Just as there is a necessity for a mission and values clause, there is an obligation for a distinguished brand identity. All companies, institutions and even individuals need a brand identity. These are the distinguishing features that set one another apart. It is what enables “buy-in” and builds passion in a consumer, that which resonates with stakeholders and customers.
Whether nonprofit or for-profit, small or large, to stand out from this clutter, achieve goals – financial and educational – and fulfill a mission, schools needs to think and act like a brand. A brand owns a place in the hearts and minds of people. Schools must too.
For many non-profit schools, there is an orthodoxy difference from a for-profit company, like Hertz or Kellogg’s. However, in today’s market, this cannot be farther from the truth. Any school that charges money to attend is a brand, and it could be argued that even free schools are a brand because of market share and school spirit.
In the simplest of versions, a brand is built from consistency in its messaging, its take-away, and visually. Brands know who they are and who they are not. Brands differentiate themselves from their competition and the category. Schools must too. Brands instill pride with their people and their target customers. Schools must too. Brands create passionate evangelists. Schools must as well. A brand is a celebration; it’s a way to build consensus with many stakeholders, including alumni, grandparents and prospective families.
To achieve a strong brand identity, tough questions need to be answered, and a culture needs to be set that identifies and then unwaveringly continues on a designated path for years to come. Features that align a brand include: Brand Behavior, Sensory Positioning, Perceptual Strategy Platform, Perceptual Discovery, Brand Offering, Brand Identity, Brand Experience, and Brand Communication. All of these components culminate with Vision (core values, purpose). The final results identify a Brand Promise and Brand Dimensions, answering the questions of what is true, meaningful and distinctive about any given brand.
To define its brand, every school needs to ask and answer the question, “Who are we?” with a unique set of words they can own, words which will provide a clarifying, unifying lens for all internal stakeholders and all prospective families. Not a tagline – although it can lead to one – or a mission statement, which is often a page full of copy, it is a few select words, carefully crafted, that clarify a school’s purpose, reason for being, and inform all decisions and actions.
This is true for all great brands. Consider Starbucks. How do they answer the question, “Who are we?” Here’s a hint: these words do not appear in ads and it doesn’t use the word, ‘coffee.’ Three words, “The Third Place,” have defined the Starbucks brand since 1971 when Howard Schulz saw an opportunity to own the place between home and office in their customers’ lives. It’s why there’s comfortable furniture, WiFi, and they never ask you to leave. They have stayed true to being The Third Place for almost 50 years. The same branding principle exists for schools that are defined by who they are and what they stand for. They stay true to this brand positioning in everything they do.
When I have helped define a school’s brand previously, I have them look at themselves from ‘the inside out’ to gain ideas, perspectives and insights from all stakeholders, including teachers, parents and members of the Board of Trustees to help inform the final idea. These are stakeholders, who must embrace the school’s brand positioning, rationally and emotionally – be advocates for it. Otherwise it will not gain traction. By making them part of the process and encouraging them to approach the challenge with ‘an owner’s mindset,’ they will know that they play a role in developing and embracing it as their own.
- When I worked with the faculty and administration at the Steiner School in New York, I started our work together by asking them these questions:
- How do you describe the wonder of a little girl, who holds a shell she found on the beach? And, to see the awe in her face, when she hears the ocean in this shell for the first time?
- How do you explain the beauty of a child who never speaks in class, and then belts out a song on stage with all of his heart and soul?
- How do you justify the importance of music, art and movement to a parent who is so conditioned by the concerns of his/her child acing the latest standardized test?
- How do you define success?
Using very few words and evocative imagery, we have to design a solidified brand that will convince parents, who have never heard of the Steiner School, that we want them to consider joining our school and giving their children an unbelievable education.
We are going to ask you to join us in a brainstorming session. We’re going to break into small groups of six, and then complete the following sentence:
“After three years of Early Childhood and 12 years of a Steiner education, the young adult, typically, usually, presents himself or herself as….” And, that is your job. You are going to complete that sentence.
We are just looking for one-word answers. We don’t want sentences or paragraphs. You can give us 50 words each. Or, just give us one word. But, we really want you to think about it.
The answers we received during our messaging session with the faculty galvanized our earlier findings with the committee and individual groups. The passion and pride that came through was outstanding. It affirmed many of the feelings that we had identified in smaller groups. The teachers also felt the buy-in and appreciated that they were involved in this complex process.
In conclusion, independent schools are in an increasingly competitive and complex educational environment. Every school needs to think and act like a brand by defining themselves in a simple and differentiating way. When that is accomplished, there is great pride that comes from seeing the final product of your school’s developing brand.