Branding Faith-based Schools

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August, 2016

Branding has become a key concept in the strategy for any business today.  This should include faith-based schools.  But as much as administrators realize that competing for students means stepped up marketing efforts, there is still suspicion and misunderstanding around branding strategy.  Is branding really what faith-based schools need to be doing?

For me it’s clear that, to ready themselves for the challenges ahead, faith-based schools must indeed embrace their unique brand.  With the costs of education rising and a broadening range of educational choices families have access to—from magnet schools to charter schools, and home schooling to on-line academies—it will be critical that we distinguish ourselves and create an understanding of and loyalty to our brand.  But there’s a way to do it without forsaking, or for that matter cheapening, our mission or our charism.  The key is in how you define brand.

In my work, I’ve come to define brand as how our mission looks to our publics.  We’d like to think that our mission dictates our brand.  But it doesn’t, at least not by itself.  We can write the most accurate and compelling mission statement we want, but it will not prevent people from formulating their own mission statement for our school based on what they experience.  Having an accurate and compelling mission statement is a good place to start, in fact the right place to start.  But we still have to ask how this will look to the families we exist to serve.  Ignatius of Loyola knew this as well as anyone, and the Jesuit schools and ministries he inspired understand that simply having the right message isn’t enough.  We have to communicate it effectively.  There’s an old Jesuit saying, “We bring them in their door so that we can bring them out ours.”  People aren’t always ready to hear our message.  But if we understand what they are ready for, we can lead them beyond where they’re at to something deeper.

How do we do that?  To answer this question, I’d like to draw from what I learned from the marketing firm, JayRay (www.JayRay.com).  JayRay looks at brand as having three components—3 P’s if you will:  Position, Personality and Promise.  I like these three P’s because they give me a strategy for approaching the challenge of branding, and they are congenial to the spirit of a faith-based school.

Position is simply where people locate you in the in the spectrum of organizations which address the same needs you do.  There may be other academically excellent schools in your catchment area, maybe even some more respected than yours.  There may be other faith-based schools available.  But perhaps your unique spot is that you are the most academically superior, faith-based school in your area.  That might be your position in the “market.”

Personality is how people experience your school on a human level.  Are you strict and formal?  Are you relaxed?  Do you have a good sense of humor?  Do you value creativity, or discipline, or somehow both?  Certainly each of your teachers has her own personality, but your school has a personality too.  Hopefully, that personality is an expression of the love and welcome implied by the Gospel and spiritual charism of the school.  School personalities can’t be fabricated, especially not for marketing purposes.  But they are a good indicator of how well the loving spirit of Jesus is embraced by a school.  If that is not well, work needs to be done at the root level.  If your personality expresses your underlying charism, then the school should acknowledge and broadcast it.  This personality should be reflected in the speeches given by the president and principal, the way the school’s website looks, the photographs chosen for publications, even the types of media you choose to communicate with.

The word Promise is a great way to look at mission.  JayRay would ask, “What is it you promise to do every day as a school?”  Do you promise to be welcoming—every day, to everyone?  Do you promise to create a safe environment, to challenge all students to their full potential?  Do you promise to graduate students who are open to growth, intellectually competent, loving, religious and committed to justice?  And do you promise to work toward that each day?

One of the things I like about this approach to branding is that it is not, as so many assume, an outside-in approach.  We picture an ad agency coming up with a catchy phrase that tests well in consumer research and launching an ad campaign to create an image for their client.  But it doesn’t really work that way.  Well, maybe this works for some businesses.  But it won’t work for a faith-based school.  Brand has to begin at the very core of who the school is and radiate outwards.  JayRay describes it as a pebble in a pond with the waves radiating out from the center.  Teachers and office staff and custodians and coaches all have to understand the school’s promise as their promise and commit themselves each day to keeping it.

The school’s Strategic Plan is an important tool for aligning all community members around the position, personality and promise that shape its brand.  That’s why MfM uses a strategic planning process with its faith-based school clients that generates a high degree of stakeholder input.

In their own ways, which are very “corporate,” Apple and Starbucks have achieved high alignment with their employees.  Companies whose employees live out their brand have given us a great example.  It seems to me, however, that with the graces we are able to draw upon, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the core of our schools, we should be showing them how it’s done.

Your school has a great message to share.  Aligning everything your school does around its core message is a big part of what we call managing for mission.  If you want to know more, please visit our website, www.managingformission.com.  And keep up the good work of bringing the mission of faith-based education to families who may need it even more than they realize.

This topic of Branding for Faith-based Schools can also be viewed as an seven minute video by clicking here. I encourage you to learn more about governance and school management by viewing the other tutorials on this website and our YouTube Channel.

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