At my old school (Farnborough Hill, a Catholic Girls’ independent school in Hampshire), we were well-known in the local area for our deckchair blazers, fawn socks and sturdy brown shoes. Our uniform drew quite a bit of attention on our walk in from the station every morning, but that didn’t bother us. We wore these eye-catching items like a badge of honour – they were something that made our ‘tribe’ unique, something that made us feel as if we were part of something bigger.
Things have changed a lot since my time in Farnborough Hill. Just last year, they went through a complete rebrand. In a statement, they said that they chose this course of action to ‘better reflect the ethos and purpose of the school, to create a clear, positive image and form a distinctive, memorable identity’.
Both their logo and uniforms have gone through huge change, and it’s fair to say that the reaction to these changes has been mixed. While the current girls love their uniforms and image, other people aren’t so happy.
This wasn’t a decision that was undertaken lightly: there was a range of stakeholders involved in the decision-making process, including pupils and staff. But despite this inclusion, the alumni community (by and large) has been very vocal in their criticism of the rebranding. The power of nostalgia cannot be underestimated: people feel a strong connection to their time at school, and their old uniform is a powerful representation of that. That much is clear from comments left on the school’s Facebook page, with the opinions of past pupils and members of the local community ranging from ‘Why would you change a tradition of a lifetime?’ to
‘I feel really sad that the heritage and the crest of the school is gone’.
Rebranding isn’t something that’s on the cards for every school
Elite schools (such as Harrow and Eton) promote their history as a key selling point. That’s because many parents out there are willing to part with £40k+ per year to send their sons to schools with the right pedigree and history.
Of course, it’s not just the desires of domestic parents that matter anymore. The UK education experience is in hot demand in the international market too. In fact, there’s over 4000 British International Schools in various countries reflecting the interest parents have in exposing their children to British education.
The kind of brand a school possesses lends them legitimacy and cements the value of their offering. It takes a bold marketing department to rebrand when their school has a strong history and loyal alumni following (like Farnborough Hill). And I’m sure they’ve had their moments of self-doubt. The school has been running since 1889, and their iconic uniform was the very fabric – if you’ll excuse the pun – of that heritage.
Personally, I applaud them for taking such a leap.
Given my experience in schools marketing, I completely understand the need to rebrand. You change, your market changes. I passed that perspective onto a fellow alumni by responding to their Facebook post, saying that it’s all about staying relevant.
Schools are behaving more like businesses: they need a steady stream of eager pupils to be able to thrive. While there’s a time and place for reminiscing about the ‘good old days’, the reality is that competition is fierce among schools.
Lest we forget, there are many excellent state and grammar schools that can provide an education experience that rivals that of their fee-paying counterparts. Couple that with birth rates hitting an 80-year low and our uncertain economic future, it’s clear that schools are finding it tough.
If you’re thinking of rebranding…
Consider the following before taking the leap:
- Remember that a rebrand must be deeper than a new logo or website to be effective. If you’re rebranding to escape a negative perception, you’ll struggle. A revamp can only take you so far, to see real improvement, your product has to improve.
- Do your research. Conduct in-depth analysis of what your school stands for, how you’re perceived by prospective students, how your competitors occupy different positions in the market.
- Ensure all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making. At the end of the day, your goal is to attract more students to the school – to do that, you’ll must convince parents your school is right for their child. But the good will of your community matters too, as does the perception of teachers and anyone else with an interest.
- Once the research is done, trust it. Don’t allow the ill feelings of a vocal few dissuade you from pursuing the best course of action. If all signs point to students being more on board with a new uniform, a new position or whatever else your rebrand entails, move forward.
- Before launching your new brand, test it out on current students. There’s nothing worse than wasting time and resources on creating something that no one wants, get real feedback to ensure you’re not missing something. Having to roll back some aspect of the rebrand will do little but invite criticism, so try to avoid this.
The decision to rebrand is a big one, but it’s often necessary for schools who are struggling to compete in today’s educational climate. If your school is planning a rebrand, consider the above, they could help you make the most of the initiative.