Studio Ostendo operates in multiple creative fields including photography, design, and education.
I’ve always been a believer that investing in your brand is a surefire path towards standing out and succeeding in the marketplace nowadays. As the education industry becomes more crowded and students and parents demand more from schools, building a unique brand is crucial to compete.
Of course, brands mean different things to different people. Students, staff, parents, donors—they all view and experience your brand in their own unique ways, and this experience is often inconsistent across groups. The truth is if you want to have a truly successful brand (and compete well in all areas), you need to pursue brand singularity in your school. This will help you deliver a cohesive, consistent experience to everyone who interacts with your school.
And if you haven’t even heard the term “brand singularity” as applied to educational branding, then today is the day you’ll learn how to future-proof your school—and why brand singularity is the only way to do it.
We’ll start by breaking down each definition.
Now, you might ask, “isn’t that what a regular brand is?” Well, that’s what it should be. But most schools haven’t actually thought about nor achieved brand singularity because they’re stuck in the old paradigm: the classroom has a brand, the sport field has a brand, the parents have a brand, and the donors have a brand.
There are many trends driving the need for brand singularity, yet many schools are dying before they resolve the issue. If you aren’t aware of how these issues can and will affect your school brand going forward, here’s what you need to know.
For years, branding has only been used to curry favor with parents—parents, after all, were the customers who were buying an outcome for their child. Traditionally, all that mattered was what parents thought of the brand. In this context, schools (both private K–12 and higher education) could just project whatever image they wanted to parents, and then make sure they had the test scores to back it up.
But in this new era, parents aren’t the only consumers, and no one is as easily satisfied. Standards have drastically changed, both academically and experientially. Students, parents, donors, and faculty are far more invested in a brand’s all-around reputation, relationships, mission, etc.
“Purpose-driven consumers, who choose products and brands based on how well they align to their values, now represent the largest segment (44%) of consumers."
—2022 IBM Institute for Business Value Consumer Research Insights
It’s not just what test scores you produce or what stakeholders think about your logo. Their perception of your school, educational value, student experience, mission, and actions—inside and outside your institution walls—matter most. It seems we’ve all internalized Martha Beck’s quote, “how you do anything is how you do everything,” and now use this to determine where we get our education.
In the wake of the great resignation and hardships of teaching through COVID-19, schools are desperate to attract and retain the best and brightest educators. Just like the student/parent shift, however, teachers now have increasingly higher standards for brands they work for. Thus, cultivating a strong and desirable employer brand is more important than ever.
“Building an employer brand that aligns with your student brand is a golden opportunity to differentiate your school in a highly competitive marketplace.”
A decade ago there wasn’t any way to know what it was like to work at a company besides talking one-on-one with someone who already worked there. With modern platforms like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and accessible news outlets, it’s much easier to peer inside an educational institution to see what it’s all about.
“91% of candidates seek out at least one online or offline resource to evaluate an employer’s brand before applying for a job.”
—HubSpot Employer Brand Research 2020
Not only that but the highest paying schools aren’t always considered the most desirable to teachers these days. Employees across the board are prioritizing things like company purpose, vision, mission, and values from the company, plus resources, quality of life, and overall location benefits play a major role in recruiting teachers at every level.
There are both private K–12 schools and higher education institutions with deeper pockets offering higher salaries that will soon be eclipsed by schools with more holistic brands built on strong values.
Most brands have only focused on their consumer-facing brands and haven’t invested much (if anything) in their employer brand. This is a critical error. Investing in your employer brand puts you in a position to be able to actively attract the best in your category—not simply hope the right people will apply to your school. It also signals to your current staff and faculty that you are interested in their satisfaction and how they experience their working life. Investing in your employer-brand is a forward-thinking step that shows you’re a savvy and self-aware institution—something every potential teacher wants to see.
No matter your school size, grade range, or position, your primary audience consists of students and parents (consumers), plus staff and faculty (employees). If you aren’t intentionally finding ways to connect your brand to both audiences, you’re already falling behind.
K–12 schools have been feeling the burden of low birth rates for years. The last rising birth rate in the United States was from 1978–1988 when birth rates peaked at 15.65 births per thousand. Since then, however, birth rates have continued to decline to just 12 per thousand in 2021. There just aren’t as many students being born, meaning greater competition among K–12 schools.
Colleges, on the other hand, had a few golden years where there was a backlog of people who had yet to get degrees—their market size increased even while fewer and fewer students were graduating high-school. Of course, that surplus of adult students has largely been made up, and more adaptable online programs have become available to them. Thus, colleges and universities face the same grim outlook as elementary schools—there simply aren’t as many students as there used to be.
Winning school brands produce a consistent, cohesive experience across all their touchpoints and audiences.
Unfortunately, many schools feel little pressure to re-evaluate their brand, especially when it comes to designing the teacher experience. With fewer and fewer teachers on the market looking for jobs, it's more important than ever for a school to be able to speak convincingly to them. Of course students matter (and I’d argue that they’re more design-literate than any generation previously), but in many ways, your teachers and staff are your brand. Especially as you build a school reputation.
Additionally, more and more schools are relying on shareholders for school growth and expansion. Having worked in higher education and with several educational institutions, I know how important a school brand, mission, and vision is to acquiring funds from faithful alumni. If you build a brand that takes care of teachers, they take care of students, and their success entices and motivates your donors. If you want a healthy school, you need a healthy, complete brand.
