The Complete Guide to School Marketing: What is Brand?

School marketing begins and ends with establishing a brand that is true to itself and delivers a consistent experience to students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the larger community.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: June 06, 2024

Episode Summary

Think about your district’s identity. What is it known for? What is uniquely true about your schools?

Your district’s identity is made up of its values, strengths, and culture. These, along with your community’s direct interactions with your district, ultimately shape your community’s perception and reputation of your brand. School marketing begins and ends with establishing a brand that is true to itself and delivers a consistent experience to students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the larger community.

In this first episode of Season 3, you’ll be reminded about the importance of brand and why, as a school leader, it should be paramount to you and your leaders.

Episode Notes

Every great school district’s heart lies in its identity What is the identity of your district? What is it known for? What is uniquely true about your schools? Your district’s identity is made up of its values, strengths, and culture. These, along with your community’s direct interactions with your district, ultimately shape your community’s perception and reputation of your brand. School marketing begins and ends with establishing a brand that is true to itself and delivers a consistent experience to students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the larger community.

In this episode, you’ll be reminded why your district’s brand should be of paramount importance to you as a school leader. Listen to hear from experts who provide insights into branding, positioning, marketing, and storytelling to shape community perceptions and expectations of a school.

Featured in this episode are Laura Ries, Dr. Julie Sweetland, Dr. Pete Hannigan, Dr. Jonah Berger, Karen Eber, Neal Foard, and others. 

Episode Transcript

[Intro Music Plays]

Steve Jobs: This is a very complicated world. It's a very noisy world, and we're not gonna get a chance to get people to remember much about us. 

Tyler Vawser (Host): In any discussion about school marketing, we have to talk about brand. Without it, it's like being on a journey with no destination. 

Marty Neumeier: “It's – it's a customer's gut feeling about a product, a service, or a company.”

In a sentence, your brand is the destination and marketing is the path that takes you there.

Dr. Julie Sweetland: “Think about how are people gonna hear this? What are the sets of assumptions they're coming with, and how's that gonna shape how they hear what we say?”

So where are you going? 

Welcome to the First Episode of Season 3 of SchoolCEO's podcast. If you missed the I ntroduction to the season, take 15 minutes to start there, as it will help you make sense of this episode and the rest of the season. 

You might think of brands as something modern and contemporary, but it's worth going back to the 1800s in America for an instructive example, and it gets right to the heart of what a brand is and its very real purpose. 

At the start of the American Civil War, armies needed food and lots of it, and they needed it on the go. William Underwood had pioneered canning and glass packaging in the decades leading up to the world. This meant food can be carried long distances and still remain fresh. But there was a problem, a big problem. Others learned how to can foods too. And because of this, no one could tell what was trustworthy and what might be spoiled or soggy food. 

This was undercutting William Underwood. And so to solve for this problem, he created the first brand in America. He created Underwood's Deviled Ham and designed a logo with a little devil to go on the outside of each and every can of deviled ham. Underwood took the logo and filed for the very first federal trademark. Now, soldiers and civilians looked for the devil logo the brand because they knew what to expect. 

And at the core of a brand, it's about trust. It's about knowing what to expect. Or to put it another way, a brand is a set of expectations.

Seth Godin: “A brand is not a logo and a brand does not mean you are a company. A brand is a shorthand. It is what we expect. “

That's from Seth Godin. Seth Godin is known as one of the best marketers to date. He's written countless books and there's so many books I highly recommend that you pick up. One of which is called, The Purple Cow. 

Now when someone goes to a Michelin Star restaurant, they have an expectation about the food, the service, the chef, and the experience.

A student, a teacher, a community member has certain expectations of your district. When they see the district name or the logo, it's about how they think and what they feel based on their past experiences and what they're expecting from you and everyone that's part of your district. 

Seth Godin: “If it's a Spike Jonze movie or a Spike Lee movie, these people have brands because they work their work rhymes with itself. They stand for something.”

So how do you build a brand?

If expectations are about a consistent experience, it's about delivering on those expectations again and again. Your district brand has to be earned, and you earn that brand through consistent repetition. Your aim? To deliver consistent experiences to persuade your community that what they experienced yesterday is what they can expect to experience tomorrow and next year and the year after that.

Marty Neumeier: “It's not a logo. Okay. The logo is a very useful tool for business, but it's not the brand. It's a symbol.” 

Marty Neumeier moved to Silicon Valley to help companies like Apple and Netscape, HP, Adobe, and Google build their brands before they became household names. 

Marty Neumeier: “A brand is a result. It's a customer's gut feeling about a product, a service, or a company. It ends up in their heads, in their hearts. They take whatever raw materials you throw at them and they make something out of it. But it's they're making it.” 

Marty Neumeier: “They're creating it. And so in a sense, when you create a brand, you're not creating one brand. You're creating millions of brands, like, however many customers or people in your audience. Each one has a different brand of you.”

