5 Steps to More Unique & Impactful School Branding

Date posted: June 23, 2017

branding for schools

What is a brand?

“Brand is the promise, the big idea, the expectations that reside in each customer’s mind about a product, service or company.  Branding is about making an emotional connection.”  (Alina Wheeler, Designing Brand Identity

Take a moment and visualize the college or university you attended. What three adjectives or emotions immediately come to mind when you think of your alma mater?

I did this exercise, thinking of the institution where I completed my undergraduate degree, and right away these descriptors surfaced:

  1. Welcoming/non-intimidating
  2. Challenging
  3. Flexible and “alternative”

Then, I asked a fellow alum which attributes he associates with the university, because I wondered if he might offer a similar response. He immediately said:

  1. Supportive
  2. Fulfilling
  3. Full of opportunities but underrated

Next, I decided to ask two people who had not attended the school, to get a sense of whether their responses differed from our “insider” perspectives. My first volunteer said:

  1. Underrated (a kind of underdog, as compared to big ticket alternatives in the same city)
  2. Good programs
  3. Vibrant and diverse

And my second volunteer reported:

  1. Progressive
  2. Non-traditional
  3. Welcoming

Now clearly, this little experiment was far from scientific, but it did reveal some compelling consistencies in how the university is perceived from both the inside and the outside. Across all four responses, we can see a clear identity emerging – one that centers on progressiveness, diversity, and student support.

It would seem that my alma mater has done an effective job of weaving together an intentional, emotionally evocative brand. Which of course, begs the question: How is your school perceived by current and prospective students?

What attributes or descriptors do you hope students will think of first when they hear your school name, or sum up their experiences as alumni?

If you’re still grappling with refining your school’s identity, or hoping to re-brand and re-position yourself in the marketplace,  consider these six steps to cultivate a unique and impactful school brand.

school branding ideas1. Understand How Your School’s Brand Can Inspire (and Repel) Prospective Students

If you want your school’s brand to evoke positive associations with a particular group (or groups) of students, it makes sense to first nail down what those personas look for most in an educational institution – and what turns them off.

Whether you’re re-tooling or starting from scratch, researching and developing your student personas is a key part of branding for schools. Insights into preferences, aspirations, and concerns will help you narrow down which of your own strengths to highlight most, and which “character” elements you may need to work on improving. Plus, polling or interviewing students will reveal any prevalent misconceptions about your brand – perceptions you’ll strive to subvert and re-shape with your promotional campaigns.

Without this knowledge, you’re really just taking a shot in the dark, allowing your branding decisions to be guided by speculation and generalizations – which will result in a bland or unappealing identity, unlikely to stand up against more strategically defined competitors.

2. Align Your School’s Brand Identity with Your Audience’s Preferences

Schools want their brand identity to set them apart, to reflect their strengths, values, and mission as a place of learning. In order to avoid generic or misguided messaging, the marketing team (and other key stakeholders) must first clearly define their institution’s positive attributes, and crucially, how those align with their target audiences’ aspirations, challenges, and educational preferences.

You could start by making a list of your school’s 5-10 top attributes, and clarify how each one speaks to your audience’s goals and needs. These are the key messages you will use to guide every aspect of your marketing, working toward consistently targeted campaigns that both reflect your unique culture as a school, and the specific characteristics of your audience. Over time and with consistent effort, the attributes you’re emphasizing become synonymous with your name – they communicate your true purpose as an institution of learning.

When your audience knows exactly what your school stands for, and feels that this mission aligns with their own goals and values, you’re well on your way to building trust and loyalty.


branding for schools plan

Take Stenberg College for example. When I think of Stenberg, the words “inspiring,” “deeply supportive,” and “transformative” come to mind. And this doesn’t happen by accident. The marketing team has worked hard to communicate key messages around student-centeredness, empowerment, and being an agent for positive change in the lives of students.

In fact, Stenberg has placed student transformation and empowerment at the heart of its school branding, investing considerably in gathering, recording, and publishing success stories in ways that associate their brand with community support and student achievement.

Stenberg understand that these themes will motivate their target audience and generate trust in their brand. The college’s slogan, “Our Grads are our Difference”, sums up their student-centric brand, intentionally avoiding salesy, self-promotional messaging.

Stenberg College Branding

Stenberg’s website reinforces this ethos, regularly featuring in-depth stories about and interviews with students who have overcome barriers to achieve their professional goals, and ultimately transformed their own lives (and the lives of their families) for the better.

Stenberg College branding and web developmentAnd with its winding path over a mountain toward a sunny destination, the Stenberg College logo echoes the learning “journey” its students undertake, overcoming challenges to ultimately realize a hard-won goal. I would also argue that the font used here reinforces stability, authority, and strength. 

