When and Why a Brand Review Benefits Independent Schools

Tradition and continuity are so pivotal to the success of independent schools that it is not always clear when an organization needs to review its reputation—or in marketing lingo, its brand. Over the years, I’ve met with numerous schools that have been taken by surprise with declining admissions and fundraising, despite still offering the same high quality education as in the past. Clarifying and maintaining a school’s identity in the marketplace has resulted in dramatic turnarounds for many institutions.

This situation occurs because independent schools balance a delicate tension. Many core principles involved with a first-rate education are timeless. Yet the economic, social and technological landscape in which schools operate is constantly changing. A relatable brand identity balances these pressures by telling the story of a school’s mission in a way that resonates with students and families.

When is a good time to review a brand?

During a leadership transition – Changes in administrative or board leadership often bring fresh ideas and perspective, prompting organizations to take an unbiased look at how effective a current brand is.

Incorporated into strategic planning – Anytime a school engages in visionary thinking about the future, the brand identity should be part of that puzzle.

When planning fundraising initiatives – Confirming a school’s identity, whom it serves and how it fulfills its mission provides confidence and clarity when reaching out to donors.

In response to important trends – In recent years, no independent school has been unaffected by changes in the economy, increased globalization, emerging information technologies and debate about what are critical skills for 21st-century students. Examining these issues in the context of a brand identity proactively enhances opportunities and deflects negative impacts relating to events beyond an institution’s sphere of influence.

After negative public exposure – Unhappy incidents occur even at wonderful schools, and negative ideas can unfortunately stick longer in human memory than positive ones. Thoughtfully refining a brand identity can help overcome the effects of a damaging headline or a misconception in the marketplace.

How Can a Brand Review Help?

By shedding light on the priorities of a school’s audiences – A brand review reveals the segments and key goals of a school’s various audiences. It uncovers commonalities, as well as points of difference, among diverse communities.

By providing core messaging to resolve contradictions – A brand review generates a core set of messages that emphasize common goals and balance points of difference. These messages become a tool kit for school faculty and staff—articulating an identity that distinctly and authentically represents a school, while also being flexible enough to appeal to various perspectives.

By reinforcing the aspects of a school’s mission that resonate the most – A brand is the encapsulation of a school’s story. It is composed of the accumulation of all messages and images that prospective families experience through all points of contact with the school. The brand is then fulfilled through the experiences families have when they join the school community.

By cultivating a sense of community among stakeholders – The process of a brand review can be designed to solicit input from key audiences. This creates an invaluable opportunity to analyze differences of opinion, build consensus, and create a sense of ownership among stakeholders around key themes. It engages different segments of the community in a dialogue in ways in which they, too, can participate in promoting the school’s mission, both internally and externally.

By showcasing a school’s unique strengths – Honing in on how a particular school community best fulfills the needs of students and families distinguishes that institution in the marketplace. Clear core brand messaging then attracts the attention of those specifically looking for what that school has to offer.

The scope of work involved with a professional brand review depends upon the particulars of a school’s situation. The most thorough process includes a comprehensive materials review; analysis of the materials of competitor schools; interviews with key administrators, trustees and faculty; and focus groups and/or surveys of students, parents and alumni. Data gleaned from this research is distilled into the brand positioning, core messages, and strategies for best reaching desired audiences.

Amidst the competitive landscape of independent education, no institution can afford to have an unclear, undistinguishable identity. Keeping a brand current and vibrant is an important investment in helping every school achieve its mission.

Tim Good is the co-founder of Good Design, based in Connecticut. For nearly three decades the firm has specialized in developing effective marketing strategies and multi-media materials corporations and independent schools need to succeed.


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