Rebranding your school is a big deal. It’s much more than a new logo. Rebranding is a commitment to telling your school’s story in a fresh, compelling way, and seeing the process through to full implementation. In fact, it’s as much an exercise in change management as it is a creative project.
In the early stages of a rebrand conversation, it’s critical for your team to have a common understanding of why your school needs to make a change. You need to be aligned around the challenges you face with your current brand and what you’d like to accomplish through a rebrand.
Start by bringing the right people to the table for a 90-minute planning meeting.
Include your Head of School, key players in Marketing and Admissions, and a Board member or two. Step through this article together and identify the motivators that apply to your situation. This planning exercise will be helpful for introducing the rebranding project to your school community and laying the foundation for a successful rollout.
Tired, dated branding
Your branding was fresh, perhaps even cutting edge, years ago when it was designed and rolled out.
But like fashion trends, design aesthetics cycle in seasons. Plaids are out, prints are in, solids are next. The same is true of brand design. Fonts, colors, and graphic styles change, and schools that don’t keep pace can be perceived as sleepy or even out-of-touch as their aesthetics fade with time.
To avoid getting left behind, a school should evaluate its branding every 8-10 years. Whether you refresh your brand with a slight tweak, a major overhaul, or something in between, a rebrand can signal to your community that your school is relevant, forward-thinking, and thriving.
Clunky, inconsistent branding
Clunky branding takes many forms: busy icons, pixelated graphics, too many colors, complex gradients, drab hues, tiny text that’s hard to read, odd shapes, generic fonts...the list goes on.
It’s bad enough that poor branding presents an uninspiring public image, but the challenges of awkward logos extend beyond curb appeal. Bad brands are a pain to use, and the complexity only increases over time. Inconsistent branding results in mismatched colors across applications and higher setup costs for printing and logowares. It also takes your team longer to work with a finicky brand to make it fit and “look right” on design projects.
Your school’s brand should be designed for easy application across a range of digital and print media. To make sure your brand is stewarded well, a Brand Standards Guide should be developed in conjunction with your new brand to help internal team members and outside vendors understand how to handle the brand properly and consistently. So, if your brand feels like a patchwork quilt, it’s time for a rebrand.
A significant change in direction
A school going through substantial changes may realize significant gains from a carefully timed rebrand.
There are several possibilities here. To name a few:
- A pre-K to grade eight independent school is opening a high school and needs to move from a playful brand to a more college-prep aesthetic.
- The board develops a new mission statement, vision statement, and core values. They want to roll out the new purpose statements in conjunction with a refreshed brand.
- To mark the move to a new campus, a school develops and rolls out a new brand.
- A school is making a major commitment to a specific instructional model or paradigm. The shift is big enough to warrant a new brand.
- A brick-and-mortar school launches a virtual school.
These big-picture shifts provide unique inflection points to tell your story, and they also create a context in which your audience will likely be more receptive to a rebrand. If done well, a rebrand can provide an excellent platform for energizing and unifying your school community.
In some cases, however, a new logo may not go far enough; a new name may be in order. Bear in mind that a name change initiative is more involved than a conventional rebrand. The gains can be substantial, especially when there is brand confusion in the market, but your entire school community has to be brought along through a compelling narrative that makes a case for a name change.
In a school merger, the branding project is more than a rebrand. It's the creation of a new brand that acknowledges two histories, two cultures, and two directions and lays the groundwork for alignment.
When two schools come together, decisions have to be made around brand equity. One brand may be retired while the other steps forward. There may be a blending of names and logos to show convergence and strength. Or both brands may stay in play for a period of time to avoid disruption and give internal teams time to figure out the new normal.
There isn’t one right way to solve these scenarios, but a methodical, careful discovery process should create clarity. Sometimes the decision-making process around the emerging brand structure looks like two mountain goats facing each other on a steep alpine pass, but it should look more like two horses pulling together in the same direction. The work is ahead of the new school, not between two competing entities.
Bear in mind, you cannot please everyone in a rebrand — especially when changing the name of a school. But if properly motivated, carefully communicated, and lavishly celebrated, the new brand will catch on and be a healthy contributor to a blended culture.
“It’s a new day,” says the incoming Head of School, and it’s more than just bluster. It's a declaration of intent.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise when the new leader wants a new brand to signify the substantial change happening within the organization.
