Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made it clear that school choice will become a reality for many parents, which means that they will have to choose from a greater number of options in determining where to enroll their child. Schools have responded in kind by adapting their branding, communications and outreach approaches to encourage parents to enroll their kids there. This reality begs the question: are schools that aren't upgrading their branding are going to get left behind?
Branding can be a tool for enrollment and for building identity
Branding can be vital for a variety of reasons and for a variety of audiences. It helps to establish the story a particular school or district wants to tell, and in doing so, it can illustrate compelling reasons why parents and students may decide to select that particular school. Working on a school brand can help to fashion and establish a school's culture for students at the facility, particularly if students are granted a degree of ownership over what that branding is. In an educational environment where parents have an increasing degree of choice, smart branding could help make the difference between parents enrolling their child in a districts school, or seeking out a charter or private alternative.
In a recent Education Dive interview, Asbury Park School District Superintendent Lamont Repellent espoused the importance of branding for schools today, saying it was incumbent for schools to tell their story as they want it told before someone or something else tells their story for them. Educator and author Eric Sheninger echoed this concern in a recent interview with trustED, saying that it was vital for schools to brand themselves and compete in the digital space. If others are expressing stories about your school or district in that space, he said, it will be difficult to counter any ramifications if that school or district is not invested in that space, as well.
Branding can also help a school recognize and celebrate its own identity, which can be helpful when students and educators become unofficial emissaries for the school's approach in their own community. In a recent panel discussion at the National Principals' Conference in Philadelphia, Pequannock Township High School Principal Dr. Alicia Scelso said she believe student buy-in and excitement about branding were paramount to success.
"The important thing is to keep it fresh," she said. "We try to have a new theme and a new outlook each year."
One school district responds to choice option with branding innovation
“In the overall scheme, we know we have to brand ourselves. It’s one thing to be known for being a premier national district, but it’s another thing to market that to families,” Michael Lawrence, the director of communications for Seminole County School District in Florida, said. “It’s almost like when you’re looking to buy a car; we need to market ourselves in that same manner.”
The Seminole County district is the 12th largest school district in Florida and the 60th largest in the country, serving approximately 67,000 students in communities outside of Orlando. Lawrence said the district first hired a communications officer about four years ago, which expanded into a communications team. The team set to work on rebuilding the district’s website, which had out-of-date information and needed to be redesigned for mobile-friendly usage.
The team also created “branding standards” for schools throughout the district, including revamping logos for schools. In some cases, schools had no logos, or were using Clip Art that was unrepresentative of the district. While Lawrence and his team established more uniformity among the different schools, the team is moving away from a basic template used for the website for each school in the district, which they hope to revamp in the coming year. Instead, each school will be able to exert individuality in their site’s creation.
“It’s like when you go to a university website, they tell a story there,” he said. “Maybe it’s about the research they do or the sports programs, all those types of things. We’re going to tell the story that’s unique to each school, because each school has a unique story.”
Branding could offer cost savings, but consistency and balance are key
There are also cost savings in bringing a graphic designer on staff, Lawrence said. Prior to his work with the communication team, schools and departments in the district outsourced work to various graphic designers, leading to numerous artists working on projects they may have had quality but lacked consistency. Lawrence hired a graphic designer, which cut costs in the long run, as freelancers were no longer billed by the hour.
“I’m getting that brand consistency across the board, and I’m saving money,” Lawrence said.
The funding that could be saved from forgoing expensive consultant work could later go back into the school through other programs, which could help to furnish burnish the school's reputation and support its external brand. Lawrence said that Florida was fairly lenient on allowing charter schools to open up near public districts schools, which enhanced choice options but could also, he argued, drain money from public school coffers.
Florida’s state legislature also recently passed a bill allowing for open controlled enrollment; starting next school year, students can enroll in any school in any district provided that school is under capacity. Coupled with the options available in terms of private schools, it is clear the amount of choices makes brand consistency all the more important.
However, Lawrence admitted that it could be difficult to make branding efforts uniform throughout entire districts, particularly sizable ones with many schools. With only one graphic designer on staff, it would be difficult to promote brand consistency across his entire district, which has 67,000 schools serving 67,000 students.
“We haven’t taken it over fully, but we’re becoming quality control for the schools,” he said. “We’re tying to create more centralized, more standard and consistent across the board."
Additionally, schools have to be wary of relying too exclusively on branding or advertising efforts as a way to "sell" their school to parents and students who are considering enrolling. In a recent Education Dive interview, Asbury Park Superintendent Lamont Repollet spoke about the importance of telling your own story succinctly and forcefully before you cede the ground of letting others frame your story for you.
But the story needs to be present in school practices and processes, not only in a facility's outward-facing branding efforts. One branding consultant offered tips for businesses looking to brand themselves in an article for LinkedIn, warning businesses not to rely too exclusively on advertising. Poor customer service, for example, or a lack of employee buy-in could derail any efforts to create and sustain a successful brand for any type of school, be it district, charter or private.
At KIPP Public Charter Schools, Steve Mancini, the director of public affairs, said balancing the uniformity of the KIPP brand with individuality of each school was important to consider. Mancini, who was previously a public school teacher, has worked at the KIPP organization for 15 years.
“What was interesting about KIPP is the founders made a decision to not make every KIPP school the same. They sensed the KIPP brand would stand for something, but they let schools individualize within the KIPP model,” he said. “It meant the leader of that school could shape it; it’s not a cookie cutter model.”
KIPP began as an experiment by two former Teach for America educators in Houston, TX, and now operates more than 200 schools across the country. While Mancini noted that increased use of social media and sparing use of traditional advertising in spots like bus depots and subway stations had helped the charter organization to market itself, there was no replacement for community involvement, and speaking directly to parents of potential students.
“Shoe leather still matters,” he said. “There is a lot more competition, but it’s part of KIPP’s DNA to be in communities. The tactics are changing, but the approach is congruent with what KIPP’s always done.”