Brand singularity is the way.
The most successful school brands know this—they’re heavily invested in what teachers, students, and alum think, say, and feel about their brand. For example, Harvard and Texas have been approaching branding holistically for years. Harvard is known for its value on academic excellence, and Texas is one of very few schools with a singular visual identity across all its programs. It’s no surprise these brands tend to have the most loyal students, as well as faculty, donors, and fans (who may not have even attended these schools!). It’s clear these schools understood brand singularity before it was heavily written about.
The antiquated model of a school brand fell into two categories: an “academic” brand and an “athletic” brand. While many school brands fall into this dichotomy, our ability to understand brands as a society has grown immensely—the schools that will win won’t divide their audience this way. Instead, brands that find ways to unify their messaging to create one sharp, pointed brand promise will win their markets for years to come.
The schools that will win won’t divide their audience.
Besides, there are a number of “brands” within every school. Depending on your circumstances, these additional factors can greatly influence how people see your brand. Consider how you’re brand appears to:
The promise of most educational institutions is a quality education. That means communicating the academic promise of your brand. It also means that your audience here isn’t just students, but also parents who have their child’s success in mind. How do you draw in capable students? How does your school prepare students for what comes next and communicate that to parents? What vision do you have for the future of education at your institution?
For students who may not be drawn to school for education, your athletics programs may be another selling point. For some schools, this is a dominant factor. Your brand needs to include student athletes and the elements that come with an athletic brand without departing entirely from your brand as a whole. Most student athletes won’t go on to make a living playing sports, so how does your brand prepare them for that future, too?
As I previously mentioned, school brands have to now consider how they are viewed by teachers and staff. As the market for quality teachers has grown fierce, the quality of a brand can greatly impact a quality teacher’s job selection. Your brand must at once represent the staff and faculty that you have while also drawing in new hires that will elevate your brand performance.
Think about how people perceive your college president. As society has begun putting leaders in the spotlight, the President or Principal of your school plays a key role in how folks relate to the institution. Many times, too, there are certain brand elements, like a school seal, robe, or badge, that is reserved for these individuals. Is it on brand? Is it cohesive with the messaging of the school as a whole?
Presidents, Vice President suites, and Principles all lead their schools. As the flagship, their brand is paramount in setting the tone for the rest of the school.
How we speak to college students on a campus visit and how we speak to a donor on a visit are quite different. And yet, they’re not. When a school has a strong brand mission, vision, and purpose, both the highschool student and the donor have the same idea in mind. Their roles may be different, of course, but how they view the future that the brand is projecting is the same. That means that a school’s brand can take donors and boosters into consideration for their specific pieces of communication, but schools only need a singular brand to get donors on board and help contribute to the future of the institution.
Schools that embrace the concept of brand singularity early and aggressively with out-shine, out-hire, and out-smart their competition at every level. If you’re ready to get started in the process, here are a few key ways to make it happen.
Every stakeholder surrounding your schools brand (students, faculty, donors, parent, etc.) care about your principles, so document your purpose, vision, mission, and values. Then, create content that showcases them. Don’t just shout to the world that you value student success, but show them how you’re quantifying and achieving it. If you’re a faith-driven institution, don’t just put your logo on your college apparel, put your beliefs.
Your brand core and strategy represent the base of your brand. Elements like your messaging and visual identity are the outputs that express your brand to the world. Ensure that you are sharing your brand story and bringing it to life visually.
One of the most significant ways to build a strong employer brand is to cultivate a strong company culture. At colleges, a Provost might be the one most in charge of the faculty culture. Encourage these leaders to make sure the brand isn’t just a perception, but a lived reality. Remember, the more you create positive experiences for your employees, the more they create them for your students.
Don’t fall into the trap of “what everyone else is doing.” You are your own brand, and in order to stand out in the market, there needs to be a sense of differentiation. When choosing brand singularity, some might question why you put the same logo on the president’s letterhead as the quarterback’s jersey. When a brand has the same set of core values, these two people propagate the same message—the brand. Make sure every touchpoint is guided by the same powerful brand in order to exponentially increase it’s value and awareness.
Great branding is all about consistency in the way you look, sound, speak, and curate experiences. Make sure to review your customer journey (parents, students, donors, and more) to identify gaps, opportunities to improve, and create a seamless experience for everyone who comes into contact with your brand.
There are going to be places where one system you’ve established doesn’t fit. Make sure that the brand only bends, but never breaks. Schools that embrace brand singularity effectively will change the world, but they must be willing to learn, grow, and experiment. At every point, use the brand core—values, mission, purpose—to guide decisions and make changes. The best brands that are able to bend and not break will do so many times. I like to think of the branches of a tree that bend, twist, and change direction dozens of times, but ultimately each limb reaches towards the sky. Your brand ought to do the same.
The biggest step, of course, is committing to take your entire brand seriously. You may not build the perfect brand overnight, but you will be better poised to grow, thrive, and operate if you’re racing after brand singularity.
One final note: This type of brand work can be challenging, daunting, and all-encompassing, but is 100% worth it. If you are ready to embark on a new brand journey but need a guide, consider bringing on the right partner. See our tips for finding a brand designer, learn what it’s like working with Studio Ostendo, and reach out if you’re ready.