Battle of the brands

A good image is vital to a school’s success, and this can be achieved by clever branding or rebranding, says Paul Dimery

It was a late July evening and I was heading out of the door en route to my school prom. Suited and booted, I was the archetypal fresh-faced teenager: except that I wasn’t as fresh-faced as I thought. My mother stopped me in my tracks, pointed out the traces of fried egg around my mouth and told me that, in a symbolic sense, egg is exactly what I’d have on my face if I made any advances on a girl looking like that. Wiping the yolk away with her handkerchief, she gave me an important piece of advice, and one that I’ve since referred to on numerous occasions: “First impressions count.”

While my mother’s soundbite seemed ingenious to my teenage ears, in truth it was nothing new – in fact, that advice has been drummed into young people by their parents and teachers since time immemorial. How ironic, then, that many schools and colleges are now practising what they preach and adopting that very mantra to attract young people to study with them.

In these fiercely competitive times, my mother’s phrase has never been more apt. Inspired by headlines hailing year upon year of record-breaking A-level results, and fearful of tabloid horror stories that paint some modern schools as post-apocalyptic wastelands besieged by drug gangs, parents aren’t taking any chances when it comes to their children’s education. Only the very best will do, which means that the pressure is on schools to stand out from the crowd.

“Competition is becoming increasingly fierce in all walks of life, and the education sector is no exception,” explains Martin Bojam, Managing Partner of 360 Education, a nationwide company that specialises in brand development and marketing communication. “For a school to prosper, it must ensure that it is full or, inevitably, financial pressures will begin to erode the quality of its provision and undermine its attractiveness to parents and potential pupils.”

The question is, how do schools go about achieving maximum capacity? Obviously, high-quality learning facilities, the best teachers and a history of academic and sporting achievement are all major attractions. But these are the kinds of things that parents and pupils discover after they’ve scratched beneath the surface. The initial challenge is to attract their attention in the first place: and this is increasingly being achieved via carefully engineered branding and advertising campaigns that deliver the values of the school quickly and effectively.

These campaigns can manifest themselves in a number of ways. In some cases, it might simply be a name change: a school might become an ‘international academy’, for instance, implying a friendlier policy towards foreign students, and perhaps even globally recognised tutors. However, many schools are going the whole hog and revamping every aspect of their visual identity, from their prospectus to their vehicle wraps.

One such school is The King’s School, Ely, which has just spent big on a campaign that has seen its entire public image overhauled. This includes a striking new logo, which marries the school’s thousand-year heritage (via an illustration of an historic tower) with vibrant modern graphics that reflect King’s Ely’s contemporary attitude towards learning.

“We engaged an outstanding rebranding company – Reed Brand – that took the school right through the process, beginning with an audit workshop that encouraged us to analyse what it is that makes King’s Ely so special,” explains Felicity Blake, the school’s Director of Recruitment and Communications. “Their next task was to express that essential ethos through a re-designed logo and carry that brand identity throughout all of our communication channels.”

While Blake hints that the project was “expensive”, she insists that it was also worthwhile. “The result is a strong identity and a brand that really does reflect who we are,” she explains. “We’ve had very positive feedback from both parents and stakeholders, who – like us – believe the new image to be smart, professional and exciting.”

The idea of carrying a brand identity throughout all communication channels is one that Solihull School has taken very seriously. The school has recently developed a ‘Style Guide’ to ensure that a consistent message reaches all of its stakeholders, including families of prospective pupils. “The aim was to have a cleaner, clearer and more consistent brand that was immediately recognisable, and could be worn, displayed and advertised with pride,” says the school’s Marketing Manager Rachel Hadley.

To achieve this, the school’s marketing team began by researching other schools’ brands and style guides. They then worked in conjunction with Solihull’s governing body, alumni group the Old Silhillians Association and even current pupils to create a guide that reflects both the tradition of the school and the innovation of its future.

Central to the project was sharpening up the school crest, something they wanted to achieve without compromising the tradition of the institution’s 450-year history. In addition, the school changed the nomenclature incorporated within the crest from ‘Solihull School’ to simply ‘Solihull’. The new crest was then used to facilitate a whole range of school branding, from stationery to large-scale signage.

“All the school’s staff and stakeholders – including the Parents’ Association, governors and external agencies – now have a style guide to refer to when producing any material that represents the school’s ethos and brand,” Hadley explains. “This eliminates the chance of inconsistency, and comes with the added benefit of reducing the workload for staff.”

“To reinforce a school’s public profile, consistent implementation of its corporate identity is vital,” concurs Jon Willcocks of JWA, a design consultancy that has worked alongside Berkhamsted School and Radley College, among others. “A school should clearly identify what it is in all that it does. A confused corporate identity will do little to inspire confidence in our visually articulate society.”

We also live in a technologically articulate society, which is why more and more independent schools are revamping their website as part of their overall facelift – a clever move when you consider that, according to Google, 77 per cent of education-seekers will visit a school’s website before taking action. Queen Margaret’s in York is just one institution that is revitalising its online presence and, like King’s Ely, the school employed the services of an outside agency.

“The company I chose that had never created a school website before, but had done high-end web design for other companies, such as jewellers and private-plane manufacturers,” explains Katherine Walker, the school’s Director of Marketing. “I felt that our marketing had to stand up against that of other high-end brands that our parents are using. Sending a child to boarding school is a serious investment, and if we’d come across as haphazard or amateur, that wouldn’t have looked good.”

“We’ve also produced a new film, which is the first of its kind for a school,” continues Walker. “A lot of girls’ schools are doing the same excellent things that we’re doing, and I felt that we needed to look different. The film is akin to the kind of adverts that John Lewis makes – in fact, that was the brief I gave to the film-makers.”

Of course, the pupils themselves are walking, talking adverts for any school, so it’s important that they’re clothed in a way that will represent that school in a positive light. To ensure that this happens, more and more institutions are working alongside bespoke uniform designers such as Stevensons.

“Schools will typically contact us with a series of designs of how their uniform and sportswear might look, utilising their own brand as a starting point,” says Stevensons’ Business Development Manager Howard Walker. “We might pick up on one or two key colours in the logo, and these might translate as a flash of colour in a blazer lining, strikingly coloured buttons, bespoke designed tabs on waistbands and so forth.

“We provide fabric samples initially, then progress to actual garment samples, so that staff can share them around and everyone can get a feel of how the new garments will work. Stevensons also provides expert advice on what fabrics to use in terms both of ease of manufacture and suitability for parents – care, cost, etcetera.”

However schools go about marketing themselves, the key is to strike the right chord, conveying the school’s core values in a way that’s both accessible and enticing to parents and pupils. Says Felicity Blake at King’s Ely, “Independent schools are multi-million-pound businesses and the competition is fierce. We cannot be complacent and assume that, in education, we are above such things as brand identity and market positioning. It’s crucial to ensure that a clear message is reaching our markets, and engaging with them in a way that will draw them to the school.”

Achieve that, and you’ll give yourself a much better chance of keeping up appearances – and of becoming a prime choice for the next generation of fresh-faced teenagers.


360 Education W:

The King’s School, Ely W:

Solihull School W:


Queen Margaret’s W:

Stevensons W:

See the film at



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