The brand ‘schoolboy errors’ of academia

The mistakes education institutions make (and how to avoid them)

Brand and marketing. If we’re honest, these are two words that rarely sit comfortably with educationalists. It all feels somehow too ‘corporate’, too ‘grubby’ for the world of education.

But it’s the absence of solid brand and marketing thinking that is at the root of so many headaches facing our already beleaguered schools and education institutions. Headaches such as:

‘Why can’t we recruit any decent talent to work here?’
‘Why do the schools in our care seem indifferent to our existence?’
‘Why does the local community seem set against us?’
‘Why can’t we persuade the right kind of students to choose us?’

Having worked with organisations large and small – from state schools, to independent colleges, to Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) – we thought we’d share a few insights we’ve gleaned along the way. Here are the brand ‘schoolboy errors’ (ahem) that experience tells us education institutions are prone to making…

ERROR #1: Believing ‘if we build it, they will come’

At their heart, all education institutions have a purpose beyond themselves – and a passion for what they offer the world. The danger is that this inherent self-belief in the cause slips into an ‘if we build it, they will come’ mentality that assumes providing an excellent service is ultimately what will draw the target audience to the institution. The reality? The best institutions are the ones which not only deliver a great service – but also know who they’re targeting, how they want to position themselves to that audience, and are deliberate in getting that message out.

ERROR #2: Letting the organisation grow, while the brand remains static

MATs and independent school networks often fall into this trap. What starts as a straightforward brand representing a single school or college becomes a straightforward brand struggling to represent an altogether different organisation as it grows to encompass other schools, more geographic regions, and a wider audience. This ‘brand lag’ will ultimately act as a ceiling for the organisation – as it struggles to convince potential talent it’s a heavyweight employer or reassure local communities it stands for more than simply creating carbon copies of the founding school.

ERROR #3: Refusing to settle for one ‘big idea’

Not surprisingly, education institutions love ideas – the more of them, the better. This desire to explore multiple concepts is undoubtedly a strength when it comes delivering education, but when it comes to branding…it can be a death knell. Too many schools and Trusts insist on having a vision, mission, values, ethos and motto – each reflecting separate ideas and aspirations. The end result? Nothing stands out, and nothing is remembered.

ERROR #4: Assuming a new logo or website will fix the problem

A surprising number of initial conversations with education institutions start with this opening gambit: ‘I think we need a new website’ or ‘we feel it’s time to refresh our logo’. Whenever we hear this, we immediately respond with ‘why?’. Too often the answer is something around wanting to look more professional, or a concern that some of their peers have recently made some changes. This is the beginning of an honest discussion of the challenges the organisation faces (usually one of the more strategic questions flagged at the start of this article) – and how a broader look at the brand, rather than merely the sticking plaster of new logo or website, is what’s needed to tackle those challenges.

ERROR #5: Treating spend on brand & communications as wasteful

Let’s face it, for most state schools and school trusts, the coffers are far from full and the stakes for wasting resources are high. There is an inherent nervousness around any spending that could be considered ‘frivolous’ – an open invitation for angry letters from parents or an unwanted phone call from the Department for Education. However, the reality is that money spent on a strategic piece of brand work that tackles several of the headache questions can be money well spent. The challenge? Framing any project – and spend – around tackling those issues, and not around more ethereal terms such as ‘refreshing the brand’ or ‘upping the game with our marketing’.

If you are reading this and thinking ‘these headaches aren’t ours’ – that’s great. We hope you take heed of the advice above and avoid the potential pitfalls that lie ahead. If you are reading this and thinking ‘those headaches are ours’ and ‘we’ve made some of those mistakes’, the good news is it’s not too late.

The road to correcting past mistakes begins with a first step of embracing the good that brand and marketing can do for your establishment. After that? It’s a case of asking the question: “What good exactly could brand and marketing do?”

By Dave Vann