Karen Buck is a Senior Brand Strategist at Mission Minded and co-led the rebranding of our client Army & Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California. I asked her to give us an inside look at this unique boarding school’s rebrand because there is something for every nonprofit and school to learn from their bold effort. – Jennie Winton
At Army & Navy Academy, greatness lies in every boy. But first they need to believe in themselves. Every day, they listen, challenge, and encourage boys to imagine and accomplish their goals.
They know that when they believe in a boy and nurture his best aspirations, he’ll discover his best self.
Why was this the right time for Army & Navy Academy to invest in branding?
Trends in enrollment around the country for military boarding schools were negative with many shrinking or closing. They knew they offered something amazing to boys and their families and that it just wasn’t resonating. After hearing you (Jennie) speak at a conference on the benefits of a clearly articulated brand and message strategy, they recognized that they needed a new way to connect with families.
That makes me want to ask, what is different about this military school that families can’t find elsewhere?
We helped them discover and recognize that what makes them unique is what they truly believe: When they believe in each boy, each boy is able to discover his best self.
Even though that’s what they believe, and how they operate, they had not articulated that. And it’s quite different from being a school about leadership, “strong men” or towing the line. They are authentically delivering something other military schools are not: a belief in the endless potential and possibility that lives in each boy. They focus on finding the right motivation for the boy, and seeing him to see the possibilities in himself, for himself. Our work has helped them change the conversation from what’s wrong to what’s possible.
That sounds like a pretty big shift, especially considering that they still have a pretty traditional culture. How were they able to pivot successfully to this new positioning?
School leadership, both the Trustees and staff, was truly willing to embrace the outsider, objective viewpoint that we brought to them. Their head of school was all over it from the moment we presented this idea. He said, “YES! That is what we do and why we do it.” They knew it in their bones, but just hadn’t had the benefit of perspective to bring it to the fore.
But it still required something of a leap of faith. And they trusted us to move them forward. We kept reminding them that the work we were doing was in service to attracting their target audiences—new families—not talking to those who already knew and valued the school.
After they agreed to the big idea behind the strategy, how did it come together?
Well we wrote a brand promise that was perfect for them—believe in the boy—and then we translated that into a new admissions campaign theme and school-wide tagline written to speak not to parents, but directly to the students themselves: Be bold. Be brilliant. Be you.
This tagline works because it instantly reengages the boys about why they want to be there, and what’s possible for them. It’s positive, and slightly unexpected for a military boarding school. It helps boys see their own self-worth, become their best, and then pay it forward to their brothers.
What can other organizations learn from this case study?
Embracing a less is more discipline gets you a more powerful message for your audiences. This brand-signifying tagline is coming to life on the homepage of their new website, printed materials, and in all communications. So pick your big brand idea, develop a powerful tagline or campaign theme, and stick with it in spoken, written and digital communications.
Visuals matter. Beyond the strategy and words you’ll need design, photography and videos that send the same clear brand message. The new photography we did for them moved from faceless groups of boys in uniform to photos full of humanity that reinforce the warmth of the brand and the brotherhood of boys.
Similarly, the video is a powerful narrative speaking directly to the boy. It doesn’t mention a single feature of the school, so it’s a personally compelling story that makes you feel like you’re part of the group, not an outsider observing.
Clients sometimes wonder if we can really deliver on-brand photography and videos that truly captures the brand, culture and ethos of the school when each shoot is just a few days. We absolutely can, and that’s because a clear brand strategy drives our every creative decision.
Finally, make sure your digital strategy is on brand. Lead generation can’t be the only goal. You have to make sure your communications are solidly building the brand, not inadvertently chipping away at it.
How do you know this work was successful?
It has already inspired internal stakeholders to see themselves and their mission differently, and that difference is being projected externally. Their alumni community instantly embraced the new work on social media. And that’s what a good brand strategy should do: make everyone who already loves the brand say YES! That’s us!
But my favorite indicator of success is the mom who saw the video during a visit to the school—even before it was released to the public—and said that was the moment she knew it was the right place for her son.
What was the most surprising part of this project for you?
I had preconceived notions about what faculty and staff at a military boarding school might be like. I imagined hard-nosed, drill-sergeant types. But the moment I got onto campus I felt the positive energy, both for the boys and for each other. This is a truly wonderful group of faculty, staff and trustees, and we really enjoyed our collaboration with them.
Favorite project moment?
It sounds funny, but getting the printed admissions viewbook in the mail was so thrilling. Even though I knew how it looked and what it said (I mean, we wrote and designed it!) seeing it in print is so gratifying. All that work wrapped up in a beautiful bow, paired with all of the enthusiasm and gratitude from our client, is such a nice way to wrap up this year-long relationship.
To see more of our work with Army & Navy Academy, take a look at our portfolio.
Image created for Army & Navy Academy photographed by John Davis.