If you’re a school or program that holds any kind of graduation ceremony to honor the achievements of your students, you may have time-honored traditions that mark the occasion. These traditions may be loved by your community, but have you done all you can to ensure they are both loved and mindful of your brand?
When people gather in person or virtually to celebrate a graduation, your organization has a huge opportunity to reinforce the tenets of your brand—what we call your BrandEquation. We’re not just talking about school colors, though we do hope you herald those in all communications and at your event.
Your brand, or reputation, is a collection of values, feelings, and promises that you should be upholding at all times as a way to differentiate your school or program from others. When you do, you increase appreciation, loyalty, and connection from your stakeholders. Not only does that yield future students and supporters, it stokes successful fundraising from families and alumni, too.
So take stock of your brand. What’s the big idea you want your school or program to be known for? If you have a strong brand it’s not the science lab, or your low student-teacher ratio; your brand is a much bigger idea like unbridaled innovation, the balance of rigor and joy, or where everyone dares to learn.
Now with your brand in mind ask yourself what parts of your traditional graduation day actively reinforce that idea, and which parts inadvertently conflict.
The biggest brand signal mistakes are the ones we don’t see. We worked with a school some years ago that was aiming to reposition its brand as warm and welcoming, but didn’t notice that the receptionist’s overly formal phone voice sent the exact opposite signal.
Another school, sincerely wishing to be welcoming to people of all socio-economic backgrounds, nevertheless pulled out the hundred year-old fine china for all events and graduation celebrations. For families who’ve never used a delicate cup and saucer for their coffee this felt uncomfortable at best, elitist at worst, and in any case did not reinforce this school’s commitment to serving students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
This would include anything you’ve traditionally done that you now recognize as sexist or racist. Are there signals you send at graduation that undermine what you actually mean to convey? If so, replace them with an on-brand action or tradition.
Your school or nonprofit has a set of values by which you live and make decisions every day. Organizations with strong brands intentionally word their values actively, and activate them at every opportunity. If someone from Mars dropped in on your graduation day and looked around, what would they say you value?
As you consider the ceremony and related events of the day start with your values. How can you bring them viscerally to life for your students, their families, and your faculty and staff? If health and well-being is one of your values, what healthy activity could visitors be asked to partake in? What kinds of refreshments should you serve? How should wayfinding signs take health and well-being into consideration? Every detail of the day is a chance to showcase your values — and that they’re not just written on the walls, but walk your halls.
Who you choose to speak at your graduation also speaks volumes about what your organization values. If you recruit a keynote speaker for your graduation, choose one whose brand aligns with that of your school. If they’re just a celebrity, you’ve missed an opportunity to reinforce what your school stands for. And if your keynote speaker already stands for something meaningful, consider how their brand will impact yours. What are they likely to say? Does it align with what you’ve been teaching your students? Your keynote speaker should be the punctuation at the end of your pedagogy paragraph.
Likewise, how your school goes about selecting a student speaker also matters. We’ve seen predominantly white schools choose students of color to speak at graduation. If the student was chosen because of tokenism, the school’s lack of awareness will be readily apparent, and ultimately hurt their reputation.
Ultimately your brand is signaled by how you look, how you sound, how you act, and what you do. Make sure your graduation event reflects your school or organization’s brand in every way it possibly can.
What on-brand graduation traditions does your school embrace? Have you dropped anything after realizing it sends the wrong message? We’d love to hear from you.
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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