homework and teachers, capture memories at sports events, and share stories that define your school in myriad ways. These stories are out there already—some positive and some negative. 

So the question is—will your school be silent in the school storytelling ring, or will you speak up? Tony Sinanis, lead learner from Cantiague Elementary, Long Island, New York, explains that telling your school’s story is critical. He encourages schools to “share [your] daily realities.” Help prospective students and their families build their perception of your school based upon accurate information rather than upon misinformation, word of mouth, or outside publications. Mr. Sinanis also suggests that to influence the perceptions of our schools, schools need to create the realities they want others to see. What a concept! He suggests that this means including all voices (students, faculty, admin, parents, etc.) in your storytelling.

In addition to using various voices, your school should also be using various online media platforms and other ways to tell your school’s story. Here are a few questions to help you measure your effectiveness in sharing your school’s stories:

  • How would you rate your success this year so far, in regards to your goals for your school communications? 
  • Do your core values exhibit themselves on your school blog, website, and other social media platforms?
  • Are you effectively and appropriately sharing your school’s successes and strengths? 
  • How are you publicizing your school’s strengths (individual and school group successes)?
  • How healthy is your school PR program? 
  • Are you utilizing a variety of means to reach a broader span of the school community?

The Benefits

In the fable, when the blind travelers’ perceptions differed, they lacked unity. And due to the elephant's inability to claim it’s own identity, we’ll never know if the blind men ever gained an understanding of what an elephant is. School branding is not only a good idea for your school marketing plan, it is vital. Applying the principles you’ve read about here will help get you on your way to better marketing your school. Collect your school’s stories that best manifest the key attributes that matter to your school community. Through analysis of what matters most to students, parents, and faculty, identify your core attributes as well as consistent unspoken messages through logos and images. The positive results of school branding—and sending a consistent message across the board—are TRUST and LOYALTY from your school community. All together, you will paint a collective picture of your school, and by so doing, you claim your school brand.