Branding Basics for School Leaders

    What Every Public School Leader Should Know About Marketing and Branding Their School

    Your School is a Brand – That Makes You a Brand Manager

    As a principal, you know you are expected to be the school’s instructional leader, responsible for growing teachers and educating students. You also know you are the operational leader, building and developing staff and teams.

    In recent years, your role has expanded, whether you know it or not – whether you like it or not. You now also must be the top brand steward for your school.

    Competition and choice changed everything

    In the past, neighborhood schools were the only ballgame in town. Today, district schools, magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, and private schools are competing for students and dollars. Parents are familiar with having a choice in toothpaste, cereal, shoes, and just about everything else, and with expanded options, they now increasingly treat schools similarly to other product or service brands. That means school leaders need to make the case for their schools.

    Charter schools and private schools as groups are way ahead of neighborhood schools in terms of branding, marketing, and public relations savvy.

    What’s old is new again

    While branding is a relatively new term for public schools, it is commonplace – at least in theory and conversation – among colleges and universities. Some universities committed to strong, narrowly focused branding strategies long ago: Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, just to name a few. Still, the overwhelming majority have not been disciplined enough to rally around and maintain a strong brand position, look and feel, and experience. Most are known more for their regional connection, some for memorable traditions and rituals, but few for a pervasive brand framework within which all the pieces support the whole institutional identity.

    Clarifying the Meaning of “Brand”

    The word “brand” is not well understood by the masses.

    Here is what a brand is not:

    • Your brand is not a logo – a logo is simply a visual expression of the brand
    • Your brand is not the name or the slogan
    • Your brand is not owned by you

    So let’s explore what a brand is:

    • Your brand is the sum total of all associations with your school
    • Your brand is what people say about your school … when you are not in the room
    • Your brand is your responsibility to manage, protect, and advance

    If your brand is how people feel about your school based on their cumulative experiences with you – online, offline, in person, in writing, what they hear, what they read, what they believe – the real question is, “what isn’t a part of the brand?” The answer can be overwhelming, because everything is a part of the brand.

    At this point, you have two choices:

    • Explore all of the things that either contribute to, or detract from, people’s perception of the brand and designing a 360-degree experience around those; or
    • Risk those things becoming liabilities to the brand

    Assuming you choose the first path and are committed to building a successful brand, differentiation and integration are key.


    Branding strategies based on sameness – an approach rampant among law firms and accounting firms, where innovation and leadership take a backseat to precedence and “me too” comfort zones – lead not to strong brands, but commodities. Great brands find a unique, authentic position, often opposite of competitors in almost every way, and leverage that every chance they get.


    Whatever you choose for your brand platform, those themes must carry across every aspect of the school’s practices, events, and communications. Clarity and consistency across channels is crucial.

    Words are not enough

    Remember, this is not just about what you say. Lead with action and a focus on the experience and support it with your communications. All touch points must be aligned to support from the brand – from physical spaces to the brand identity to internal events and rituals to marketing efforts to your teachers, staff, and others (see associated School Branding Audit Checklist for more).

    Seek inspiration from your favorite brands

    Just because you’re a school doesn’t mean you are relegated to looking at other school branding models. There is a world of brands out there that captures hearts, minds, and dollars, and you should think about whether some of them offer lessons in branding for your school. Whether that is Apple, Disney, Google, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Lululemon, or the neighborhood pizza joint around the corner, think about what makes them great, and why you are inspired to share their stories with your friends and family. Then think about how you can emulate experiences that move others to do the same for your school.

    Every school has a story. And everyone who comes in contact with your school comes away with that story. So what story does your school tell? Is it the one you want told? Or do you need to revisit that story?

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