Not Evil: Why Branding Matters in Education

By Deborah Mersino

In my last post, we covered two common myths about branding in education. Today, I’d like to discuss the third:

  • Branding is for big corporations, not universities, schools, foundations nor educational nonprofits.

I understand why a good chunk of leaders think this. To some (not all), branding and marketing communications are big business practices having nothing to do with pedagogy and real-time pressures facing nonprofit execs, educators, university leaders, and policy makers (e.g., Common Core, infrastructure, tenure, funding challenges). Given the current rise and misuse of other business practices within our education systems today, it makes sense why leaders would be wary. Shoving business terms, principles, and constructs onto education feels like an evil intrusion. Take teacher evaluations on standardized tests; you get the picture.

Time to shift

I want to help you shift, though, and discover a new way of thinking about branding that’s authentic, strategic, and ultimately critical to bottom-line revenues, enrollment, student retention, member and donor relations, and target market engagement.

Whether you run a private school in California, a foundation benefiting special education in Maine, an association promoting STEM in the U.S., or are in charge of university communications for a engineering department at a large state school in Arizona, you have a brand – whether you realize it or not.

“A brand is perception in the minds of target audiences.”

If you don’t define your brand, your audiences will do it for you. With the rise of digital communications, this reality has never been more poignant.

Contrary to popular belief, branding is not about deception…putting a shiny bow or wrapper on something to make it more salable or appealing to target audiences. It’s about what makes your school, nonprofit, foundation, small business or university program tick.

What are the dangers of not embracing branding?

Branding is what separates you from your competition (another “dangerous” term to some in education circles) and helps define your vision and mission. All strategic planning for schools, foundations and educational nonprofits should align with brand positioning.

To be successful, it’s vital to focus on, define, and have your brand positioning guide all that you do. What happens when you don’t?

Common side effects and symptoms of brand confusion

  • Decreased revenue: attributable to lower enrollment, slow or plummeting product or service sales, stagnant or decreasing conference attendance or memberships, fewer donations, and higher staff turnover
  • Silos: caused by internal misalignment with an overarching vision and departments operating independently (some going rogue)
  • Board/leadership tensions: due to assumptions, but also often exacerbated by misunderstood governance models and rotating leadership
  • Time woes: dealing with squeaky wheels not aligned with greater purpose or positioning; continuation of outdated programs and services
  • Lukewarm mission impact: primarily caused by opportunity costs, missed ideation tied to brand positioning, and the continuing battle of competing priorities

Think branding still belongs in business only? Stay tuned for more on why branding matters in education. And thank you to everyone who showed such enthusiastic support for yesterday’s launch. What a privilege it is to serve you!

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