How to Identify and Develop Your School’s Brand

What do people think of when they think of your school?

Over time, like it or not, every school develops a certain image in peoples’ minds. Whether it’s as a strict Catholic school or a progressive independent school or an experimental charter school, many parents will form an opinion of you based on little more than your name and word of mouth. And that’s if you’re lucky. Some newer schools may have such low name recognition nobody ever bothers to form an opinion about them in the first place.

So how do you control the narrative about your school to attract the right families? You need to do the same work as every Fortune 500 company and focus on identifying and strengthening your school's brand.

A School Brand Is More Than a Logo

Many people have a misperception that a brand is just an image and a tagline. Pay some college kid to fiddle with your school’s name in Photoshop for a few hours, and voila, you have a brand!

Not so fast. A brand is much more than that. At its heart, a brand is the emotions and attributes that you want people to associate with your school.

Take a big brand like Ikea for example. We all recognize those big blue “IKEA” letters when we drive past their warehouse-sized stores. However, those letters indicate more than just the store’s name. After years of clever marketing, Ikea has taught us that inside the store are affordable, well-designed products. We know we have to assemble them ourselves, but we also know that we can furnish our entire house in one trip and without having to take out a second mortgage.

Perhaps the most successful brand of the last 20 years is Apple, which has gone from selling computers to dominating mobile phones, music, and home entertainment. How was Apple able to make the leap from being a computer company to dominating our digital world? If you ask them, they’ll tell you it’s because they were never a computer company in the first place. Instead, Apple describes its brand with words and phrases like “innovation” and “passion” and “power to the people through technology.”

When it comes to your school’s brand, you have to ask yourself what do you want people to think of you? How do you want people to talk about you? What sort of families and students are you trying to appeal to?

Large companies make these choices all the time. General Motors owns both Chevrolet and Cadillac (along with Buick and GMC), and sometimes their different brands offer cars that are nearly indistinguishable under the hood. However, a Cadillac will always be seen as luxurious and sophisticated because it’s a Cadillac. Meanwhile, a Chevrolet will be perceived as affordable and dependable. The difference between the brands isn’t about the difference between the cars themselves as much as the difference between the customers each brand is trying to sell their cars to.

Some schools these days differentiate themselves in a similar manner. For example, the course selection at a school that brands itself as STEM-focused isn’t radically different from the course selection at a typical high school. There are only so many periods in the day, and students at both schools are taking history and language arts in addition to math and science. The real difference is that the STEM-focused school has made the decision to attract families who value practical skills that can lead to careers in technology.

The Attributes of Your School’s Brand

Whether it’s a sense of community, a focus on religious faith, or a long heritage of success, parents are looking for more than just a good education from a school. The purpose of your brand is to resonate with these needs and draw these families in.

This means that the attributes of your brand must be designed to appeal to the specific families you’re trying to reach. Your school might do many things well, but in marketing, you can’t be everything to everybody. If you want to attract young, progressive parents, perhaps your brand should stress student life and creativity. On the other hand, if you want to attract conservative, religious parents to your Catholic school, perhaps your brand should be one of faith and tradition.  However, be careful that your brand attributes are not too confining.  If you are a Catholic school that talks about faith activities around every corner, don't be surprised when non-Catholics don't feel like they have a place there, or if you are too "progressive" don't be surprised when some parents feel like your ethos is not a good fit for their family.

Whatever attributes you choose, make sure that they are either quantifiable (can be measured) or experiential (can be felt). “We’re a top-ranked school in the state” is quantifiable. “We’re a school where creative students feel at home” is experiential. “You’re going to love our school” is just a hope, not an attribute.  If you find that all of your brand attributes are experiential, recognize that you are going to have to spend a fair amount of time storytelling and convincing parents.  That is not to say to not choose those types of attributes, but to appreciate that emotional attributes can be hard to establish in someone's mind.

Now that you have a list of your attributes, examine them from the eyes of a parent.  Ask yourself if these attributes are important for a parent and different from other schools in your area.  I run into many schools who claim that their prime attributes is "community" or that they are a "family friendly school".  If these are your school's attributes ask yourself this:  When parents are shopping for a school for their child - is a sense of community really what they are looking for?  

Does this trump high academics or experiences for their child?  Is claiming that you are "family friendly" really position you against the school down the street that is "family unfriendly"?  Your attributes need to be a reason why the family would pick your school over the competition and what is important to them.  Not to you.

Also, make sure your brand attributes are believable. You can’t make claims about your outstanding college placement unless you’ve actually placed students at outstanding colleges. All of your brand attributes must have one or more “Reasons(s) to Believe” or RTBs. This is the evidence you can provide that supports your claims. For example, if you claim your school provides a strong academic environment, you better be able to back it up with high SAT scores, an impeccable graduation rate, and high ratings from your state Department of Education.


Of course, you can talk about yourself however you want, but it won’t matter if you’re current and prospective families don’t believe what you’re saying. That’s why it’s important to conduct some research to find out what people really feel about your school.

A good place to start is online reviews on sites like Great Schools, Private School Review, Niche, and Google. While you might cringe at what some people are saying, these are the loudest voices in the room, and for good or ill, they are setting the tone for the conversation about your school.

Also, conduct surveys and focus groups with current families and ask them probing questions. Find out what words they would use to describe your school's brand, as well as why they chose your school and how they compare you to other schools in the area.


How to Communicate Your School Brand to Prospective Parents

Once you’ve established your school's brand attributes, your next task is to communicate them to the parents you’re looking to attract. Whether it’s through advertising or in the media, stay on message, and be consistent. Stress your brand attributes internally as well, not just in your words but also in your actions. Remember, every experience is a brand experience.

Also keep in mind that many families will know very little about you at the beginning of the application process, so it’s your job to make it easy for them to find you and learn about you. Most parents will start their search with Google, so make sure to register your website with Google My Business, which will make you easier to find you in searches as well as easier to find on Google Maps. Then go back to those online review sites and make sure your contact information there is correct. Finally, take advantage of search engine optimization to improve your search rank on Google.

Assuming they can find you online, every parent will visit your website, so do everything you can to make it as good of an experience as possible for them by tailoring your website to these prospective families. You have many avenues for communicating with current families, but this might be the only time you have to impress new ones. Also, keep in mind that graphics and photos can be more important than the words, so make sure your website pops visually. Finally, take care to stress your brand attributes, and don’t forget to provide those RTBs.

Most important, do anything you capture their contact information. Sometimes this is done by asking families for an email so you can send more information, but other times you have to be a bit more clever. One trick is to offer an eBook or other piece of valuable content that parents would be willing to get in exchange for their emails. And don’t forget to encourage every website visitor to sign up for your newsletter.

Your Brand and the Enrollment Experience

After you’ve successfully convinced a family to take a tour or apply, make sure you’re ready to provide them with an experience that backs up the brand attributes you’re trying to promote. It’s important that your entire staff understands your brand so visiting families will experience those attributes in person.

If you are looking for help on establishing your school's brand, schedule a free consultation.

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Nick LeRoy

Nick LeRoy, MBA, is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides enrollment and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve its’ student enrollment, send an email to or call us at 317-361-5255.

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