Public education used to be a monopoly. No competition. Not today. Charters, vouchers, open enrollment and private schools dot the landscape, bringing fierce competition for students and the dollars each one of them brings to the district budget. Attacks on public education have deflated morale and unfairly labeled public education as the cause of many social ills. This has created an economic imperative and ideal solution for schools and districts: branding and marketing. Learn how.

Public education used to be a monopoly. No competition. Every year, the students simply showed up. And most people loved and supported what was happening inside.

Not today. Charters, vouchers, open enrollment and private schools dot the landscape, bringing fierce competition for students and the dollars each one of them brings to the district budget. Attacks on public education have deflated morale and unfairly labeled public education as the cause of many social ills.

Not that it’s all bad. Competition challenges public education to new heights and there’s nothing wrong with parental choice. But it has created an economic imperative for schools and districts: branding and marketing.

It’s an imperative because public schools are losing the battle of public opinion. It’s a critical exercise due to the potential of losing cash and slashing budgets. And it’s an imperative because our employees need a morale boost and a rallying point.

The difficulty is that education leaders don’t get any courses in marketing. Yet, based upon a recent survey of search firms conducted by the National School Public Relations Association, the number one reason superintendents are fired is, “a failure to communicate.” And the person who connects with the public on a daily basis more than anyone else is the principal of each school.


It’s Not Just a Logo

Many people equate a “b rand” with a “logo.” Actually, a logo is merely a graphical depiction of your brand. A better description of a brand is a fervent belief, a gut-level emotion and a way of thinking for all stakeholders. It affects your daily behavior and demeanor as well as a clear focus toward your goals. To the external audience, it’s an immediate identification of who you are and what you stand for. They get an immediate impression when they think of you.

In addition, branding answers the question of what makes you special and differentiates you from other schools or districts. It tells parents why they should send their children there and why taxpayers should pay your bills.

Branding your school or district illustrates who you are and what you do in the simplest of terms. It’s based on local culture, tradition, future direction and your strategic plan, but it’s developed through a creative process. While the result is a simple message, the time and effort is substantial because it requires a great deal of inclusion and expertise.


Branding Process


The process should start with a communications audit. This determines how people currently feel about you and how they are getting their information. Otherwise known as “market research,” the audit identifies the launching pad for your branding process by determining how much you may need to change people’s minds and what things they may already love about your brand. This is called “brand equity” and your new brand should leverage the strengths you already have while overcoming misconceptions. School districts should hire an outside expert to conduct the audit.

Committee work then ensues, facilitated by a marketing expert. Tough questions get answered and “key words” are developed for how the school or district would like to be perceived. These are expanded into “key messages” or short descriptions of the brand. The creative brainstorm includes symbols and colors that represent who you are.

The committee work is then turned over to a professional graphic designer. Just as you wouldn’t want a carpenter doing the plumbing, you don’t want educators or students doing the graphic design of a brand (no offense, please, but it’s not your thing). It’s a profession and people schooled in such work should provide you with options for your brand. This is not a place to skimp or run an in-house contest, which only results in hurt feelings. It is well worth the small investment.

The review and revision process can take hours or months. Each step requires careful review of the logo and tagline to ensure several things:

* Does it reflect who you are in an appropriate way? Bold ideas need bold images; delicate subjects should have delicate design. Remember that fonts speak as loudly as words. Gut-level reactions are usually the best ones. But it’s not a beauty contest (i.e., I like this color or that). It’s about what it conveys.

*   Are you copying someone else’s idea, `infringing on a trademark or using a familiar pattern that people will relate to someone other than your school or district? Avoid clip art, silly mascots, and worn-out education symbols like apples and mortar boards. Create something original and uniquely yours. This is another reason why it takes a professional artist to design your “original” logo.

* Are members of your target audience analyzing the options? Many times, “insiders” or top administrators make the decisions, even though they are not the ones we are trying to reach. Ask parents, teachers, community leaders and taxpayers for a reaction to the various designs. Their answers may surprise you.

* Does it work in every size and in black and white? A logo is very small on business cards and large on billboards. It has to work in both places. Some copy machines only provide black and white. How does it look in gray scale?

* Is the tagline memorable? Many schools and districts use mission statements that no one can remember or repeat. Your tagline has to stick and pack a wallop. Most importantly, your audiences need to be able to repeat it to others.


Making It Known

Once you have a brand, put it everywhere. Put it on stationery, web, social media, end of emails, billboards, posters, vehicles, buildings, badges, buttons, clothing..the list goes on. You’ll never establish a brand unless people see it over and over again.

Protect it like a newborn baby. That means strict brand standards on usage, color palette and sizing. Prohibit alterations. Police its usage and when you find an abuse, get it removed or corrected immediately.

Finally, stick with it. Many times, when a new logo comes out, people will find criticism or comment on cost or colors. Ignore it and move on. Over time, the brand becomes known, people get used to it, and you build pride around it.


David R. Voss is President of Voss & Associates, a full-service marketing and public relations company with its heart in education. Contact:, 941-650-4614.

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