Marty Neumeier: “So a brand is like a reputation. Right? So it's your business reputation and everyone's gonna be a little bit different about what that reputation is. And that's okay as long as you have a you've got it corralled mostly where you want it and that it's beneficial to the company. “

Think about your favorite author. If the author's style or the topic changed every time a new book came out, you feel surprised and it wouldn't be familiar. You wouldn't know what to expect. Or if the new album of your favorite band sounded absolutely nothing like what you've come to love, it's unlikely that they are going to be your favorite band, or at least that's not going to be your favorite album. And if a restaurant that you loved never served the same meal, especially your favorite dish again, would you keep coming back? 

As a school leader, you have many jobs and many stakeholders. The number one job in a word might be this, consistency. That's why great brands and great marketing isn't about a one hit under or one viral moment. It's about delivering consistently great experiences to your audience. 

The best part? You get to decide what experiences you want to deliver. That age old advice about picking core values and building a great organization on top of those values is real. It's real because it will shape who is part of your brand and it sets their own internal expectations about what they should deliver. 

In the introduction of the season, I said, if you want to build a truly great school district, you're going to have to spend a significant amount of energy getting people to pay attention to what you're doing in your schools. To get them to pay attention, you're going to have to be very clear about who you are, your values, and what they can expect from you. 

The late Steve Jobs of Apple put it perfectly in 1997. Now, if you're an Apple fan, you probably already know this history. But to give you some context, Steve Jobs, of course, co founded Apple. It grew exponentially, but then it started to sputter. Steve Jobs eventually was ousted by his board of directors and the former CEO of Pepsi took over Apple. 

Things went from bad to worse until Steve Jobs came back to run the company as CEO in 1997. With more experience and a little bit of a softer hand, he started to really dig into what made Apple stand out from the beginning. And so after a few weeks of trying to understand what had gone wrong, and where to go from there, Jobs sat down with his marketing sales team, and he told them this. 

Steve Jobs: “To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world. It's a very noisy world. And we're not gonna get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. And so we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.”

What Steve Jobs understood about brand is what few executives and leaders truly understand. And it's this, that your brand is really about what you value. And what you value is the things that you're going to consistently deliver on and that your audience, your customers, your school community, your district can really expect from you. There is no brand out there that meets every expectation all of the time. But instead, you get to pick a handful of things, usually the smaller the better, that you can consistently deliver on.

In marketing terms, we call this positioning

Laura Ries: “Positioning, has and always will be about owning an idea in the mind and the strong brands own a position if you will.”

That's from Laura Ries, the daughter of Al Ries who wrote 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and other foundational marketing books. 

Laura Ries: “You know, figuring out what the position is, how we might need to narrow the focus if we're not narrow enough to own a position so that we can stand for something.”

Now, school marketing is more complex than a private company. It's actually quite difficult to figure out exactly how you should position a school district. It's even more complex than Apple's brand in many ways. And that brings us to the challenge and the opportunity of a school district brand. While you have many stakeholders, you also have to offer many consistent experiences to different people at different stages of life with completely different expectations based on what they themselves want. 

Dr. Julie Sweetland, sociolinguist and senior adviser at the Frameworks Institute.

[Excerpt from SchoolCEO Conversations Season 2 episode - Dr. Julie Sweetland: Strategic Framing for Schools]

Dr. Julie Sweetland: “It doesn't mean we need to treat people with suspicion or become spin doctors or anything like that, but we do need to to take a moment and say, ‘I've gotta step back from my own lens on this issue, my own frame on this issue, and think about how are people gonna hear this? What are the sets of assumptions they're coming with, and how's that gonna shape how they hear what we say?’”

The most important experience that you can consistently deliver is to the student. Students don’t know what to expect, or the teaching is great one year and absent the next, your school will have a hard time getting the attention of its community over the long term. 

Dr. Peter Hannigan: “Our students are the key communicators…” 

Doctor Peter Hannigan, superintendent of Hawthorne School District 73. 

[Excerpt from SchoolCEO Conversations Season 2 episode - Dr. Peter Hannigan: Communicating to Different Generations]

Dr. Peter Hannigan: “...It's what they say when their parent takes them off the bus or their parent picks them up in the car, first thing they're asking them is how was your day? And so really that school experience, like that's how you get the message out is through our students and what they're experiencing. So we spend a lot of time really emphasizing, you know, what does that school experience look like? How are we making it better for every student?”

The question is this: how can you deliver consistent experiences as a school district and make sure that those experiences are shared and communicated with stakeholders throughout your school community. That’s why we’re going to touch on culture, communication & marketing, and so much more this season.

