Rebranding your school? Here's how to get staff on board.
Internal Communications is key to getting staff on board with rebranding your school district.
We’ve talked to enough school leaders to know that tradition is an important part of a thriving school community. We also know it’s equally important for schools to have an eye on the future. Rebranding is a unique opportunity to unite both the past and the future under the umbrella of a well-developed brand. It’s a chance to reaffirm the values you’ve stood for over the years while looking ahead to the kind of institution you hope to become.
Rebranding your school district means more than just updating your image. It might require anything from overhauling your district’s logo, colors, and tagline to taking a hard look at your core values. Put simply, rebranding means taking control of your district’s ever-evolving identity. And—as is the case with any conversation about your district’s identity—it’s important to think carefully about how to bring your staff on board.
But don’t worry. If you haven’t had a chance to think about how to get your staff on board with your school district's rebrand, you aren’t alone. As business communication expert Colin Mitchell writes in Harvard Business Review, “in most companies, internal marketing is done poorly, if at all.” Very few executives consider what it means to, as Mitchell says, “sell the brand inside.” But that’s exactly what it will take to move your district forward together.
So what’s your strategy for communicating how your district’s brand powers the work happening in your schools? To help get you thinking, we’ll share stories from districts that have rebranded or are thinking about rebranding, and what they’ve learned about getting—and keeping—their employees on board and on brand.
TrueNorth Educational Cooperative 804 - Highland Park, Illinois
TrueNorth Educational Cooperative was established around 1960 when school districts formed a joint agreement to ensure that their children with disabilities had access to a quality education. Until recently, TrueNorth was known as the Northern Suburban Special Education District. However, after moving through a strategic planning process, the district found itself with new mission and vision statements that focused on inclusive communities—and that no longer matched the district’s original name and brand.
“We were branding ourselves as a special education district,” says Superintendent Dr. Kurt Schneider, “but the field continues to transition away from self-contained environments for children with disabilities into environments where all students belong together, so organizations like ours are changing their practice.”
TrueNorth wanted to challenge existing narratives around educating students with disabilities—so they dropped “special education” from the cooperative’s name. “Our focus was to remove a label that is well-intentioned but has the potential to marginalize students and their families,” adds Mary Morgan Ryan, assistant superintendent for technology, communication, and data services.
Glens Falls City School District - Glens Falls, New York
In the fall of 2022, the New York State Education Department issued a decision that required all districts with Native American mascots to find replacements. Glens Falls, uninterested in pointing fingers or challenging the directive, immediately got to work. Upon looking into the district’s history, “what we found is we weren’t always the Indians,” says Superintendent Dr. Krislynn Dengler. Changing their mascot became a way for the district to both reckon with their history and think carefully about what they wanted to be known for in the future.
“Some alumni and students have very strong feelings about the Glens Falls Indians as an identity,” says Dengler, “but, given the cultural makeup of our district, that’s not quite right. It’s not the Indian image they’re identifying with, so what is it? That’s how we came up with our four pillars: Unity, Support, Grit, and Passion.” It’s also how they eventually landed on their new mascot: the Glens Falls Black Bears.
Portage Public Schools - Portage, Michigan
Portage Public Schools has not yet rebranded, but they’re hoping to soon—and they’re already starting to do the kind of thinking necessary to make that happen. Portage began as a consolidation of several one-room schoolhouses, so they’ve been around for a while. In fact, they just celebrated their 100th anniversary.
“It was important for us to not only honor the past, but to respect where we are now and what we have to be mindful of as we move into the next century of our existence,” says Superintendent Mark Bielang. As part of that work, Portage Public Schools has identified the six values (Accountability, Respect, Compassion, Honesty, Integrity, and Growth) that will guide them into the future.
Clarify the why behind rebranding your schools.
Being clear about your goals and intentions for rebranding your school district is paramount when it comes to communicating with your staff. If you don’t give them a reason to care about the new brand, they probably won’t.
