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 out there.
Elite schools (such as Harrow and Eton, for example) actively 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 kind of 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 around the world (including the UAE, China and Russia to name but a few), reflecting the interest parents have in exposing their children to the British education brand.
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 have). And I’m sure they’ve had their moments of self-doubt. The school has been running since 1889, and their iconic uniform (like it or loathe it) was the very fabric – if you’ll excuse the pun – of that heritage.
Personally, I applaud them for taking such a huge leap.
Given my experience in the schools marketing space, I completely understand the need to rebrand and develop. You change, your market changes. I passed that perspective onto a fellow alumni by responding to their Facebook post, saying that ultimately, it’s all about staying relevant.
Schools are behaving much more like businesses these days: they need a steady stream of eager pupils to be able to survive and thrive. While there’s a time and place for reminiscing about the ‘good old days’, the reality is that competition is now fierce among independent 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 for free. Couple that with birth rates hitting an 80-year low and our uncertain economic future, and it’s clear that schools are finding it tough in 2019: and no one wants to get left behind.
If you’re school is thinking of rebranding, consider some of the following points before taking the leap:
- Remember that a rebrand must be deeper than a new logo or website to truly be effective. If you’re rebranding to escape a negative perception that’s based on reality (i.e. your school attracts few strong students because it has little academic tradition), you’ll struggle. A brand revamp can only take you so far: to see real improvement, your underlying product has to improve too.
- Do your research. A school rebrand is not something you should enter into lightly. Conduct in-depth analysis of what your school stands for, how you’re perceived by prospective students, how your competitors (successfully or unsuccessfully) occupy different positions in the market, etc.
- Ensure all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process in some way. At the end of the day, your goal is to attract more students to the school – and to do that, you’ll have to convince their parents your school is right for their child. But the good will of your local community matters too, as does the perception of teachers and anyone else with a vested interest in the process. Consult everyone, make sure they’re heard – it’ll make your job much easier in the long run.
- 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 for your school. If all signs point to students being more on board with a new uniform, a new position or whatever else your rebrand entails, then move forward.
- Before fully launching your new brand, be sure to test it out on current students. There’s nothing worse than wasting time and precious resources on creating something that no one really wants: get real feedback from all stakeholders (particularly students) to ensure you’re not missing something crucial. Having to roll back some aspect of the rebrand shortly after introducing it will do little but invite criticism from detractors, so avoid this if at all possible.
The decision to rebrand is a big one, but it’s often a necessary process for schools who are struggling to compete in today’s educational climate. If your school is planning a rebrand, you should consider the points above: they could help you make the most of the initiative (with minimal fuss, stress and pushback from stakeholders).