Who Speaks For Your Brand?

We surveyed more than 1,600 school employees to find out who’s acting as brand ambassadors for their districts—and why that matters.

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: January 26, 2022

This article is even better when paired with the companion discussion guide.

You know this better than we do: Keeping a school district running is a team project. You can’t do it alone—your fellow administrators, building-level leaders, teachers, and support staff all play crucial roles in providing a quality education for your students.

Even if you haven’t thought of it this way, maintaining your district brand also requires the strength of a team. You can’t be your district’s only spokesperson. With so many stories to tell, you need brand ambassadors up and down the ladder—people who wear your colors, live your values, and get others excited about your schools.

But how often does a district’s brand actually trickle down into its classrooms? Are teachers acting as brand ambassadors? Are bus drivers? And if not, why? These are the questions we should all be asking as the landscape of K-12 education continues to evolve and competition for students and staff intensifies. In a survey of more than 1,600 school employees up and down the chain of command, we wanted to know: Who speaks for your district brand?

Who should speak for your brand?

We asked respondents, Who do you feel is most responsible for promoting and protecting your district brand? They could pick one of the following options:

  • Superintendent
  • Communications Director
  • Other administrators
  • Teachers
  • Students and Families

Out of all participants, 44% selected “superintendent”; 27% selected “communications director”; 13% selected “teachers”; 10% selected “other administrators”; and just 6% selected “students and families" (see Figure 3). When we disaggregated the data by the respondents’ own positions, we found that more than half of superintendents (57%) saw themselves as most responsible for their district brands. Nearly a third of superintendents (30%) thought the communications director was most responsible, and just 5% saw teachers as most responsible.

Teachers’ answers fell along similar lines: 43% said the superintendent was most responsible for the district brand, while 24% said the communications director bore that responsibility. About 16% of teachers viewed themselves as most responsible—more than three times the percentage of superintendents who saw teachers as most responsible.

On the one hand, this makes sense. As the superintendent, you’re the official face of the district, often speaking for the brand at press conferences, events, and community meetings. But are superintendents really the ones with the most opportunities to advocate for their districts? Based on our data, we believe the role of the teacher in promoting and protecting a district’s brand is severely undervalued, both by school leaders and by teachers themselves.

Think about this: While there are about 13,800 public school superintendents in the U.S., there are about 3.2 million public school teachers. For every one superintendent, more than 200 teachers are interacting with students every day. That’s not even mentioning the nation’s approximately 3 million school support employees, many of whom are student-facing.

Your voice as a school leader may carry the most weight, but the voices of your employees have the greatest volume. That’s why it’s crucial to turn your teachers and support staff into brand ambassadors.

Are school employees familiar with their district brands?

Before your staff can champion your district brand, they need to know the basics. At the very start of our survey, we wanted to find out how familiar participants were with the simplest elements of their districts’ brand identities. We asked respondents, Which of the following brand elements of your district (not your individual school) can you recall and describe off the top of your head? They could select multiple answers from the following list:

  • Logos
  • Colors
  • Motto or Tagline
  • Mission Statement, Vision Statement, or Values
  • Hashtags
  • None of the above

Across the board, public school employees at all levels expressed the greatest familiarity with district logos (66%) and colors (68%)—the most visible aspects of a brand. Other brand elements scored significantly lower: 40% said they could recall their district’s mission statement or values, and just 33% knew the motto or tagline. Only 13% of all school employees knew their district hashtags.

Disaggregating this data provided further insight (see Figure 4). Even the highest-level district administrators had gaps in their knowledge. Similar to the broader pool of respondents, the superintendents we surveyed showed the most familiarity with their districts’ logos; more than four out of five (84%) said they could recall and describe them. District colors came next at 70%, followed by motto or tagline at 68%. But only a little more than half of our superintendents (55%) could describe their mission or values statements, and just 23% could recall district hashtags.

This lack of brand recognition points to two possible conclusions—neither ideal. First, it’s possible that many superintendents don’t recognize brand elements like hashtags because they’re just not involved with the creation or promotion of their school brand, delegating those tasks completely to a communications director or other staff member. On the other hand, superintendents may not know their mission statements or hashtags simply because those brand elements don’t exist at all in their districts.