Stenberg College brand All of these elements combine to communicate a clear and impactful brand – one in which Stenberg becomes synonymous with positive transformation, proven results, and an unswerving dedication to student success.

3. Ensure Consistent Brand Elements Across all Marketing Channels

Inconsistency in the use of logos, image and video quality, “about” descriptions, and even slogans is a significant branding challenge for many schools. Ensuring prospective students find consistent representations of your brand during their online search is important for building a sense of familiarity, dependability, and trust.

Here’s an example of logo and language inconsistencies on a school’s website and Facebook profile.

On the website, we find two different colour schemes for the same logo. Here is the first, on the homepage:

branding for schools

Here is how the logo is represented on the About page of the website, where it is missing the signature pink colour:

branding for schools

And here we find discrepancies in colour and text placement on the Facebook cover logo. The background colour has shifted from pink to purple, and this time, the placement of text inside of the “O” is also different:

branding for schools

There are several reasons brand inconsistencies happen. For example, when several different people are responsible for managing social media accounts, producing print materials, or updating the website, it’s easy for brand elements to become muddled. Or when a school has numerous campuses, with different marketing staff at each location, each branch can end up producing its own variant of the institutional brand.

Avoid inconsistent representations of your brand by developing a style guide that provides clear guidance on your logo, colours, font, positioning, website header and footer design, and imagery – and an image bank that includes all of the approved photography and video that can be used across your school’s marketing channels.

For good examples of clear and consistent branding, look at large, renowned institutions such as the University of Michigan, whose iconic logo and distinctive blue and yellow colour scheme are universally familiar to people both inside and outside academia.

The school’s well-defined brand is fully integrated into all aspects of its promotional materials, making it instantly recognizable and authoritative for prospective students.

University of Michigan school branding example

4. Incorporate Your Community & History into Your School Branding

Whether you’re a primary school, language program, university, or career college, your institution does not exist in a vacuum. You’re part of a broader community, and for many students, your surrounding environment plays a part in their enrollment decision.

Many millennials, for example, want to know how the college they’re considering contributes to local philanthropic organizations. Other prospective students and parents associate credibility with a long and illustrious school history – they prioritize schools that have been around for the last 50-100 years (or more), and consider longevity a hallmark of success.

It’s important to consider how context influences the perception of – or adds value to – your school brand.

Take for example, Lakefield College School, a private boarding school in Ontario.  A big part of their brand identity is immersion in abundant, beautiful natural surroundings. Students spend a significant amount of time out of doors, learning new sports, growing to appreciate and understand environmental sustainability, and exploring the diverse natural world in which the campus in situated.

This messaging is clearly and consistently communicated on their website, from the color and design of the school logo, to the images and narratives that tell the brand story. For example, every single image on the homepage carousel features students outside, enjoying nature. Here’s just one of those carousel shots:

branding for schools

And if we take a closer look at the wordmark, we see nature reflected in its green and blue colour scheme, and the impression of water from the wave that runs through the “E” and the “F”.

branding for schools

Lakefield understands that for its prospective parents, proximity to nature evokes an impression of health, vitality, adventure, and perhaps most importantly, a respect for “work-life” balance they feel is valuable to instill in children.

Consider how your school’s environment, relationship to the broader community, and history influence its perception – and how you might weave these elements into your brand story to connect with your target audience and differentiate yourself from the competition.

branding for schools

5. Look Critically at the Brand Identity of Competing Schools

Your competitors can also be a great place to look for school branding examples. After all, you offer similar programs and are competing for similar target audiences. It can be highly instructive to examine how your main competitors are presenting themselves in the market, and which elements they’re emphasizing to make emotional connections with current and potential students.

Is your top competitor highlighting student success (like Stenberg does) to establish itself as the college best suited to support tentative mature students and newcomers to Canada?

Has your top competitor woven community involvement into its brand identity, connecting with your audience’s desire to associate with altruistic institutions that give back and do good?

Is a competing school doing a particularly effective job of associating its brand with cutting-edge technology – which you know will resonate strongly with your particular audience and program offerings?

Or, is a competing institution doing a great job of recruiting a specific audience you’ve had trouble adding to your school population, such as international students or young millennials? How have they adapted their brand strategy to appeal to this demographic?

Taking the time to look critically at your competitors’ messaging can offer you fresh insights into your own evolving brand identity – helping you distill the most memorable, unique, and emotionally stirring impression of all. 

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Have questions or observations about the unique challenges schools face when it comes to branding? We’d love to hear your comments in the space below.

**Editor’s note: This blog was originally published on 20th July 2016 but has been updated to reflect current trends