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Behind the Brand: Q&A with Dr. Mike Walker, Head of School at SF Day

Posted by on February 26th, 2019
Posted in Blog   

I recently sat down with Dr. Mike Walker, Head of School at San Francisco Day School, to talk about the lessons he learned from rebranding. If you’re considering strengthening your school’s brand, take a look at his advice on how to be well prepared. – Jennie Winton


What was your biggest hesitation about investing in a rebrand for your school?

I had several, but perhaps the most pressing was how to set up decision-making so the right people had a say. I wanted the good counsel of those around me, but I also knew that there would be points along the way when I would have to be the final decision maker on key issues after gathering feedback and input from board members, administrators and staff. I had to allow the process to work, but also steer and guide it. So I wanted to set that expectation up well from the beginning. And also, because I was relatively new to the school, I wanted to make sure this process respected the culture, and that I was aware of and honored the “sacred cows.”


What were the biggest challenges you faced during the rebranding?

Making the all of the constituencies, board, administration, parents, faculty and staff feel authentically included – and they were – required a patient and decisively pastoral approach. That wasn’t a challenge so much as a part of the work that one doesn’t typically think of when you think of developing a new brand or exciting new admissions and capital campaigns.


What did you learn along the way that still guides what you do as head of school?

Mission Minded taught us the important difference between features and benefits. One of the reasons our brand needed to be strengthened in the first place is because the school had been talking all about features, and not nearly enough about benefits. So with our new brand strategy in place, one of the ways we bring it to life every day is by focusing on the outcomes of our program and what that means for our students and the adults they will become.


What surprised you most about your rebranding project?

Well first of all, we’re now all really clear that our logo is not our brand, as much as we love our new logo. Our brand strategy — of signaling that SF Day is the only school where intellect and imagination are intertwined — guides how we act, what we do, what we say, and yes, how we look. We started with the strategic work of articulating what makes our brand unique, and that’s a fairly academic, research-based effort. So what surprised me was how fun it was to see how Mission Minded pivoted later in the process to bringing our brand strategy to life visually – in our new logo and admissions campaign. I never fully appreciated the power of well-conceived visual cues until this process. And did I mention how fun it was to be part of that?

One other surprise was how having our new brand strategy would benefit our capital campaign communications. Mission Minded leveraged that to develop really strong messages, a brochure and a website for our donor community, and we’ve hit all our goals in the quiet phase of that effort.


What advice would you give other leaders of schools, foundations or nonprofits considering a rebrand?

Be ready to lead, in the face of multiple and competing opinions, and let Mission Minded support and guide you. They have a lot of experience, and they were great at helping us make hard choices along the way, and the finished product reflects that. It is a fun, thorough, creative, and satisfying process.


Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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