Build A Compelling School Brand and Nurture the Culture You Want
We are all familiar with the concept of “school spirit”. Every school has its own unique spirit – behavior that showcases pride for school values, ambitions, and achievements. It is the nature of that school spirit that you might call your brand. For example, if your school is committed to values related to environmental sustainability, then showing school spirit might involve recycling a can you find on the ground. Similarly, one might say that the act of recycling was “on brand”. In this way, what is a show of “school spirit” is defined by the attitudes, actions, values, and goals of a school and this exactly how you might define a school brand.
A brand is the lens through which you choose to see the world. When effectively used to guide school planning and decision-making, a brand shapes how a school is perceived and experienced by its community. For this reason, a brand is a major determinant of a school’s culture and the degree to which the community will engage, participate and support your school.
Unlike school spirit however, a school has a brand whether leaders work on it or not.
When leaders don’t deliberately work to develop their brand it forms haphazardly. In this context, any acts or individuals can impact the school’s brand identity. For this reason, leaders will struggle to shape the internal school culture (how people feel inside the school) and to steer the identity and reputation of the school (what people inside and outside think of the school). The point is that school culture, identity, and reputation are best shaped when decisions are made in accordance with a brand. Failing to work on your brand is like forgetting to lay the groundwork upon which your school culture will be built.
This is not an ideal scenario. While we agree, a school is not a business, nor should it be run like one. We also believe that schools can benefit tremendously from collectively developing and maintaining an authentic school brand, intentionally and inclusively shaping their narrative, and using their brand as a guide for consistent, strategic decision-making.
There are so many more benefits for schools to develop their brands:
More effective and consistent school planning.
Better engagement and commitment from your whole community.
Strong school culture – where students feel safe and proud.
Inspired leadership. With an authentic brand leaders can be bold, decisive, and transparent.
Retention and recruitment.
Aligned partnership development.
What does it mean to build an authentic brand?
Historically, companies and organizations have determined their values based on what they believed their customers or partners wanted. Today, brands that are developed in this way come across as contrived, forgettable, or worse – offensive. See these classic examples from 2017 ads. When a brand identity is based on market trends or what it is believed consumers want rather than on the true values of the organization inconsistencies form. Similarly, if a school’s brand isn’t based on the real collective values of its stakeholders then they will not identify with or be motivated to contribute as a members of your community.
Here’s an example of an inauthentic school brand: say, your school has as a core value that sports should not be elevated above academic or artistic forms of recreation (art exhibits, science fairs, model UN, chess club etc.) because that’s what parents want to hear. Unfortunately, the school doesn’t actually have teachers and staff that are passionate about running and supporting these activities for students. This results in a disconnect between what the school is saying and what is being experienced by students internally. This is why schools need to be mission- and values-aligned with all stakeholders.
Here’s another example: say, a core value of your school is inclusivity – the promotion and respect for cultural and ethnic diversity – because you serve a diverse population. Unfortunately, you haven’t hired teachers who reflect that diversity and you haven’t worked to integrate culturally-relevant educational resources for your students to aid in the development of that respect. Schools need to attract and retain talent that identify with school vision, and want to contribute to short- and long-term mission and goals. Building a brand according to your values and using it to evaluate all opportunities and inform all decisions will prevent these kinds of gaps from forming.
In both examples, the root problem is that values and actions are not aligned. We encourage school leaders to develop a brand book to guide all decision-making. This will ensure that what is promised and what is delivered is consistent. When stakeholders come to expect and rely on this consistency from your school, you'll have built the trust you need to make more bold decisions.
The real brand work is in the journey your team must go through – the honest, creative, and inclusive discussions that must be had in order to make collective decisions about who you are, what you stand for and where you are going as a school.
In our SxSW EDU session, we’ll be doing some exercises designed to prompt reflection and discussion for leaders and their teams to identify and asses their brands. It’s important to keep in mind that it takes a whole team’s input to build an authentic brand guide. In the simplest terms, these exercises will ask participants to dig deep into their school’s unique identity and connect that reality to the ideal vision of the school they want to create.
Authentic brands are formed by digging deep inside to surface who you really are and want to be. This work must include the voices of all stakeholder groups – students, teachers, staff, parents, community members. When all voices are heard and factored into a brand, a school can build a culture of equity.
When you know yourself, you know what kinds of programs, initiatives, products, and relationships align with your values, mission, and vision. These are the kinds of opportunities worth seeking out and/or seizing.
Ultimately, we believe that when leaders make decisions that align with their school brand they build a strong school culture that reinforces their values, building equity, trust and taking them one step closer to achieving their goals.