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Branding and Authenticity and Schools

A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it represents is more important than what it looks like.” -Paul Rand

This holds true not just for logo marks specifically, but also in the broader, more abstract sense of brands in general. No brand is better or stronger than the products and experiences it represents. A good brand is strong because it is true, not because it is clever.

By citing that Paul Rand quote and in writing those lines, John Gruber is referring to Microsoft, but he reminds me of a trap that so many independent schools fall into. While they are not as polished as I would like them to be, these are some opinions that I’ve been meaning to post for too long, so here goes.

Over the last decade or more, in an effort to best each other and align themselves with educational fads (the educational equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses) and the most prestigious schools, it has become routine for independent schools to continuously add new administrative positions and support services as well as to badge themselves with external programs. (Think of this as the difference between a Windows machine and a Mac. The Windows machine comes with an assortment of decals highlighting the components inside while the Mac has only one brand on its case - its own. That is knowing who you are as a company. That is confidence in the product that you are selling.) This leaves many independent schools in an arms race that we can not win, something akin to a small college trying to compete with the bells and whistles that schools like Harvard are adding, but without the aid of huge endowments. Do these additional programs and positions really add as much value to our schools as they are costing us? Do they truly make us more marketable or do they just make us look like all of the other schools? Do we lose our identity by associating ourselves with outside programs rather than developing our own in-house programs? By raising tuition to pay for the above, don’t we also run the risk of pricing ourselves out of the educational market as families take a closer look at the options of public schools and home education?

I’m not so naive as to think that money and influence don’t make a difference, but most schools don’t have enough of either, so their best hope of standing out (and eventually gaining both money and influence) is to focus on authenticity – to be themselves better than any other school.

So, as we find ourselves in a recession that not everyone recognizes and as we face soon-to-be shrinking student populations and likely teacher shortages if demographic trends play out as predicted, what should a school do to remain competitive? Here are my suggestions:

First: Start by clearly defining what the school’s unique qualities are without relying on external programs. Consider what a twenty-first century school should include, but do not force anything into the program that does not fit the core mission. Stop trying to be all things to all people. You are much better off with a smaller group of families that love the school rather than a large population of families that are OK with the school. And over time your small group of families will grow if you stick to being authentic.

Second: Focus on eliminating unnecessary expenses and wasteful habits. Here are some specifics:

  • Reduce administrative creep by eliminating administrative positions (particularly those that can be considered middle management) and flattening the traditional pyramid management model.* Reassign administrative tasks to faculty members with significant stipends.
  • Reduce reliance on specialist services by expecting more of teachers and counseling out students who are not served by the core strengths of the school.
  • Reduce use of paper and consumable materials; we print too much, we waste too much.
  • Reduce use of energy and water: turn out the lights, turn down the air conditioning and heat, look into gray water solutions and native flora landscaping, make greater use of indoor/outdoor classroom possibilities provided by our climate, power down computers at the end of the day.
  • Investigate the rebates available through power companies as well as municipal, state, and federal programs as incentives to add solar panels, energy efficient appliances, water saving plumbing fixtures, etc.
  • Reduce the use of trash the school produces by making greater recycling efforts including composting and reuse of materials.
  • Have students participate in the cleaning and straightening of their classrooms a la Japanese school model, we’d be forced to use cleaning fluids that are less harmful and we’d be able to pay for weekly, rather than daily cleanings.
  • Provide greater incentives for commuting by bike, public transit, and carpooling. Then work with insurance companies to reduce rates as more employment cycling, etc. will likely have positive health implications.
  • Limit the amount of out-of-state conferences that faculty and administration attend, travel costs would go down as well as the environmental impact of traveling.
  • Have on-campus retreats rather than transport faculty to and paying for off-campus venues.
  • Encourage virtual conferences and local professional development.
  • Make greater use of technology to increase the efficiency of routine tasks such as material orders, calendar management, etc.

Third: Treat existing faculty right and hire the best faculty and staff possible. All of the above savings can be applied to creating more competitive compensation packages. Flattening the school management pyramid would also offer greater autonomy and involvement in administrative decisions, thus elevating morale and job satisfaction. Both of these changes would increase the ability of the school to attract and retain the best and the brightest faculty and staff, not only among the regular teacher pool, but also among those that may not have previously considered a career in teaching.

Intended result: By following the above or a similar course of action, a school would likely exude more confidence in itself, find itself on much more stable financial footing, and be ready to compete with other schools by touting genuinely unique qualities.

Side effect one: Students additionally benefit in the following ways:

  • Compensation dollars are more directly targeted where students are - in the classroom.
  • Students become less reliant on wasteful habits.
  • Students take more ownership in the school as they care for and clean it.

Side effect two: Another significant benefit is that as a result of these changes, the school can market itself as being green which is popular (maybe even sexy) now.:

  • The school will have significantly reduced its environmental footprint.
  • When the time comes that no school has a choice but to go green, a school that has followed the above suggestions will be a model and its reputation will further improve as it serves as an example to other schools.

I’ll likely have more on these topics in the future, particularly on how to sell changes in travel, supply budgets, and other perks to faculty. At any rate, it feels good to finally get this out of draft stage.


*For just one argument in favor of reconsidering the structure of a school’s (or any institution’s) management system, start with the snip below from Throwing Sheep. Then sift through some of these links.

With a new generation of young people completely at ease with virtual social interaction moving into the workforce, it didn’t take tremendous powers of insight for us to conclude that a collision of value systems was imminent inside organisations. Online social networking and Web 2.0 tools like wikis have a normative bias in favour of horizontal, bottom-up network dynamics. Entrenched interests inside rigidly hierarchical, top-down bureaucratic structures have, for obvious reasons, reasons to feel threatened by these emerging network dynamics. The explosion of Web 2.0 social networks like Facebook represents a disruptive invasion into the closed precincts bureaucratic structures because they challenge established codes of behaviour, status, and authority.