TrueNorth’s leadership team understood this well when they embarked on their rebranding process. It took them four rounds of concepts before they landed on TrueNorth Educational Cooperative, a name that, according to Assistant Superintendent Morgan Ryan, “strengthened our identity as an organization that’s all about learners, including students with disabilities—not just about students with disabilities in isolation.” The TrueNorth team thought through every detail of their new name and logo, even down to which direction the new logo’s compass was pointing. In fact, the compass as a whole is meant to symbolize the varied learning supports at the heart of special education. “Everyone’s on their own journey,” Morgan Ryan says. “My true north may not be your true north.”
For Superintendent Schneider, the real connection between TrueNorth’s rebrand and its core mission lies in the simple phrase educational cooperative. “An educational cooperative can be any student and any family,” he tells us. “The name can absorb whatever we need to do. What’s good for students with disabilities is good for everybody, so opening up the work of the organization to include all individuals is huge. I don’t know who will be superintendent in 10 years, but our decision has given them permission to do whatever the community needs us to do. We made a decision that aligns to our work today and upholds it well into the future.”
Digging this deep during a rebranding process will make it easier to explain—or even defend—any final decisions your leadership team makes. After all, you aren’t updating fonts and taglines just for fun. There’s serious thought going into your work. Being able to successfully articulate those thoughts to your internal stakeholders is key.
Glens Falls’ rebranding process gives us another way to think about this. They identified four pillars of what it means to be a member of their district: Unity, Support, Grit, and Passion. Then, they referred back to these pillars every step of the way. No idea moved forward unless it could connect back to these pillars. It gave their conversations a framework: We should be the [proposed mascot] because… As Superintendent Dengler tells us: “Everything had to have a because. We were always looking at the ‘why’ behind the suggestions.”
Build ownership of the school district rebrand.
Communication and buy-in are two sides of the same coin. The better you communicate, the more buy-in you’ll have. The more buy-in you have, the more receptive your internal stakeholders will be to communication. And one great way to build buy-in is through ownership.
Ownership can be tricky. You want to invite as many people into the process as possible, but you don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen. So how can you build ownership at all levels of your organization without letting the process get unwieldy? By recognizing that ownership is a network.
Here’s what we mean: Teachers talk. Building leaders talk. Students talk. Families talk. When you invite a teacher to participate in the rebranding process, by extension, you’re including their students and the district families they might know. It’s important to think carefully about who you include—but why not encourage those you’ve brought into the process to gather opinions from their inner circles as well? That way, you can be strategic about who participates while also taking into account the opinions of a wide network.
Take TrueNorth, for example. “We worked really hard to include stakeholder input all the way through,” says Morgan Ryan. “We had student voice. We had family voice. We had key member district voices. We had our own staff voice.” As they moved through each round of concepts, TrueNorth consistently “gauged the temperature of all stakeholders,” Schneider says. They found a way to push their boundaries without ever pushing anyone away.
Making space for all your stakeholders’ opinions will allow them to feel like the rebrand is something they’re a part of rather than something that’s happening to them. And like we said, building internal ownership doesn’t just mean including your teachers; it means including everyone. Glens Falls developed a student cabinet early on in their process, and Portage Public Schools did something similar when it came to identifying their district’s core values. “Adult conversations changed once student voices were introduced into the mix,” says Bielang.
It’s never been enough to just tell your employees what to do. It’s far more motivating to invite them into the process whenever possible. That way, once the rebrand is finished, they’ll believe in it. Otherwise, you’ll put work into updating your brand and shifting your identity—but nothing will change. One of TrueNorth’s students put it best during a round of feedback: “If you’re going to do it, then do it, and change your practice.”
A rebrand is more than a new name or logo; it’s a whole new vision. And the more opportunities for ownership that you provide, the more likely your employees will see it as a vision worth getting behind.
Sell the brand inside your schools.
You’ve probably thought about what it means to market your schools, but have you thought about what it means to market inside your schools? Now that you have a clear understanding of the why behind your rebrand and how to build ownership throughout the process, let’s talk communication specifics.
Who is your staff hearing from?
