Building a brand for your school

Growing competition from state schools and the need to attract pupils means building an effective brand for your school has never been more important, writes Keri Beckingham

In a world where image is key, independent schools need to create a brand that will stand out against their competition. 

But how can they effectively tie elements such as marketing materials, uniform, their website and social media together in order to make their offering instantly recognisable?

Why is an independent school’s brand so important?

An independent school’s brand is important for several different reasons. In a competitive marketplace, how it presents itself to the outside world has a direct impact on how people relate to the establishment, which, in turn, can affect admissions, revenue, success and reputation. As Richard Stagg, director of Dsquared, a full-service creative design agency that has worked with Stamford Endowed Schools, explains: “Independent schools need now, more than ever, to embrace the importance of their brand, messaging and marketing in order to remain a viable choice as leading education providers. 

“Growing competition from grammar schools, along with powerful takeovers and mergers, means simply doing what they’ve always done might not be enough to keep them alive and kicking.”

Kerri L Watt is a media strategist and brand reputation specialist at Rising Tide Media. She thinks that independent schools are in an incredible position when it comes to managing their brand and reputation. She says: “They have the opportunity, unlike state schools, to create a brand, their own key messages, work with external marketing experts and target their ideal clients, all while staying completely in control of the entire process.”

A coordinated suite of marketing collateral that Dsquared produced for Stamford Endowed Schools

Creating an identity

When it comes to creating a brand identity that will stand out, Alison Taylor, managing director of Conscious Communications, believes that an independent school’s brand’s logo and visual identity should become synonymous with all of the great qualities it offers, including teaching and learning, environment, values and culture. She says: “The brand ‘promise’ is crucial – it is the guarantee of consistency. Examples of how this works can be seen with independent schools which have built franchises overseas on the strength of their brand, such as Wellington College and Harrow School to name just two.”

Mark Dalton is managing director of Quantock & QS Designs and has worked on a number of branding projects for independent schools such as Hampton School and QEH Bristol. He believes that an effective school brand should be a clear and memorable representation of the school’s unique character and suggests that independent schools should focus on developing clear brand guidelines in order to build brand value in a consistent manner. 

He says: “We have an effective brand discovery process that uncovers and defines a school’s brand values and brand pillars, which provide the springboard and foundation for their brand. By communicating certain values and benefits a school brand will help external and internal audiences understand what makes your school different and unique.”

For Richard Stagg, he believes that independent schools will be able to deliver their unique brand proposition if they take the time and effort to create bold, clever and relevant marketing that accurately appeals to their target audience and differentiates them from their competitors. Explaining his thoughts in more detail, he says: “Would you select a school that confidently talks about its pupils, staff, achievements and values, or one that simply churns out uninspiring marketing mush?”

  Would you select a school that confidently talks about its pupils, staff, achievements and values, or one that simply churns out uninspiring marketing mush?  

Attracting and retaining pupils

In order for an independent school to develop its brand and attract pupils, they need to understand the needs and values of their internal and external audience. This is especially important for parents and guardians, as the school’s brand promise must deliver the expectations they have for their children’s education. 

Commenting further, Alison Taylor says: “This may include great teaching and learning, a nurturing pastoral approach, excellent facilities and extra-curricular opportunities, a values-based culture, a strong reputation with universities, good employer links, career guidance and so on. Only by understanding what it is that stakeholders most value in the education provided, can a school build a brand that is relevant.”

Richard Stagg also believes that by knowing and understanding their audience types, an independent school will be able to better shape their brand messaging from a recruitment perspective. He adds: “Once you know why and how families choose your school, you can more accurately tailor marketing campaigns to align with your recruitment needs.”

When it comes to retaining pupils, Kerri L Watt believes that schools need to remember the importance of maintaining a strong reputation. She adds: “Reputation management is an ongoing process, so it’s key for all members of staff to represent the brand well each and every day and in every interaction with pupils, colleagues, visitors, everyone.”