As a school leader, you should be intimately involved with your district’s brand and messaging. Branding, like so many other aspects of your schools, starts with you—and if you’re not familiar with it, your staff won’t be, either. If you’re not involved with your schools’ branding and messaging—or if your district doesn’t yet have a strong brand—that’s something to start fixing today.

But even though school leaders aren’t as familiar with their brands as we might hope, in almost every case, administrators at both the building and district levels were more familiar with these brand elements than classroom teachers and non-teaching staff. This seems to indicate a communication breakdown between school leaders and their staff members. Somewhere between the district office and the classroom, knowledge about brand is getting lost.

Are they just disinterested?

So why do teachers and other school employees know less about their district brands than administrators? Based on our conversations with school leaders, we thought it was possible that some employees did not see the importance of brand at all. We asked respondents to agree or disagree with the following statement: It’s important for me to be familiar with my district’s brand and messaging priorities.

According to the data, administrators both at the building and district levels overwhelmingly see the importance of brand: 82% of building-level leaders, 81% of non-superintendent district administrators, and a whopping 93% of superintendents said they “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed. While encouraging, this is unsurprising. It would be difficult for a successful administrator not to care about their district’s brand.

But we were glad to see that lower-level school employees also believed they should be familiar with their district brands. In their responses, 75% of teachers and 74% of non-teaching staff selected “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree.” Just 8% of teachers and 7% of non-teaching staff said they “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree” (see Figure 5).

More likely than not, a majority of your school employees don’t need to be convinced that brand is important. That’s a huge win for school leaders—the first hurdle in turning your staff into brand ambassadors is already cleared. But if they believe it’s important, why are school employees so unfamiliar with their district brands?

Are they being trained?

When we formulated our questions, it seemed like a strong possibility that if school employees weren’t familiar with their district brands, it would be due to a lack of training, not a lack of interest. So we asked respondents, On average, how often have you received training on your district’s brand and messaging priorities?

The data revealed that, on average, school leaders are being trained on branding and messaging far more often than lower-level employees. More than half of superintendents reported receiving training at least once or twice a month; only 12% said they’d never been trained. Building-level leaders had also gotten more brand training; 50% said they’d been trained more than once or twice a year. Only 8% said they’d never been trained on their district brands.

However, one in five teachers (21%) said they had never received training on this topic. For non-teaching staff, the number was even higher: 28% said they had never been trained on brand and messaging. What’s more, only 33% of teachers and 20% of non-teaching staff said they had received training more than once or twice a year (see Figure 6).

In the end, it appears to be pretty simple: Administrators are more familiar with district brands because they actually receive training on the subject. Teachers and support staff often don’t. But we know now that school employees believe they should know their district brands—so if they’re willing to learn, this problem has a fairly straightforward fix. The people in your buildings have the potential to be your brand’s loudest voices, but they can’t be brand ambassadors if you don’t equip them.

Do school employees care about their impact on district reputation?

When we talk about brand, we’re talking about a lot more than logos, colors, and hashtags. Your brand isn’t just your mascot or values; it’s the way people in your community think and feel about your schools. In many ways, your reputation is your brand, and almost no one influences that reputation as much as your employees. But we wanted to know: Do they realize their power—and responsibility—to influence public perception for the better?

We asked respondents to agree or disagree with the following statement: My interactions with individual families impact their perceptions of my district as a whole. Administrators overwhelmingly agreed with this statement: 95% of superintendents, 78% of other district administrators, and 84% of building-level leaders said they “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed.

Lower-level staff members also saw their power to impact perceptions of the district. Given the same statement, a staggering 87% of teachers and 78% of non-teaching staff “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed. Just 3% of teachers and 5% of non-teaching staff disagreed (see Figure 7).

School staff members at all levels seem to see not only their power to improve district reputation, but also their responsibility to do so. We asked respondents to agree or disagree with the following statement: I feel it is my responsibility to improve the district’s reputation when I speak with someone about the district. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of school leaders, whether at the district or building level, agreed. A little over 90% of superintendents, 78% of other district-level administrators, and 90% of building-level leaders selected “somewhat” or “strongly agree.”

But lower-level school employees also indicated this same feeling of responsibility. Two-thirds of non-teaching staff and 72% of teachers “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed. Less than 10% of either group disagreed (see Figure 8).

