School boards regularly go through strategic planning, either developing a long-range mission and vision for the district or tweaking one that already exists. But how much attention does your district pay to the branding that does — and should — carry out your work in visible and public ways?
Advancing your district’s brand is critical as you compete with private and charter schools for community support, students, and talented staff. After all, your brand — and how you deploy it — goes a long way in telling your district’s story.
“There are so many different stories happening every single minute within our district, and we don’t want others creating the stories for us,” says Stephanie Hansen, a public relations specialist with North Dakota’s West Fargo Public Schools. “We say we are working to educate today’s learners for tomorrow’s world, but you need to have the proof. You need to have the evidence. And your brand is what supports the statements that you make.”
Branding is what differentiates you from the competition. Your brand is defined by what you do, how others see it, and how they feel about it. When you are working on your brand, you are trying to make a connection to parents, students, and your community.
Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Wisconsin’s Fall Creek School District, has written a book called The Power of Branding: Telling Your School’s Story. Sanfelippo wrote the book to help schools learn how to communicate about what occurs daily in our nation’s classrooms.
“The issue is the stories about schools are being told by people who have no affiliation with schools. The idea of branding schools isn’t about making false promises,” Sanfelippo says in the book. “It’s about promoting the amazing things happening for those not experiencing them on a daily basis.”
“Effective marketing programs that support a strong brand can improve employee retention and morale, help you stabilize or increase enrollment, build community support, and aid the district in accomplishing tangible goals.”
The previous statement is from School Communication Benchmarking: Rubrics of Practices and Measures, a 2018 guide published by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). And it’s one that has been embraced by your competition, which invests heavily in branding and marketing in an attempt to siphon off your students.
Hansen, who joined the West Fargo communications staff in 2015, helped lead a long-term branding effort made necessary by the district’s rapid growth. West Fargo is considered a suburb of the state’s largest city, even though the school district encompasses part of Fargo and several other small communities.
“We are known as a district of choice. Hundreds of families are coming to southeast North Dakota and are choosing to come to our schools,” says Hansen, noting the district has opened a new school annually since 2007 and has added, on average, 500 students a year. “We were growing too large too fast, and our brand simply could not keep up.”
Hansen and the communications staff used the NSPRA rubric to develop the district’s new brand. Two simple questions helped guide the initial research: “What do you stand for and believe in?” and “Does your community know what you stand for and believe in?”
The rebranding exercise fell into two categories—the big-picture perspective and the nitty-gritty of developing a universal look for the district.
“On one hand, we are looking at how we promote our brand beyond the pretty aesthetics, and for us, that means falling back on our mission and vision,” Hansen says. “We work to provide consistent examples in social media: how our staff is continuously learning; how the alumni in our community have become entrepreneurs who are making a difference; and how we are educating today’s learners for tomorrow’s world.
“From registration to graduation, everything is tied to that mission and vision.”
Consistent, pragmatic, controlled
And it is not something that can be accomplished with an event or campaign, a single new mascot or logo, or the launching of a social media account. All those things are important but branding often is most effective when it is consistent, pragmatic, and controlled centrally — factors that can chafe some building-level administrators.
As Hansen and Heather Leas, her co-worker in the communications department, discovered, developing a universal look and feel for your district is a time-consuming process. Many administrators can be change-averse, even if they know their school’s look is out of date, and that resistance can slow the process.
“With 26 facilities, it was a challenge to achieve one cohesive brand while allowing each school to have its own identity,” Hansen says. “We had a mishmash. Almost all of the logos were taken from Google Images or drawn by students years or decades ago. And no school wanted to change their logo, at least initially, because they had become tied to it. It was a lot of back and forth over how to meet the district’s needs and the needs of what the school wanted.”
“Whenever we tried to make changes, we always heard, ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ But in education, we are continuously growing and working to do better, and with your brand you want to take the reins and take back your story,” Hansen says. “If you don’t have buy-in from the superintendent, district-level administrators, and the board, principals are just going to roll their eyes. But if they see you have support from higher levels, the more inclined they’ll be to embrace what you’re trying to do.”
Eight months after the rebranding efforts started, West Fargo launched its new look. And the rebranding efforts have paid off. In September 2018, voters approved a $106.9 million referendum to build a new middle school opening in 2020 and a third comprehensive high school scheduled for 2021.
In April, following community meetings with district leaders, students who will go to the new high school voted on a new mascot and logo. A graphic designer who developed all of the other school logos will work with community members on the new one, which will then be trademarked, so it is unique to West Fargo.
This level of engagement is at the heart of what developing and maintaining a consistent, cohesive brand is about. As Sanfelippo says in his book, “School perception is often based on the narrative of those who attended years ago. Telling the real story of schools helps create a narrative that builds culture and gives everyone in your community an identity … Find your audience. Build your brand. Celebrate kids.”