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Creating a high-end brand for your school on a low-end budget

In Part I of this post, I wrote about WHY developing a polished and compelling brand for your school doesn’t have to be hard or costly. In this blog post, we’ll talk about what you really want to know – the HOW.

The following are 10 immediate, cost effective, and relatively easy steps that could be taken to get your school started down the path to sublime branding:

1. Identify your marketing squad.

Being on a mission to bring better marketing to your school doesn’t mean you have to go at it alone. It also doesn’t mean that the people who can help you need to be marketers or graphic designers or copywriters, per se. They just need to have a complimentary talent and interest (interest is really key – because apathy rarely breeds anything special). Perhaps there is an English teacher in your school who is a flawless grammarian? Ask if he or she would be willing to be the official marketing material proofreader or if they could help you determine the right tone and dialect to use when addressing different audiences. An art teacher could provide useful guidance on a color palette and which fonts pair well together. A drama teacher might give useful creative input on messaging. See who is around you, consider their hobbies or skills that seem to come naturally to them, and figure out how you can leverage those skills to improve your school’s brand.

2. Figure out the direction you want to be going in.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but a lot of times, organizations start by focusing on what they need to be doing before having an overall vision in place. What good is knowing how you’ll get there if you haven’t clearly identified where there is? Here is a good place to start: Imagine you are at the supermarket and you overhear someone talking about your school to someone who isn’t part of it. What would you want them to say about your school? How does being part of your school make them feel? What is the purpose, cause, or belief that underlies your school’s mission? The answers to these questions will be your marketing northstar for everything that follows. Full disclosure: this actually happened to me in the supermarket last week when someone asked me about my daughter’s school and a board member overheard. Luckily, I only had glowing things to say!

3. Now think about how you will get there.

Work with the leadership team to determine what your school’s communications priorities should be for the year ahead. Once you’ve settled on these priorities, schedule in every week one or two initiatives that support them. It’s fine (and even recommended) to start with what I call “a very rough skeleton” of a plan. I always say that this should be a living, breathing document that is always open and always being edited, added to, and celebrated when items get crossed off!

4. Build your brand one brochure at a time.

Search “brochure design” on Pinterest and select one to three pieces that speak to you. Share with no more than three decision makers in your school by asking the question, “How would you feel if this was our brand?” Then, bring the winning design to a graphic designer or a design agency and ask them to recreate it for your school using your own content. This will cut down on costs because it bypasses the “conceptualization process” where the designer spends time (which costs money) coming up with different concepts based on a few initial conversations. Plus, you’ll already have a sense of what the finished product will look like. Going forward, this design, color palette, and font family should be used as the template for all marketing collateral, signage, website, etc. created in the future.

What if you just need a nice flyer or postcard and aren’t looking to create a whole brand? Be sure to check out Canva.com which offers hundreds of beautiful and easy to use design templates and is kind of relaxing to use. Encourage your faculty members to give the website a try and use the same colors and fonts. Sure enough, a recognizable visual aesthetic will be born.

Helpful tip: Many creative agencies are open to doing pro-bono work or significantly subsidizing their fees during their slower periods for non-profit organizations. Don’t be shy about asking whether they’d consider doing so for your school and offer to serve as free advertising in your community in return. You have the potential to send them a lot of business between your parents, lay leaders, and other members of your school community!

5. All that I advised in tip #4, do again to create a logo.

Search “logo design” in Pinterest and pick a few that speak to you. Have a graphic designer recreate it using your school’s name. Once you’ve settled on a logo, make sure it goes on EVERYTHING created in your school as this is how you will truly reinforce and cement your new brand.

6. Find your school’s voice and stick with it.

If finding the right look for your school’s brand feels like a tough place to start, identifying and adhering to a singular voice in your school’s communications can be equally as powerful and free. You can start by pretending your school is a person. Who would it be and what would they sound like? Would they be someone who is warm and wise or fresh and clever? Is there someone in your school who embodies this voice? Recruit them to work with you on a mission/vision and values statement. This will be the bedrock for your school’s brand story which all messaging should reflect. This process might require many revisions, but the effort will be worth it; articulating these statements can do wonders for helping others understand what your school is all about.

Helpful tip: Writing by committee is often a painful and unproductive process, so when soliciting the opinions of others, try to keep it to no more than the 2 or 3 people who absolutely need to have input.

7. Build your photo library.

This can’t be understated: strong photography does so much of the heavy lifting with good marketing. Research a talented photographer and book them for two hour sessions over the course of the year. It is tempting (and appropriate) to hire them for big, milestone events, but you should also consider hiring a photographer to capture the quotidian aspects of your school. There are ways to capture artistic shots in a classroom or in the hallways that have a polished, stock photo like quality (such as blurring the background and focusing on a person or object, capturing visual patterns – like students sitting in a row looking down at their books, and capturing students in a lively conversation). I also find that children are incredibly adept at creating picture-perfect moments on the spot, so be on the lookout for these moments and be sure to capture them yourself! Use these photos in print materials and on your website.

8. Help your faculty members become well known.

Your teachers, administrators, and even lay leaders are bursting with talent, passion, and their own personalities and they should have a voice and the spotlight. If your school doesn’t have a blog already, start one and encourage them to write and write often. They could write about a new idea they just had, document the learning that is going on in their classroom, reflect on why they started teaching in the first place. These blog posts will humanize your school and help parents and prospective parents feel a greater sense of connection to what is going on inside and the people who are making things happen.

Helpful tip: Appoint someone (or a few someones) with excellent grammatical skills to be the official proofreader(s). Nothing undermines expertise more than sloppy writing and typos. See tip #1.

9. Go where the kids (and parents) are and consider microblogging.

Just as the name implies, microblogging is a smaller and easier version of blogging. Think of it as just pictures and captions posted on Instagram (this is where many of your prospective students and parents are hanging out, for what it’s worth) and adjust the settings so that these posts automatically post on your school’s Facebook page. Be sure to use any hashtag that comes to mind for greater exposure.

10. Build a gorgeous website for under $1000  

This sounds like a scam, but I actually created one for under $500. Now this isn’t for everyone – some schools have complex website needs that warrant hiring a webmaster and web designer. But if you are a smaller school that wants to simply and beautifully tell its story to the world, this can be achieved. Collect the pictures you want to use, identify the sections you want included, write up brief copy for each of the sections. Search WordPress or Squarespace for a captivating template and hire a freelance web designer to build it for you. To save even more money, they could set up the structure and train someone in your school who has the time to add the pictures and text themselves. Templates these days are fairly easy to use and update.

Helpful tip: Be sure to ask the web designer to set up Google Analytics which sends you a report every week that includes all sorts of fun stats such as traffic, demographics, most popular pages and links, and how long visitors are staying on your website.

Closing thoughts

Resist the urge to do a branding overhaul overnight. A good, strong brand evolves over time and gets better with age. I love the quote from Simon Sinek, “It’s better to go slow in the right direction than fast in the wrong one.” Finding the right look and feel for your school takes time, some measure of trial and error, and patience. I liken certain flyers that I designed years ago (and was so proud of at the time) to bad 8th grade photos when I look back at them now. But the truth is, your audience is patient and your brand will be better for it. So prioritize, start slowly, and pace yourself – as I said before, it’s all cumulative.  These are just a few ideas, but there is so much to be said for just starting somewhere. You’d be surprised by how quickly things can take shape and go in fantastically unanticipated directions. Give yourself and your school permission to experiment, fail, try again, and enjoy the process of carving out your own special brand. If there is one thing I’ve learned from all the educational experts that surround me at Prizmah, that’s pretty much what the joy of learning is all about.