More than likely, your employees get most of their information from building-level leaders, from one another, and sometimes even from students. Portage Public Schools, for example, wanted to maintain staff involvement, but there was no way for the district leadership team to handle all those touchpoints on their own. “We’re constantly rolling this out through our building-level leaders,” Bielang tells us. Students can also be excellent brand ambassadors; after all, they get more face time with teachers than just about anyone. “Our students sold this,” says Dengler about Glens Falls’ rebrand. “They became liaisons in the community because they were so embedded in the process.”
When it came time for TrueNorth to roll out their rebrand, they understood that one of the best ways to communicate with their staff was through other employees. They invited the Communication Innovation Team, a volunteer-based team of staff members, to spearhead the rebrand’s internal rollout. The Communication Innovation Team developed talking points for how to introduce the rebrand, then practiced putting the talking points into their own words. “We had dress rehearsals,” Morgan Ryan says, “and we asked them to deliver the message, but in a way that was authentic to them.”
How can your staff learn more about the school rebrand?
It’s true that your employees will get most of their information about your rebrand through word-of-mouth. But what if they want to learn more? This is where having top-notch, accessible materials comes into play.
Portage Public Schools has yet to initiate their official rebranding process, but they have already completed one of the most important steps: thinking critically about their district’s identity. They’ve identified district values, developed an equity statement, and created an aspirational statement. They know it’s important to communicate all of this throughout the district, so they’ve also developed a clean, comprehensive graphic that clearly depicts the relationships between their values, their equity statement, and their aspirational statement. They can easily send it in an email, print it out, or share it online.
Speaking of sharing things online, that’s exactly what TrueNorth did with their updated brand guidelines and assets. These are all located on their website’s brand toolkit landing page. “That way, people who are using our brand aren’t tempted to just clip the logo from the upper corner of our website. They can actually download the high-quality images and use those,” Morgan Ryan tells us.
How can you prevent negativity?
Building ownership all the way through the process of rebranding your school district, as well as clarifying why your district is rebranding in the first place are both great ways to prevent negativity. After all, if your staff doesn’t understand why the rebrand is happening, or if they feel like they haven’t had an opportunity to make their voices heard, they’re much more likely to resist the change.
When Glens Falls updated their mascot to the Black Bears, “there were definitely people who had strong opinions about it,” Dengler says. “But they could choose to be engaged. When you empower people to have a say, it really improves the outcome.”
Another way to prevent negativity is to be as consistently transparent as possible. “Knowledge is power,” Dengler tells us. “When everybody feels like they know what’s going on, then they are more apt to get behind it.” For Glens Falls, this meant consistent communication and opportunities for feedback at all levels of the organization. It also meant frequent documentation. “On our website, you can actually see the historical cataloging of everything we did,” Dengler says, referencing all the steps they took to decide on the new district mascot.
How can you get your staff fired up about the school rebrand?
Every district we spoke with agreed that getting staff on board with a rebrand starts with building their enthusiasm. TrueNorth, for example, rolled out their rebrand in a session planned by their internal volunteer-led Communication Innovation Team. Bielang tells us that Portage Public Schools is currently working on a way to integrate their newly decided-upon values into a teacher recognition award.
At a pep rally, Glens Falls played a high-quality video showcasing how students live out Unity, Support, Grit, and Passion every day—at football games, art competitions, and more. As the video played, a student ran across the stage in the district’s new Black Bear mascot costume, leading cheers from the audience. Then, at the end of a countdown, Glens Falls’ new logo broke onto the screen. At the same time, the district’s student committee stood up and revealed the new logo on their matching T-shirts. The crowd went wild, united by an identity—one that connects them to the best parts of who they’ve always been while pushing them to grow together into a shared vision of the future.
It’s important to remember that rebranding your school district is not where the story ends, and it’s not even where a new story begins. It’s the connective tissue between where your district has been and where it hopes to go. No matter your goals for your district’s rebrand, you can’t meet them alone. You need your staff, and you need them to believe in the work. It’s that solidarity, that collaborative power, that will keep your district moving forward.
Originally published as "The Rebrand Bandwagon" in the Fall 2023 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
Marie Kressin is a writer at SchoolCEO and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!