The digital world

In terms of an independent school considering their online presence and embracing the digital age in terms of their website and social media, Kerri L Watt believes that consistency is key. She said: “Remaining consistent with the channels you choose to use and the messages you share is imperative to maintain one’s brand reputation and credibility.” 

However, Mark Dalton says that Quantock & QS Designs often see many schools rush to implement digital tools rather than building a robust ‘brand manifesto’ first, something which is really important in order to get the best results. Discussing the importance of this, he said: “Clearly you need to have a great website and an excellent digital communications strategy. But before all this you must have a clear appreciation of your brand otherwise your brand messaging and stories will be inconsistent and confusing. 

“In our opinion digital should be treated as another delivery platform which is aligned to each individual brand communications touchpoint.” 

Branding top tips

Kerri L Watt: “I really admire my local independent school Walhampton School in the New Forest. Every touchpoint, whether having a show round on site, making an enquiry or visiting their website, oozes their brand personality and the consistency is massively evident.” 

Richard Stagg: “Keep current students and parents involved in the development of the brand and make sure that their views are heard in a positive manner.”

Mark Dalton: “Strong commercial brands make emotional connections with their consumers and the same applies to school brands. What are your true brand values, and can you prove them?”

Alison Taylor: “The work isn’t completed when a school has defined its brand and developed its visual identity. As with all brands, a school needs to keep a finger on the pulse of its market and audiences, and be prepared to adjust to market demands and trends.”

School uniforms

Ian Blazeby, head of marketing at Stevensons, believes that an increasing number of schools want to stand out from the crowd, and ensure their uniform has a stamp of their own identity. 

Commenting further on the changing trends they are experiencing, he says: “It’s sensible to consider the need to differentiate between the school uniform designed for sixth formers and senior school than that worn by prep school pupils. Sometimes adolescents don’t really want to wear the same style clothes as their younger siblings. Generally, as a company, we are seeing a huge move towards more tailored fits for older pupils.”

At Schoolblazer, they recommend that independent schools use the services of an experienced branding agency to help them tie their uniform into their overall brand identity. As marketing and events manager Sarah Taylor explains: “Translation of the brand into uniform and sportswear is vital – it is the manifestation of the school brand that is seen most often by potential customers. 

“We now work closely with the school and their chosen agencies to create a look which is so distinctive and so clearly defines the school that the badge becomes secondary, often just used in linings or on the sportswear.”

Stevensons produced a school uniform for St Edmund’s College and Prep School that was tailored to the different ages of pupils

Case studies 

Stamford Endowed Schools in Lincolnshire wanted to develop a stronger brand and approached Dsquared to help with the task. 

Sarah Beresford, marketing manager, needed help with the creative concepts, brand identity and delivery, in order to achieve the best result. 

Explaining the project in more detail, she says: “Our campaign focused on how we inspire pupils, ‘light fires’ in them and enable them to become who they want to be. Supporting campaigns were run at open days, with a focus on the individual pupil and teaching heroes. Additional marketing collateral was produced that really brought our brand to life.”

Stevensons worked with Manchester High School for Girls to incorporate elements of their suffragette heritage into the colourways of their uniform. 

Commenting on the project, Ian Blazeby said: “The school was very diligent in getting buy-in from staff, parents and pupils alike through a series of focus groups. This allowed the school to test alternative materials, colours, styles and cut, and provided practical feedback for the school leadership team to make their final decision.”

As part of a six-month project to understand and articulate their brand, Loughborough Schools Foundation conducted a series of workshops with stakeholders in order to provide a clear vision for all future communications.

Discussing the results of the project in more detail, Georgina Collicutt, director of marketing, admissions and commercial at Loughborough Schools Foundation, said: “A new naming structure and identity for the four schools plus nursery within the Foundation has been devised, which is more powerful and engaging.

“The unified presence and consistent marketing efforts add depth and clear messaging that Loughborough Schools Foundation is a family of independent schools that can rise to a family’s educational expectations (single sex and co-ed) from six weeks to 18 years.” 

You might also like: A changing uniform for a changing world

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