Three steps to a clear brand

  • 5th June 2024

Carolyn Reed stresses the importance of understanding your brand and defining it to all your school’s stakeholders


In Wimbledon where I live and work, there are three big senior schools that all carry the name of their location: Wimbledon College, Wimbledon High School, and King’s College, Wimbledon. This could be confusing to parents new to the area, but all three are very clearly defined brands.

The first, Wimbledon College, is an all-boys Roman Catholic and most importantly Jesuit school and the Jesuits are very clear about what they stand for both as a ‘brand’ and as educators: “We are the Society of Jesus… pastors, teachers and chaplains… especially in our education ministries, we seek to nurture men and women for others.” Such is the strength of the Jesuit brand that many of the great and good Catholic families of the surrounding area choose Wimbledon College, a maintained school, for their sons over and above the best local independent schools.

The second, Wimbledon High, is as unequivocal in its brand definition. It’s an all-girls, academically successful and once again (and most importantly) a member of a larger well-respected and understood organisation – the GDST. And like the Jesuits, the GDST is a very clearly defined brand. Founded in 1872 by a group of pioneering women who believed that “girls should be entitled to the same academic education as their brothers”, this spirit of fearless women, many of whom became active in the suffragist and suffragette movements, lives on: “In our schools, academic excellence is a given. But GDST girls also learn to be confident, happy and fearless, to be prepared for the opportunities of the future.” No confusion here.

The third, and possibly the best known outside its local environment, is King’s College, Wimbledon. From a commanding position overlooking the Common, it’s a school for boys to 16 and co-ed in the sixth form, with intellectual achievement and a progressive spirit ingrained due to its heritage of originally being the junior department of King’s College London. Developing this theme, it now looks to the future with the clear mission of offering a true education in mind, spirit and heart with the very best preparation for the world beyond school and is one of the most sought-after schools in the area.

Heritage first

These three all have strong inherent values derived from their heritage. In that sense they are lucky to be able to call upon this, and many other schools are not so fortunate. However, what is most important is these schools regularly examine, review and adapt their brand values and definition to ensure they remain relevant and future-proofed.

For independent schools facing possibly their most threatening existential time, this is a crucial activity for governors, heads and senior leadership teams. And it’s even more important for independent schools in less affluent areas than SW19 where the competition can be intense, and schools are fighting for favour from a diminishing pool of families able to afford the potentially increasing fees.

So how do you strengthen your brand definition and make your school distinctive and recognisable?

As independent schools are multimillion-pound businesses, it would be a foolish board of governors willing to take a punt on brand definition (and in effect strategy), without robust research and an evidence-based rationale. It’s also far easier for marketing departments to implement the brand definition via all the marketing channels if the process has gone through the right channels and has been agreed at the top level.

So, these are the steps to success:

Step 1. Obtain the relevant information

Conduct stakeholder research talk to parents, staff, alumni, local schools, feeder heads and, very importantly, your pupils. Find out what they think are the most important aspects of the school and what it does well. What are the words they use to describe the school? What have been their favourite moments?

You’ll find the most useful information will come via commissioning independent research with experts conducting focus groups and interviews. This way you’ll glean honest and in-depth insights where stakeholders feel they can talk in confidence to non-partisan interviewers. If you’re doing this on a tight budget then split the process with some expert interviews alongside your own in-house online surveys.

Delve into your history – most schools are not new-born brands. They emerged decades, if not centuries, ago with specific purposes that were relevant to their time and place, so look back into your history and heritage. Is there an aspect that is relevant today and clearly differentiates you? What were the core values and mission of the school? Who was the founder and what did they stand for? Were there characters in the school’s history who helped to define its identity? You’d be amazed at what can come out of the woodwork that can be applied to redefine your school’s brand.

Here is an example of using historical fact to define your brand – St George’s Ascot defines its brand with three words: Confident, Capable, Connected. While the use of three words has become commonplace by schools, they have true integrity for St George’s as we discovered via an old prospectus owned by the admissions director and an alumna. St George’s always made sure its girls were ‘well-connected’, very capable and confident in all areas of life. These values are deep-rooted in its historic culture and headmistress Liz Hewer has simply adapted them to the requirements for success for girls in today’s world.

Step 2: Analyse your findings, discuss them and then agree the redefined brand

Once you’ve gathered the information, look through and analyse which are the common themes. Which of these are relevant and deliverable and, most importantly, can differentiate your school from the competition? Avoid anything that is simply a ‘concept’ without true integrity and the ability for it to be present in every aspect of daily life. Once you have agreed your brand definition, the school will have to deliver it across every aspect, not just marketing.

When you’ve thoroughly discussed the detail, achieve consensus on your definition with key leaders in the school and ensure the chair of governors signs it off.

An example of delivering your brand definition with integrity is offered by Tom Rogerson, headmaster at Cottesmore Prep in Sussex. He told listeners during my company’s recent AGBIS artificial intelligence podcast that the school aims to straddle its traditional roots while being sharp when it comes to technology. Like St George’s Ascot, this description is represented throughout the school with truth and integrity. It’s at the forefront of the role of AI in education, but balances this with the joy of outdoor life, away from screens, enabled by the school’s beautiful rural Sussex location.

Step 3: Communicate your redefined brand

First, tell the staff and all other key stakeholders, so they can support your new brand definition.

Then apply it to everything you do – culture, actions, initiatives, charitable work, outreach and, very importantly, marketing. Frame your agreed brand definition and put it on the wall to refer to every time you have a new idea. Does the idea match? If so, go ahead, if not, dispose of it, because if it doesn’t communicate your brand definition it will gradually erode the clarity of your brand.

You may have made a major change to your school definition, perhaps by updating its structure in age groups, joining a group, or merging with another school. If this is the case, then it’s important to redesign or refresh your school logo and brand identity to ensure it communicates what you now stand for. It’s also important the design you choose is significantly different to your competitors. There are far too many similar school crests in the independent school marketplace.

An example of a new brand definition and look came about last year in Woking when girls-only Halstead Prep School formed a partnership with co-ed St Andrew’s Prep School to become a fully co-ed prep and senior school to 16. This meant the combined school needed to devise a new brand definition as it was a new entity with a new vision – to be ‘the school of the future for Woking’. This required a new name: Halstead, St Andrew’s and a new logo that combined elements from the original two schools’ identities. These changes communicated a clearly defined brand definition for the new era.

So, take inspiration from these examples and, as it’s spring, give your brand renewed definition before the start of the next admissions cycle comes around.

Carolyn Reed is a consultant with marketing and research firm Reed Brand Communication.

Carolyn Reed

Reed Brand produces and presents the AGBIS Independent Schools podcast. You can listen to the podcast with Tom Rogerson at:

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