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Building your school brand

A proven marketing strategy can help schools thrive among the masses
Trish Rubin, former educator and now marketing consultant, wrote BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships and Empower Learning.
Trish Rubin, former educator and now marketing consultant, wrote BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships and Empower Learning.

What sets your school apart from thousands of other schools in the country, or even the others in your district?

Former educator and now marketing consultant Trish Rubin says it’s up to school leaders to become the “storyteller-in-chief” by defining their school’s brand.

Rubin provides a step-by-step framework to the nuances of spreading good school news and winning support in her book, BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships and Empower Learning (2017, Jossey-Bass), which she wrote with Eric Sheninger, senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership and learning with the International Center for Leadership in Education.

“Today’s digital and social media world is driven by mobile content in short form and long form, in text and video,” says Rubin. “The business communication tool of brand can inform a school improvement strategy that harnesses the power of content of story in this new media age.”

Let’s begin by defining “brand.”

It’s the tangible and intangible presentation of who you are. Tangibly, it’s how people see your actions—walking the talk. The intangible is the feeling that people get through what you’re able to communicate. So it’s not about just identifying something, it’s about connecting feelings.

We have personal and professional brands. A personal brand can be developed easily by figuring out who you are. My word for myself for years has been “spark.” And in my email signature I’m always adding quotes with spark or fire. Your brand is how you are engaging, how you are continuing this brand and what it is doing to you.

What emotions do you have? Let’s take those ideas and turn them into action so you can build a personal-professional brand. When writing the book, we struggled with what to call it for educators. Because we wanted to get people to understand that whatever they were doing for themselves they could leverage into their leadership positions in a school.

That’s a new idea for many readers.

Staggeringly new. It’s actually scary for some people who will say, “Oh, gosh. What now? What is this? As a leader, what will I have to think about?” For some others, however, there is absolute excitement: “Yeah, this is what I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been trying to do something like this and I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Many schools have websites with a logo and a mascot and think that’s their brand. But that’s not the same.

Right. In marketing terms that’s your identity marker. Many schools, their website is very static. It has a stock mission statement—nothing unique about it. Mascot? Check. Logo? Check. School colors? Check. They assume that’s their brand, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Again, brand is about feeling. There is no feeling represented by seeing that.

I say to people, define your school in three words. Look at how Disney defines itself: “Fun, Family, Entertainment.” That’s it. I think of Disney, because even when they had some horrible things happening to them, they knew exactly what to do to make people believe that they are still “Fun, Family, Entertainment.”

You say having a good brand and a good feeling will promote a lot of community engagement.

Yeah. We live in a camera culture, and it’s so easy for people to use that camera to share. When you establish your brand and people understand that they and their kids are part of it, they want to share. That camera culture can really help tell your story. That’s why brands are so important because they create a sense of belonging.

How receptive are school leaders to these ideas?

I addressed the National Principals Conference earlier this year. They came because they were curious leaders. They were really interested in getting something fresh and new to take home and help them as leaders.

I tell them branding is part of 21st century leadership in a digital world. They’re not going to do it by themselves, but in a procreative, collaborative effort.

When you’re gathering the troops to do this work, what’s the message? You’ve got to have a brand message that consists of an idea that hooks people and makes them feel like they belong.

When I talk to those principals, they ask why they should bring business ideas into education. I tell them, you’re not operating as a business person, you’re just using some really solid, respected business tools.

I introduce them to SWOT analysis (strength, weakness, opportunity, threats) which is really important in business, but can be just as readily applied to education. You have to help connect the dots to education so that they can pick up these tools and be a little more confident.

You introduce ideas from business experts like Carmine Gallo, Seth Godin, Adam Grant and so on. At first I wondered how that tied into education, but surprisingly it does.

Right, because they understand that change is accelerated.

Schools do not move quickly, we know that. But everything around us, outside the schoolhouse, is moving at such a rapid pace.

So for us to even hope to do service to these Gen Zers who are sitting in our seats—who are going to have completely different jobs and challenges in the next two decades—we can take cues from outside academia.

We have to look at the edges and see what people are experimenting with in other areas and then ask ourselves how we can be informed by this.

For our readers interested in branding, what would be the starting point?

The starting point is to really understand your personal brand choices.

Think about how you’ve improved your life through your association with a brand that you’re loyal to, whatever it is, and why that is. And then start thinking about how you want to engage with people so that they can see who you are—as I said before, show them how you walk the talk.

Then you have to talk about it.

You have to show people that this is something that is interesting to you to the point that it will be part of your leadership, with the hope of building relationships.

Next, you have to identify your pioneers, your adopters. They’re out there. Kids as young as 10 are doing this with personal web pages and small businesses. And certainly teachers, especially digitally savvy teachers, are doing it.

Find parents who have that understanding. They have tech abilities. They’ve been in marketing. They understand how to write. And you just have to try to find people around you and in your community. They are out there.

How do you translate or expand your brand into a school brand?

There’s a great quote in the book: “Define yourself before being defined.” That’s from Yong Zhao, the dean of education at the University of Kansas.

You start with yourself and write a self-assessment, then you edit that down, shrinking it until you get it to one word. If you define yourself, if you have that confidence in your own brand, you can begin talking to your team about how valuable it will be to the school to distinguish it as a brand.

Next, take a look at your website and spend some time on Google comparing it with other school or district sites.

Does yours look like every other website in the nearly 14,000 school districts in this nation? There’s a fine line here, however. You want to be unique but you’re still educators. People want to hold on to the typical things that educators do. But the tension is, if you do that and you’re like everybody else, there’s no brand there.

Once you define your brand, it doesn’t end there. It keeps evolving.

Yes, because the stories never end. Every day there’s something happening. There are kids, there are teachers. Things are vibrant. Your school is a living entity. A brand is a living entity too.

It doesn’t happen overnight. You become what we call an “educaneur” because you’ll get into that creative mindset we see when people launch startups. They’re bootstrapping. They’re not Madison Avenue firms with big budgets.

It’s just getting people on board in that moral imperative to know that you’ve got something that you believe in and you’re passionate about.


Tim Goral is senior editor.