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Family Engagement Starts with a Strong Brand: Here’s How to Get Started

Updated: Oct 23

Last month in our blog we suggested “family engagement” needed a broader definition, one that encompassed a more holistic view of the entire experience a family has with their child’s school. There are numerous studies which highlight the positive impact family engagement has on individual student outcomes including higher grades, better social skills and an increased likelihood of graduation. But it doesn’t end there.


Family engagement is about building long-term relationships with the members of your school community. Research from Joyce Epstein at John Hopkins University highlights additional benefits resulting from strong family and community engagement programs including improved school climate, stronger school and classroom programs, better family services and support, increased parents’ skills and leadership, more family connections, and more support for teachers' efforts.


As we highlighted last month, family engagement doesn’t begin on the first day of school. It starts with the first encounter a family has with your school, and oftentimes this is well before a prospective family has made an enrollment decision.


Making Student Recruitment Part of Your Family Engagement Strategy

An effective family engagement strategy requires schools to consider the entire journey, beginning with how you recruit new families. In an era of school choice where parents have many alternatives to consider for their child’s education, schools have to first attract families before they can engage them. And this starts with a strong brand identity.


Historically, many families chose where to live based on the reputation (i.e. brand) of the schools in the community. But the school choice movement, further accelerated by the challenges of the pandemic, have led to declining enrollment for many public schools as parents lose faith due to poor performance or a lack of program options.


Many alternative education options such as homeschool programs, online schools and charter schools understand this, and have become adept at developing their brand identity and communicating consistently with prospective families about the quality choices they have to offer.


What School Brands Can Learn From the NFL

On the surface comparing schools to the NFL seems a bit of a stretch, but take a closer look and you’ll find that they aren’t all that different. And a quick side note - if you aren’t a football fan, you can apply this to baseball, basketball or any other independently branded franchise.


Like school districts the NFL represents several entities, each with its own unique brand representing the community in which it resides. Like school districts the NFL has groups of constituents (fans) passionate about their individual teams. And like school districts the NFL sets rules and regulations to govern the organization as a whole, while each team (or school) has their own policies for outreach and engagement.


The NFL is filled with unique brands, just like school districts. By following their marketing strategy school districts can work with the schools in its community to reach prospective families, without compromising the identity of the multiple school brands that are part of that district.


There are 32 teams in the NFL, each of which has their own identity. Apparel, signage and even memorabilia draw on their own unique logo, color scheme, core values and traditions to promote themselves among their fan base.


The number 12 jersey in Seattle to represent the “12th teammate” is a great example of this. So are the cheese hats of Green Bay. Of the 32 teams in the NFL only Seattle has a 12th man and only Green Bay fans wear hats resembling cheese. Both teams are part of the NFL, but you’ll never confuse the two.


Schools in the same district need to differentiate themselves in this manner to attract new families and instill pride in existing ones. Parents want options, and if all schools are communicating the same message to prospective families, it makes it more difficult for parents to understand which program is best for their child.


Anatomy of a Great School Message

Parents face a daily barrage of decisions about what is best for their children, from what to eat to how much technology is appropriate to which school they should attend. The benefit of school choice is that it allows parents to choose the school program they feel best meets the needs of their children. The question is how to best make that choice, and what tools are available to help parents evaluate the different options available for their children.


Your school message should describe what you excel at, and how that sets you apart. But don’t just tell us what you do, show us. Give specific examples. Understand who your families are and why they are choosing your school over other schools in their community, and give parents the opportunity to envision how they can make that same connection with you. Below are 5 simple steps for developing your school message:


Step 1: Create a Focus Group

  • When pulling a focus group together, diversity is key. Select individuals that best represent your school – parents, staff, board members, teachers and students. Be sure to include both genders, different ages and varying lengths of time the families have been at the school.

  • Don’t limit the size of this focus group. Take advantage of technology to engage individuals remotely by using online surveys and other collaboration tools.

  • Throughout the process take note of individuals who are actively involved in the exercise and work well with others. They may be interested in continuing to assist with future marketing tasks, committees or other projects within the school.

Step 2: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

  • Hold a kick-off meeting with your focus group (as many as you can get together at one time) to set expectations and build excitement around the project.

  • Include high-level details of the project in your school newsletter and other communications to help generate some positive buzz in your school community.

