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.
Recently, F&F was working with an independent school on a suite of communications materials for prospective students. Early on in this process, I sat down with current faculty to review the messaging on their website and viewbook and I posed a simple question: are the stories you see here accurate representations of what happens at your school?
If they aren't capturing key ideas about the school, if they're overly aspirational, or too reductive, then we have a brand gap: a place where what the school says it does isn’t aligned with what's actually happening. Brand gaps create problems because prospective families eventually discover that what they were promised wasn’t what the school offered. They're the invisible force slowly chipping away at your enrollment, perception, and overall health.
So how do you identify a brand gap?
Schools are complex ecosystems, so it may not be apparent when parts of your story don't align with reality. Instead, bits of evidence may hint at it: perhaps open houses have begun to underperform, or your website is converting fewer visitors.
Often the metrics confirm the gap, but through radical listening, empathy, and clear feedback loops with your community, you'll hear when something is broken before the data confirms it. This means leaving your office routinely to engage faculty, students, administrators, and parents.
These tactics are the same ones used by design thinkers, and they're an increasingly important skill for MarComm professionals because they heighten sensitivity to potential brand gaps. Exceptional schools understand that all of their storytelling efforts, including the website, campus tours, social media, viewbooks, open houses, even the way a prospective parent's phone call is answered, must work in concert.
Shaping your brand and closing any gaps begins and ends with collecting feedback to understand how you're perceived. Feedback is so important because your school's brand isn't what you say it is, it's what everyone else say it is.