Some internal stakeholders may have reservations about the leader’s eagerness to change the brand, but it’s important to understand that a successful rebranding process can do more than just update the optics of a school. Through an intentional rebrand, the incoming leader can achieve a new level of organizational clarity and rally the community around a clear vision. The entire initiative can be a catalyst to help a school elevate and celebrate its mission, vision, and core values, giving the leader a strong platform for cultural listening and alignment.
To be clear, a rebrand is not about a new Head of School putting his or her signature on an institution. Rather, if properly motivated, a strategic rebranding initiative can provide valuable leverage for a dynamic leader focused on the long-term good of the organization.
Schools can use a rebrand to highlight differentiators that help prospective families quickly understand their unique value proposition.
An example from the business world, the Amazon logo features an arrow below its name — cleverly disguised as a smile — to imply you can buy everything from A to Z. This is a claim no other online retailer can make (at the time of this writing). Another example, in its name “Rooms to Go” states its brand promise: don’t worry about trying to figure out what goes together, because we’ve already done that for you. We’ll sell you the whole room, already designed to fit your space and lifestyle.
If your school has a unique value proposition, paddle out of the “sea of sameness” and consider how you can convey your differentiators through an intentional rebrand.
Lack of distinction between academic and athletic brands
This is an easy one. Schools that haven’t yet differentiated between their academic and athletic brands are missing out on a lot of fun.
Your academic brand is just that — a mark that signals to families that your school delivers a high-quality education. This may take the form of a crest, a badge, meaningful symbols, Latin phrases, the interplay of the letters in your school’s name, etc. It should convey the notion that “We know what we’re doing, and your child will be prepared well to advance.” It’s the logo that goes on your sign out front and graces the rear bumpers of the cars and SUVs that crawl through your pickup lines.
If your school has a sports program, your athletic brand should tie in with your academic brand but enjoy some creative license. We love a good mascot. (In particular, we’ve noticed schools seem to have an affinity for birds: falcons, eagles, ravens, hawks, cardinals, etc.) Your athletic brand should be fun for your students to wear, fit easily into cheers, and in general strike fear in the hearts of your opponents. It should say, “We’re nice people, and we’re glad to be playing this game with you, but we’re pretty much going to eat your lunch before we get back on our bus and go home.”
Creation of a special campaign or program
There are occasions when it makes sense to develop a sub-brand for a specific initiative, campaign, or program at your school.
Here is a list of possibilities:
- A school is launching a capital campaign to expand facilities.
- A school is introducing a new learning track, educational partnership, or enrichment opportunity.
- The booster club was to increase its visibility.
For example, one of our client schools, Pardes Jewish Day School in Scottsdale, AZ, launched a transformative initiative to redesign their entire approach to teaching and learning. To support this effort, we worked with them to develop a sub-brand — The Pardes Innovation Initiative — that will be used throughout the multi-year implementation.
Some sub-brands will have a shelf-life (e.g., an open house or marketing campaign), and others can have long-term utility. Just be careful not to develop too many sub-brands or create elaborate logos that compete with your core brand identity.
AND...ONE NOT-SO-GOOD MOTIVATION
A public relations crisis
Schools that weather the fallout of an unfortunate negative event may aim to redeem their public image in part through a rebrand.
Be advised, however, a rebrand is not a solution. Current families and the broader community want to know what happened, what the school is doing to make it right, and what’s being done to regain trust.
No rebranding will take the place of humble, clear, honest communication, followed by actions that make good on promises. Only after leadership has righted the ship should a school consider a brand refresh. Otherwise, a rebrand will be perceived as a lame attempt to avoid dealing with the real issues.
Ramping Up Your School’s Brand Development Project
Once you’ve identified your motivations for a rebrand, you need to communicate the plan to your school community. Not everyone needs to hear the message in the same way. Give careful consideration to the method, sequence, and timing of the message. You may even need to forecast the process for some key influencers. Hold an “all-hands meeting” to announce the initiative to your faculty and staff, followed by same-day communication to your broader school family. The process will go much more smoothly if people are informed and included on the front end.
Most schools do not have the internal expertise to successfully navigate a rebrand. An experienced, professional agency can help you move forward with clarity, purpose, and confidence. By following a proven process, a rebrand can enhance public perception and energize your school culture. After all, you probably won’t be doing this again for a decade, so you might as well get it right.
Click here to start a conversation with North Star Marketing about your upcoming rebranding project.
And if you’re interested in what it looks like to launch a new school brand, download North Star Marketing’s Definitive Guide to Rolling Out a New School Brand.