School’s out for summer! That means beaches, barbeques, baseball, and… branding? Yes: branding. Now that hallways aren’t awash in students and your meeting schedule is marginally less overwhelming, you can finally focus on you.
And, by “you”, we mean your reputation — which is a close synonym for brand.
Building a clearer, bolder brand brings you closer to mission success. The better your audiences correctly understand your independent school or education-focused nonprofit, the easier it will be for them to opt to enroll, donate, and engage. And that’s success.
That’s why this summer, work on clarifying what makes your organization stand out, so that your brand makes the right impression on the first day of school.
Here are six steps that Mission Minded strategists lead our clients through to construct stronger school brands:
1. Know Thyself
Before you know what needs tightening up, you need to take a hard look at how you’re coming across. Do you even know how the people who matter most to your mission success describe your school?
Jeff Bezos warns, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” That’s true if you’re Amazon and also true if you’re a less megalithic educational institution. If you don’t know what people are saying about your school, your first job is finding out.
Most Mission Minded clients discover that people understand them a little and misunderstand them a lot. What those confused audiences think isn’t necessarily wrong, just lacking completeness.
Asking about and understanding what misconceptions are dragging your brand down will help you know how to refocus your efforts for a more clear and powerful brand.
2. Identify Your Audiences
Smart nonprofit leaders understand that they’re not building a brand to impress the general public — you only need to reach those people whose engagement is essential to your success.
If you try to be all things to all people, you’ll end up meaning very little to most.
We ask our clients, “Who are the people without whom you can’t achieve your mission?” Know who those groups of people are and have the courage to focus solely on them. You don’t need the whole world to fall in love with you, only those who resonate with your values and are ready to become your champions.
Speaking of your most important audiences, why don’t you take a moment to put yourself in their position? If you were one of them, why would you choose your school or organization instead of your competition?
This question assumes that you know who your target audiences consider similar to you. It also assumes you know what those organizations are saying about themselves and offering as a benefit of engagement. If you don’t know the answer to either of those questions, now’s the time to find out.
There are other nonprofits, foundations, schools, programs, campaigns, and causes seeking support from the people you’re hoping to attract and retain. If you don’t make it clear why you’re the right choice, you’re sunk.
It’s time to put an accurate, current picture of your competition together. Go well beyond compiling a list of names — look closely at each competitor and track what they’re saying to your target audiences and how they’re saying it — so you can say something different.
Without this information you run the risk of blending in with all the other noise.
4. Be Beyond Compare
A worthy mission is not enough. In today’s world you’ve got to show what makes you different at every opportunity. And now that you know what the competition is promising you’re ready to create — and own — a category all your own.
Don’t try to sound like a better version of your competition; instead sound like a totally different offering. Make any comparison between you and them seem foolish, because you’re beyond compare.
How do you accomplish this? You need a big bold idea to convey all that makes you different, inspiring, and irresistible. This can’t be a programmatic detail or something anyone can come along and copy. Instead, base your brand on something visionary, inspirational, and benefits-focused.
Figure out what promise your organization can make (and deliver on) that your competition can’t. Focusing on what makes you unique — and superior — is the key to brilliant branding.
5. Distill the Difference
Once you understand what makes you unique — and beyond compare — you need to figure out how to encapsulate that big idea in a way your whole team can rally around. At Mission Minded, we call this concise rallying cry a “brand promise.”
A good brand promise inspires everyone who works for and volunteers with your school or program. It focuses their efforts around the big differentiator you offer the world and motivates them to rally around this idea.
A brand promise is not meant to be a tagline or any other kind of external marketing message; it’s the heart of your organization and a guide for all the on-brand decisions you’ll make going forward.
6. Send the Right Signals
Now that you know what you want your brand to be, it’s time to take inventory of every opportunity you have to reinforce that brand. This consistent broadcasting of brand is what transforms brand into a broadly accepted reputation. It’s how these ideas you’ve developed seed themselves around the community and become undeniable.
Your brand is built by what you do, what you say, how you look, and how you act. All of those areas will need your attention. You’ll need to update your external messages, reconsider how you welcome people, and plan for programmatic and operational changes to better support your brand strategy.
By consistently reinforcing your brand over time, your reputation will get stronger and more powerful. It will become a compelling beacon that draws increased interest and support to your organization.
It will make your story of what you did on your summer vacation that much more compelling.
Want to learn more? Here are a few other resources to add to your summer reading list so you can better understand — and benefit from — brand:
Image created for Marlborough School photographed by Leah Fasten.