Dr. Jonah Berger: “So maybe, you know, you have a certain brand at your school or a certain, you know, value or cultural dimension that you say, you know, this is us. This is who we are. Well, then every so often, why not ask people to submit examples of peers really doing something that showcases that attribute or that idea?”

Dr. Jonah Berger, the New York Times best selling author and a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. 

[Excerpt from SchoolCEO Conversations Season 2 episode - Jonah Berger: Increasing our Influence]

Dr. Jonah Berger: “Similarly, you can ask parents saying, you know, hey, tell us about teachers that did this specifically. Or ask the students, hey. Tell us what another student or one of your teachers because maybe teachers don't know if other teachers are doing it. But ask your community to submit these stories. Now some people aren't going to submit them and some of them, they're going to submit them but aren't going to be great, but if you get enough stories, there will be clear better ones and and worse ones, and then you can take those better ones and push them back out to the broader community as examples that showcase what what you're doing. 

Dr. Jonah Berger: “Right? If, you know, if you think about great stories, they're not by chance they're a great story. Right? Either people heard a bunch of stories and only pass along the good ones or the, you know, the bad ones never get told in the first place. And so it's fine not to just tell any story, but tell the best ones. We gotta figure out a way to figure out what those best ones are and then push them out to your community so the next time someone says, oh, well, you know, you guys say you care about X, but what does that really mean? That person can say, oh, man. I got this perfect example.”

Karen Eber: “And so schools have a wonderful opportunity, whether they're new or whether they've been around for some time, to share some of these examples of, things in their history that embody who they are, the values that they uphold, what students can aspire to or experience.”

That's Karen Eber, corporate anthropologist and the author of The Perfect Story. She's also a speaker at SchoolCEO's 2024 Fall Conference. 

[Excerpt from SchoolCEO Conversations Season 2 episode - Karen Eber: How Storytelling Can Shape School Culture]

Karen Eber: “Here's someone that upheld our values and what that looked like. Here's where we're going. Look at the distance that we've traveled from when we started or even from, I don't know, pick a moment in time, the pandemic to now. It all comes down to what it is you're ultimately trying to have the audience do, but you can absolutely connect them to it.” 

You already have a tangible brand. You already have a value statement. You already have a website. You have a logo. But by defining those things, it leads into a real opportunity to define the intangible things, the culture, the values, the things that you can't point to or physically hold in your hands.

Neal Foard: “When it came to packaged goods or automobiles or beverages, food and beverages, there was a place that every marketer really wanted to get to, which was loyalty beyond reason.”

That's Neal Foard, the storytelling coach and former advertising and marketing creative professional that worked at a number of the largest brands in the world. 

[Excerpt from SchoolCEO Conversations Season 2 episode - Neal Foard: Storytelling from the Heart]]

Neal Foard: “People are willing to pay a premium for their product because they want you to win. And the great brands will give people a sufficient love and affection, attention, and trust. They will earn their customers' trust in such a way that by buying the object, they ingest and or wear that same potency and power. 

Neal Foard: “Nike, had the women's apparel division, you know, footwear and apparel, and they had a fitness division. But the woman who ran that, I had a chance to meet with her about 2 months ago. She said that they labored for a long time finally arriving at Nike with the idea that there must be a distinction for the women's line. There must be a distinction between fitness and training and that all Nike apparel must be specifically for training. They didn't want you to go out and get fit so that you would be superficially attractive. Nike wanted to stand for going out and achieving something you can be proud of. It gives you bragging rights. It makes you feel like you belong to something.” 

Neal Foard: “So that's one thing that we learned about value is if you can give somebody a sense of participation in something big and important that they can be proud of participating in, You will have given them a gift larger than the functional attributes of the clothes, the shoes. You'll give them something much much bigger and you should be proud of that, of delivering that value.”

At SchoolCEO, we define a brand as how people think and feel about your school or your school district. This can take a lot of reflection. It's not something to do in a night or even a week or even a month. What's most important is that you take the time to begin a conversation about who you are today, what you aspire to be as a district, and how to get from here to there.

[Outro Music Plays]

The SchoolCEO podcast is brought to you by Apptegy. You can find a transcript for this episode and full issues of our magazine at If you like what you hear, subscribe to our newsletter and get bite sized tips on school marketing sent straight to your inbox. If you follow us on social media, we'll let you know when new episodes drop. Our magazine's most avid readers attend our annual SchoolCEO Conference. It's a great way to meet communications professionals and superintendents from across the country while exchanging ideas in a dedicated learning environment. Visit to see this year's lineup of keynote speakers and reserve your seat today. 

Special thanks to Margaret Heffernan, Neil Doshi, and Dr Joe Sanfilippo for their contributions to this episode. Season 3 of the SchoolCEO podcast is produced by Tyler Vawser, Britney Keil, Tanner Cox, and Ryan McDonald, with Eileen Beard as contributing editor. Thank you for listening.

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