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 private 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 product slips into an ‘if we build it, they will come’ mentality that assumes excellence in service delivery 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 private school networks often fall into this trap. What starts as a straightforward brand representing a single school/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 on 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 is a death knell. Too many schools and school Trust’s insist on having a vision, mission, values, ethos and motto – each reflecting separate ideals 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 the question: ‘Why?’. Too often the answer is something around wanting to look more professional, or a concern that several peers have recently made some changes. This is the beginning of an honest discussion of the challenges the organisation faces (usually one or more of the questions at the top of this article) – and how a broader look at the brand, rather than a sticking plaster new logo or website, are what is 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. My hope is you take heed of the advice 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.

It starts with embracing the good that brand and marketing can do for your education establishment – and then starting a conversation about how.

By Dave Vann