As you well know, the hardest part of any culture shift or district initiative is getting your staff onboard. This can be especially difficult when staff members feel like you’re adding another task to their already full plates. But based on these answers, your employees already know they can—and should—be working to improve your district brand. They’re probably actively doing so; they just might not realize it yet.

Your role, as a school leader, is to make the connection between reputation and brand clear. Reframe their mindsets to view brand strengthening as something they’re already doing, not as something extra to do. Not only will this empower your staff to continue their good work, but it will also increase the likelihood of their participation should you choose to implement brand training.

Are school employees already acting as brand ambassadors?

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably acted as a brand ambassador before. Maybe you rave to your friends about the deals you find at Costco, tell all your coworkers to watch Ted Lasso, or share episodes of your favorite podcast on Twitter. If you’re excited enough about something to share it with others, you’re advocating for that brand.

Your district probably already has brand ambassadors. Think about the teachers who show up to every football game, waving handmade signs and cheering for their students. Think about the custodian or school nurse who volunteers to help run the district booth at community events, proudly wearing their district swag. Back in the day, we would have just called that “school spirit”—but now, in the age of school marketing, it’s also brand advocacy.

We wondered to what extent school employees were already acting as brand ambassadors. To find out, we focused our questions on two areas: conversations with others and social media.

Would school employees recommend their districts to others?

We asked two questions along these lines:

  • How likely are you to recommend your district to families of potential students?
  • How likely are you to recommend your district as a workplace?

While it may not be obvious at first, these questions have everything to do with brand. According to a study from market measurement firm Nielsen, 92% of people trust the recommendations of loved ones above all other forms of marketing. That means that what your employees say about your district impacts your reputation—and therefore your brand—far more than any glossy brochure or YouTube video ever could.

Happily, numbers across the board were positive. Of administrators at all levels, 86% said they were “somewhat” or “very likely” to recommend their districts to families of potential students. Three out of four teachers (76%) agreed, along with 73% of non-teaching staff. Answers were nearly the same for the next question: How likely are you to recommend your district as a workplace? Among administrators, responses were predictably high here as well: 79% selected “somewhat” or “very likely.” For teachers and non-teaching staff, 74% of each group answered “somewhat” or “very likely.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. We also asked respondents to agree or disagree with the following statement: I feel like those above me in my district value my work. What does this have to do with your district brand? Well, according to data from business magazine Workplace Insight, 80% of people say feeling appreciated is important to their happiness at work. If your employees feel valued, they’ll be happier—and happier employees reflect better on your brand.

When we cross-referenced the data between this question and the ones about recommending districts, we found moderate positive correlations. Respondents who said they felt valued were more likely to recommend their districts to families of potential students. The opposite is also true: Those who didn’t feel valued were less likely to recommend their districts. The correlation was stronger (though still moderate) when it came to recommending their districts as workplaces. This means that those who don’t feel valued are even less likely to recommend their districts to fellow educators than they are to prospective families.

Just over one in three teachers (36%) either disagreed or were neutral when asked if they believed those above them value their work. For non-teaching staff, the numbers were about the same: 38%. That’s a full third of school employees who don’t feel especially appreciated—and who are statistically unlikely to recommend their district (see Figure 9).

The takeaway here is clear: To control the conversation around your brand, make sure your employees know you appreciate them. Their voices outnumber yours, sometimes by the thousands—make sure those voices are positive.

Are school employees engaging with district content on social media?

These days, social media can make or break a brand. Even if you’re posting great content across your platforms on a regular basis, that content won’t do any good if no one is seeing it. But by engaging with and sharing your content, your staff members can amplify your brand’s reach.

Look at it this way: Say your district has 600 employees total, each with about 300 Facebook friends. If every one of your employees shares just one district post, it has the potential to be seen by 180,000 people. That’s 180,000 possible touchpoints with your district’s brand.

But are school employees actually engaging with their districts’ social media content? We asked respondents, How frequently do you engage with or share your district’s content on your personal social media? According to the numbers, superintendents engage with and share district content far more than any other group. Nearly three-fourths (73%) said they engage or share at least once or twice a week. About 31% said they did so once or twice a day.

