The Impact of Branding in the Education Sector

Medium Read

In some ways, the challenge of branding for schools is no different from any other. You need to understand the organisation marketplace, the contextual challenges, the audiences and set clear goals for the brand. The objectives may include increased staff retention, higher engagement levels, increased audience perception ratings or number of enquiries. So far, the needs are similar to corporate challenges. However, the education sector also has unique challenges and pressures which cannot be overlooked. The rise of Free Schools and Academies with new buildings and facilities has brought more competition for places in some communities. Schools have to relate and appeal to a wide audience group, each with their own interests to fulfil. Not to mention changing guidance to keep up to date with and the continuing struggle with budgets.


I spent a lot of my school holidays in empty school buildings while my mum prepped classrooms for the start of term, roping me into preparing Harvest and Diwali celebration displays. My brother is now Deputy Head of a large primary school facing all the same challenges other leaders are across the UK in our new Covid-19 world. What I know personally, is that most Headteachers and school leaders have very little time to think about how their school is perceived culturally and visually; what precious time they have is spent on how the school is performing, the safety of pupils, and how their budgets are being spent, among many other issues.

However, in order to continue to bring new pupils in, compete with other schools and retain staff, you need to make sure those first impressions truly reflect your school. When we worked with Chigwell School, an independent school on the outskirts of London, the primary objective of the rebrand was to differentiate them from their competitors by developing a brand positioning and identity that truly reflected their vision, their personality and their people. Working with them brought us new challenges; from engaging vocal staff and pupils, aligning conflicting views on how to represent the school’s heritage, through to launching a rebrand in the middle of a pandemic when key stakeholders are understandably distracted.


First Impressions Count

First impressions are 94% design-related [1]. This doesn’t just apply to big corporate brands like Nike and Virgin, but for every organisation. Our brains are always looking for quick routes to decision-making. Brand design helps us take advantage of mental heuristics, or shortcuts, to allow us to come to a decision more quickly. Visual design can tap into the emotional decision-making side of our subconscious more quickly than the conscious, rational decision-making side. We’ll recognise a brand sound, colour or logo and have a perception in our heads before we even realise it. This means our first impressions are formed before our rational decision-making, where we review and compare data, kicks in. These first impressions are hard to shake. Ignoring brand design means communications must work even harder.

Many people still see brand as a logo, but a strong brand strategy, positioning and identity can inspire, excite and galvanise a group of people behind one vision. For schools, brand positioning should feature in the school’s business development strategy to maintain an oversubscribed school, increase the number of first-choice applicants or increase applications to the school. Ensuring your brand is relevant and helping you to impact and influence local community thinking is key to continued school growth. You could have excellent academic results, but if the local perception is that you’re less academic or less innovative than competitor schools then you’ve got a brand job to do.


Think Digital

It’s easy to assume external audiences have the same perceptions as you do of yourself, but it’s rarely the case. It takes a lot of consideration and hard work to ensure external communications represent the school correctly. In an increasingly digital world, a school’s website and social channels have become important channels for schools to land their message with prospective talent, parents and pupils. Although users may have heard of your school before landing on your homepage, the website experience can help to reinforce, or dispel, those first impressions. A school’s website needs to talk to parents and prospective talent, as well as to older pupils. These users have other tabs open in their browsers, they’re not comparing you to just your competitor schools, they’re comparing you to John Lewis, to the BBC, to Mumsnet. It shouldn’t look childish, schools should be trusted and academic.

We know that it takes 0.05 seconds for a user to decide if your website is worth spending time on [2]. This means the message on your homepage needs to be concise and encompass your school’s mission. Less than a second isn’t enough time to read a lot so imagery or video should be used to convey your school brand ethos immediately. For example, showing imagery of children in a happy learning environment or a teacher providing one-to-one support is more likely to quickly deliver what you’re all about than a lengthy paragraph of words.

Make the journey through the website as intuitive as possible. ‘Don’t make me think’ is the mantra of Steve Krug and one we follow at Nalla. It’s a common-sense approach to make websites user friendly by designing a site for users to complete their tasks as easily and directly as possible. Whether that’s finding local bus routes, the admissions timetable, through to reporting an absence, the journey should be as easy as possible.


Engaging Staff

The pressures facing school leaders are arguably more emotionally charged than corporate leaders; they involve child safety, wellbeing and progression. According to statistics released by the Department for Education this year, a third of those who train as teachers leave the profession within five years and fewer teachers are staying on until retirement.

With a sector continuing to struggle with hiring and retaining talent, as well as competition from new schools with new facilities, defining the culture of a school and communicating it should be high up on the to-do list.

Schools are not only competing with each other for talent but are competing with businesses luring their staff out of the education sector. With more focus than ever on purposeful brands, schools should play to their advantage in that they have an inherent purpose to educate young minds. Brilliant brands need stories. They need a reason to exist beyond profit, and schools have this in buckets. Schools need to make sure that their communications really dial-up their impact on a child’s life, the impact teachers can make and the fulfilment they can expect to get from that. Brand has the power to make teachers proud to work for their school, for choosing the make a positive impact on a child’s life. A rebrand alone is not going to change the education sector and increase pay, but it can improve culture, improve engagement and little by little bring worth to individuals.

A strong brand positioning, strategy and identity, doesn’t only help with competing for talent but also with keeping talent. When properly run, a rebrand project has the power to realign and reengage jaded staff. We have seen internal engagement get higher up the priority list for business leaders as they see the return on investment and increased productivity stats for engaged workforces. Any branding project, no matter the sector, needs to come from within. For schools, this means engaging pupils, parents and staff throughout the branding process, and using their insights to guide and inform everything, from design through to strategic decisions. It needs to be inspired and led by the vision, culture and feel of the organisation.

On our recent rebrand project for Chigwell School, we found the staff were vocal in how the school should be positioned and what it should look like. Many of the staff had worked at the school for years, some had even been pupils, so their understanding and experience of the school’s values were second to none. We held engagement sessions specifically for current staff and sought their inputs on the strategic positioning and their feedback on our creative ideas. We heard from them about what makes Chigwell School different and what sets their pupils apart from those attending competitor schools. We heard their grievances about the school not being perceived as academically excellent as their competitors, despite the results proving otherwise. We left every session inspired and determined to show the outside world what Chigwell was made of.


A strong brand positioning isn’t fluffy stuff that can be ignored. Your school’s brand is the difference between being the first choice and being the fall-back option, between engaged staff and struggling to recruit, between a growing reputation and lagging behind new competitors. It’s not a nice-to-have, it should be firmly on the agenda.


[1] Research Gate

[2] Google Research: The role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites: Working towards understanding aesthetic judgments