A School Brand Must be Built for Experience, Engagement, and Loyalty

What can schools learn from retail brands about customer experience, customer engagement, customer loyalty, and unique identities?

Trish Rubin is the co-author of BrandED: Tell Your Story, Build Relationships, and Empower Learning, which delves into the topic of school districts, and what they have to gain by developing and promoting their own brand identities, and what they can lose if they don’t.

A brand can help schools tell their unique story, improve performance, and build necessary resources, cultivating important beneficial relationships. The concept of a brand has long been built around three key elements: Image, promise, and result and schools today can now adapt this historic model and make it fit the needs of schools.

Rubin talked to Loyalty360 about this compelling book and how retail brands serve as a guiding light of key principles for school districts everywhere.

What key aspects of a respected brand (customer engagement levels, brand loyalty/advocacy, customer experience) translate to a school building its own brand?

Rubin: Before any of these important elements of managing a brand are attempted by a school, a school brand first must be built for experience, engagement, and loyalty.

An image for the school, a promise to the community, and a vision of a tangible result from the brand offer starts the process. The development of the school’s unique brand, its identification, and articulation launches the effort. Schools may think they have a brand, but they don’t.

They have disparate, disjointed elements of a “brand identity system”: A familiar mascot, a worn out tagline, a stock mission statement, a static website. None of these distinguishes and tells the story of the school’s truly unique value proposition. Every school in the modern world  must define this value for its community. Surface elements contribute to the school brand, but a deeper dive is necessary to make the adaptation of business brand to education. 

At the start of brand building, modern school leaders develop a personal-professional brand themselves that can be modeled for the community. This gets the brandED conversation started. Leaders who amplify a true, relatable brand take on the role of “Storyteller-in Chief” and can quickly attract brand pioneers or ambassadors to help create the institutional brand. Thanks to digital and social media, everyone in a school community in 2017 knows the power of brand from their own experience engaging with products and services. The work launching a school brand that is designed to elevate the school community begins with justifying why a school should develop a brand. When a school community identifies its core value, its beliefs, its reason for being, as all successful brands do from the start, they can begin to see brand not as a tool for “selling,”, but for “telling” the story of the good things the school brand is about that set it apart. 

Building awareness of the school brand, identifying valuable stakeholder messages to deliver to its many audiences, and creating the connection of emotion are important elements for a school team to develop in collaboration. The power of story provides evidence of customer/stakeholder experience with the school brand, experiences that are shared by teachers, kids, parents, and the community. Messages carry the brand story and sustain its loyalty among the collective community.

How can building a brand elevate the experience/engagement that a school might offer?
Rubin: Brands are about belonging. A school brand is an idea that unifies in powerful tangible and intangible ways. The best brand communities across all verticals of retail, hospitality, food and beverage or other services, get people talking, engaged around the ideas that unify the brand community−what respected marketer, Seth Godin refers to as “The Tribe.” Tribes share common bonds, language, and traditions, and they can grow through word-of-mouth sharing. Schools are tribes that can develop a clear brand and a strategy to disseminate their messages about their brand through many channels which create active engagement of the tribe ... ask Buffalo Wild Wings or Houlihans or Starbucks about the conversation of their tribes ... it’s not just about food or coffee, it’s about belonging and sharing how the tribe feels. For years, many students have gone through schools wearing the colors or logo, the identity markers of a school, without feeling the connection of belonging. A brand can connect deeply.

In this scenario, how do schools compare to retail brands as far as telling their stories, building relationships, and making emotional connections to sustain themselves for years to come? 
Rubin: In the scenario−an adaptation of brand to a brandED mindset−schools can be informed by retail brands and can actually learn from the best brands like Disney, Nike, and Apple about building a brand and telling a story. Many school stakeholders are brand loyalists and can identify the reasons why they like and share their own favorite product/service brands. Schools can learn from some of the lessons that Madison Avenue has learned ... how to build brand personality, brand essence, brand image, and promise to create a vibrant, loyal, sustained tribe.

Even today, schools must be competitive as brands are. We are entering a time of more school choice and having a brand has never been more important−even good schools with reputations can’t rest on their laurels; certainly Nike isn’t doing that. Brand never sleeps and our stakeholders are part of an “always on” world. The need to build relationships within an internal school organization around the stated brand impacts institutional performance. The amplification of the brand to the external community creates engagement and new relationships that can resource the school. A school brand brings cultural awareness, improved performance and new resources. It’s time for schools to think of themselves as legacy brands that connect to long-term relationships among the past, current, and even future consumers of the brand.   

What can this mean for the future of schools in this ever-increasing digital age?
Rubin: It can mean good news. We are living in an Accelerated Age that is fired by communication: Traditional, digital, and social. Schools need to be relevant in these channels. Schools that understand the value of PR, communicating in a post-Ivory Tower world online where transparency offers connection and access will gain from being brandED. They can act in “out of the box” communicative ways promoting their good work. 
In the past, schools have avoided telling their stories and have humbly gone about the business of educating. That hasn’t helped them gain loyalty and it has resulted in schools being defined by others rather than taking control of their narrative and defining themselves. With the transparent digital world around them, they must step it up in the digital world. In doing so, they can find new partnerships that bring relationships around shared brand messages. In addition, business brand and school brands can share common bonds through their shared brand values. Businesses interested in CSR can find great synergy with share brand messages in brandED school communities and can truly work on social profitably in school partnerships that they can support in digital channels. Finally, in an ever-increasing digital age, schools also face−along with business brands−the near future of brand where AI and VR and ML will contribute to telling the story. It’s a call to action for schools to set their sights on building a brand.

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