Other administrators weren’t quite so active. Just a third of other district administrators engage with or share district content at least once or twice a week, and 28% said that while they do have personal social media, they never interact with district content. Building-level leaders reported similar but slightly higher levels of engagement: 40% said they shared at least once or twice a week, while about one in four (24%) said they have social media but never engage.

Teachers and support staff engage with district social media even less. Just 22% of teachers—a little over one in five—said they engage with or share district posts at least once or twice a week; 18% engage once or twice a month, 10% once or twice a year. Most staggeringly, half of teachers say they never engage with district content. While 12% say they don’t have personal social media at all, 38% say they simply don’t interact with their districts’ posts.

Non-teaching staff engaged the least of any group; 44% said that while they have personal social media, they don’t engage with district content. Another 18% don’t have social media at all. That means most non-teaching staff—62%—never engage with their districts’ social media content (see Figure 10).

It’s important to note that we didn’t find a correlation between whether an employee engaged with district social media and whether they would recommend their district. If your staff members aren’t sharing your posts, it isn’t necessarily because they aren’t proud to work in your district. Some people keep their professional lives off their personal accounts; others have social media, but don’t know how to use it. It may also be that you aren’t posting anything worth sharing.

Once again, this sounds like a great opportunity for professional development. More likely than not, your staff members who aren’t engaging with your content don’t know how beneficial their comments and shares could be for your district. You can’t force anyone to use social media, but you can give people the tools and knowledge to advocate for your brand online if they choose to.

How do private schools measure up?

As we started thinking about this research, we wondered how private and charter schools compare to public school districts. By nature, these schools rely more on marketing and branding than their public counterparts—but does that make their teachers better brand ambassadors?

In an abbreviated survey, we asked private and charter school employees three questions. First, we asked participants to agree or disagree with the following statement: It’s important for me to be familiar with my school’s brand and messaging priorities. About 79% of private and charter school teachers said they “somewhat” or “strongly agreed”—as compared to 75% of public school teachers (see Figure 11).

Next, we asked participants, On average, how often have you received training on your school’s brand and messaging priorities? A little less than one in five private and charter school teachers (18%) said they had never received training on this topic, compared to 21% of public school teachers. Less than half of private and charter teachers (43%) said they received training more than once or twice a year, while only 33% of public school teachers said they were trained that frequently (see Figure 12).

Finally, we asked respondents, How frequently do you engage with or share your school’s content on personal social media? Just under a third of private and charter school teachers (32%) said they engage or share at least once or twice a week, compared to 22% of public school teachers. While 50% of public school teachers never engage or share, only a slightly lower percentage of private and charter teachers—46%—said the same (see Figure 13).

Here’s the upshot: You’d think private and charter schools would knock this out of the park, but that’s not what we discovered. These teachers are slightly more engaged with their schools’ brands than their public school peers—but only slightly. For all their extra resources and funding, private and charter schools have nearly as much room to grow as public school districts. It shouldn’t be difficult for public schools to close the gap—as long as they intentionally work to turn staff members into brand ambassadors.

What now?

Make sure your district has a strong brand. Your employees can’t act as brand ambassadors if your district has no clear brand or messaging to speak of. Make sure you have consistent colors, logos, taglines, and hashtags, as well as a values statement that reflects the actual priorities of your school community.

Consistently communicate brand and messaging priorities to your staff. As we’ve learned, your employees know that it’s important for them to be familiar with your district brand. If they aren’t, it’s not because they’re disinterested—they just aren’t being taught. Make branding and messaging updates part of your staff meetings, weekly newsletters, or even districtwide professional development. Then, make sure information about your district brand is easily accessible to your employees.

Show staff the brand work they’re already doing. Your employees know they have the power to positively impact public perceptions of your schools, and they see their responsibility to do so. But they may not realize that by improving the district’s reputation, they’re also strengthening its brand. As you talk to your staff about brand, be sure to bring this point up. Being a brand ambassador isn’t a new task to add to their plates; it’s more than likely something they’re already doing.

Make sure your staff feels valued. The voices of your employees probably outnumber yours by hundreds, maybe even thousands. If they don’t feel that your district appreciates them, your community will know, and it could cost you countless new students and teachers. To create enthusiastic brand ambassadors, foster an environment your employees can be proud of, one that shows them you care—and that their voices matter.

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