Clear Brand Differentiation is Survival


Phil Holcombe

Phil Holcombe is the Principal and Design Director at Form & Faculty. He has crafted communications for brands around the world, built curricula as a Program Director in higher education, and serves as a trustee of a Philadelphia high school.

Imagine for a moment you’re researching possible schools for your child. You’re online looking at websites, and most are confusing, cluttered, and uninspired. They do little to communicate what the school believes, or what makes it unique. I don’t need to show you examples, I know you have some in mind (in fact you’ve probably attended or worked at a school where this is true). But then you come across one that really stands out. Maybe it looks something like this:

Don’t worry about what school this is. It’s a great one, but the point I’m making is that your school can evoke feelings that are every bit as powerful. And in full disclosure I’m showing you a site we didn’t make so I can gush about it a bit without feeling self-congratulatory.

Are you ready to learn more about this school? I am. This school speaks clearly and confidently. I look at this young woman standing in the middle of the stream, an arresting moment in a collage of young faces, and I can feel that she has been empowered. She is owning her learning, and she will go where it takes her, into the world and into the rest of her life. I understand what this school values immediately, in a punch-to-the-gut kind of way. There’s a potent melding of magic and logic happening here, and as a result this school stands out.

I’ve spent years helping schools tell their stories. I’ve crafted missions and visions, designed websites, and directed photo shoots. I’ve produced viewbooks, brochures, and fundraising materials. I’ve told countless stories, and the ones that stand out are the ones that go beyond showing me their competitive advantages— they ignite passion.

If a school can’t show what makes it unique in a compelling way, it’s losing prospective students, teachers, and administration.

Illustrating what makes you unique goes beyond well-chosen words and well-crafted plans. Missions and visions must be expressed through your visual identity: the graphic, photographic, and typographic decisions you make. Great schools and districts make these decisions consciously because they know a story’s impact is amplified when it’s told consistently, in person, in print, online, over and over again.

A quick aside:

This kind of consistency in storytelling has traditionally been the domain of independent schools, charters, colleges, and universities. But even public schools need to think about the narratives they craft, and they really stand out when they do. The communications department in Community Consolidated School District 59 outside of Chicago has developed a a complete set of brand guidelines that do a wonderful job of steering district communications efforts.

Select pages from the CCSD59 brand guidelines. CCSD59 defines color mixtures, typefaces, and proper asset usage, among other things.

All schools need to consider the story they tell, because unique stories attract the compatible families, teachers, and administration essential for success. They are not a luxury, they are an investment in the quality of a community.

Ok, back to it.

We don’t notice when things are the same, we notice when things are different. We’re hardwired that way.

(I’ve seen visuals like this in Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work, Christian Leborg’s Visual Grammar, and in Marty Neumeier’s The Brand Gap.)

It takes courage to be the purple dot. It takes a certain amount of hard work and self-awareness to understand what makes your school stand out. And for many, it requires a willingness to shift priorities. “We’ve always done it this other way” is a mindset that usually ensures you’ll remain invisible.

This is about survival.

The problem is that I survey the landscape of schools, and standing out is the exception. Much of it looks like this:

This is going to sound dramatic, but these Waldo Schools, the ones that blend right in to the background, risk their own futures if they don’t figure out how to emerge from the crowd. Thought leader Grant Lichtman and Edward E. Ford Foundation Executive Director John Gulla argue that in 25 years, all schools will fall into one of three categories:

This image is from Grant’s talk at @MVPSSchool and @MVIFI. Watch the whole talk here.

Of course all schools would love to exist in the green category, but the reality is that most will need to find out how to operate in the purple one to avoid becoming a struggling or failing school. To emerge and thrive, strategy and communications must go beyond defining what makes their school unique: they must help us see and feel these qualities through good storytelling and design.

So what does this kind of differentiation look like?

First, a school needs to know what makes it truly unique. Be careful about trying to build an identity around good student-to-teacher ratios, high graduation rates, or experienced teachers. These things are great, but many schools have them.

In our work with the MDes in Product Design program at The University of the Arts, we facilitated visioning sessions to identify a new focus for the program. We discussed Philadelphia’s industrial history and its former title of “Workshop of the World”. We talked about the plethora of manufacturers in the city and the struggles they experience as manufacturing shifts to our desktops and product shifts to our screens. We observed that the knowledge required to design a product and the knowledge required to manufacture it are becoming increasingly unwound from each other, and the result was detrimental for everyone: the designer, the manufacturer, the consumer, and the planet.

Using design thinking processes to facilitate a visioning session with design faculty at University of the Arts.

We established a commitment to mending the unraveling narratives of designing and making, and retooling relationships between designers, suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers. We committed to establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with local manufacturers to produce innovative products that reflect a deeper understanding of the ties between designing and making. This vision is one where students will be fully prepared to enter industry, and Philadelphia manufacturers will be empowered with new purpose and profitability.

The new logo reflects key ideas about manufacturing and making.

With something unique to offer, we needed people to be as passionate about the program as we were. So we began creating a visual identity to help express these ideas. Built upon the visual logic of manufacturing, the logo animates in a way that’s reminiscent of automated machinery. The simple, strong typography is no-nonsense, and modeled off of the 1900s American vernacular lettering and signage found in urban environments.

This aesthetic filters into their web and print presences as well. Bold typography, plainspoken language, and a minimal color palette emphasize practicality and function. We improved faculty bios through photography and interviews, which included questions like “What is good design?”, “What are your passions?”, and “Where is the field of product design headed?” We curated case studies of student work, and placed an emphasis on their process. We built the site on a robust content management system so that students and faculty can quickly add and edit their own content. Perhaps most importantly, we placed their new vision at the top of the home page, and linked to a dedicated “Vision” page.

How do we know this is working?

The Product Design program at The University of the Arts nearly doubled the number of applications it received in the next enrollment cycle. The size of their next cohort increased, and the program also became more selective. They were able to think more strategically about their curriculum map, and could even engage students in those conversations because they understood the direction the program was headed.

Looking to differentiate yourself? Worried you’re a Waldo School? Here are some questions to consider:

– In a sentence or two, can you describe the difference between your school and your biggest competitor? Do you imagine prospective families can also do this?
– If I covered the logos on your website and the website of your competitors, would prospective families know which is which? Could you still tell them apart if I swapped your school colors with your competitors?
– Do your communications materials illustrate what you believe about learning? Do they ignite passion in your viewers?
– In a strategic planning process, do you talk about how the plan will be communicated internally and externally?
– After a strategic planning process, do you conduct an audit of your existing communications materials to see where updates should occur to reflect the new strategic plan?

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