  • Provide regular updates throughout the project to keep the momentum strong.

  • Identify how the focus group, students and other parents can get involved, including how they can communicate with you.

Step 3: Identify Your Current Messages

  • Your next challenge is to identify your current school messages. Whether it was intentional or not, as long as you’ve been open for one year your school has an existing message to review.

  • Talk to the individuals in your focus group – why did they enroll in your school initially? What keeps them returning year after year? A lot can be learned through a few simple phone calls.

  • Look at news articles and school review sites (the good and the bad) to better understand how your school is perceived in the community.

Step 4: Evaluate Your Current Messages

  • Once you’ve identified 5-10 key messages, develop an online survey for your focus group to complete. In the survey, ask each individual to rank each message on how well they believe it reflects your school today.

  • Include an open comment field on your survey, and take time to read the comments! These open comments might include additional gems that can be integrated into your final marketing strategy.

Step 5: Review and Communicate (again!)

  • Review the results of your online survey and discuss how well they reflect your current school mission. Were there any surprises in the results?

  • Look at the school programs in your community including private schools, charter schools, neighborhood schools, homeschool programs and online schools. Does your message stand out above everyone else?

  • Share your school message with parents, staff, board members and the community!


Your Visual Identity is More Than a Logo

Every school has visual elements which represent their brand identity. On one end of the spectrum, and typically more common with private schools or districts, you might have elaborate brand guides which detail the specifications for a school’s logo, color palette, typefaces, iconography, images and tone. On the other end of the spectrum, a school may have a logo but no supporting documentation.


Having a lengthy brand guide isn’t necessarily a requirement for schools. However, defining the basic visual elements of your school brand, and documenting how they are to be used is critically important and consistency is king. At a minimum, make sure your staff has access to the following:


School Logo Files - you’ll need multiple versions of your school logo (saved in one location!) for your various printing and digital needs. If you have an original version of your logo, you can create the other necessary files.

  • High resolution - for building signage, banners and printed flyers

  • Low resolution - for websites and digital communications

  • Square version - typically used for your social media profile picture

  • Favicon - for your website

  • Alternate colors - create a black and white version, dark one-color version (typically black for use on lighter backgrounds), light one-color version (typically white for use on darker background), and any other alternate colors which support your brand


Color Palette - you’ll want to identify a group of colors that complement your logo and can be used on your website and in other promotional materials. Choosing colors can be tricky, and Canva has a color palette generator which can help you get started.


Typography (fonts) - choosing a font style that is consistent across all your communications is important. And to keep things simple, we suggest finding a Web safe font that is common across most devices. The most popular fonts include Arial, Verdana, Helvetica, Courier, and Times New Roman.


Other Media - consider other opportunities where you can develop guidelines to ensure consistency of your brand. This might include videos, flyer templates, email signatures, car decals, t-shirt designs and more.


Consistency is most important and ensures your brand is easily recognizable when families see it in the community or scrolling through their social media feed. A consistent brand makes it easier for families to understand your purpose and can help build trust, a key ingredient for a successful recruitment strategy and ensuring your families return year after year.


Join the Discussion

With competition among schools increasing, it is critical that schools understand and effectively communicate what sets them apart from the rest. Reviewing your brand strategy is a great opportunity to engage a variety of individuals from your school community and build relationships with new and legacy families. When executed effectively, your new marketing message should align with your vision and mission, help attract new families who support your school mission, and also open the door for unique opportunities within your local community.


Does your school/district have a brand strategy? What do you like or dislike about the method they use for marketing to current and prospective families? What would you change?


This blog references two articles previously published by our team at Hive Digital Minds. What Schools Can Learn from the NFL was previously published in our Hive Newsletter - September 2017. Anatomy of a Great School Message was originally published in Charter Focus – A Quarterly Journal for Charter School Business Managers - Winter 2016.


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About the Author

Jennifer Larson is the founder and CEO of Hive Digital Minds, mother to four children, and passionate about finding innovative ways to engage parents in their child’s learning journey. Her company’s flagship product SchoolBzz is the culmination of Jennifer’s 17 years in education – working with thousands of parents and educators on their school marketing and engagement strategies. Before founding Hive Digital Minds, Jennifer led the efforts of two successful charter public school initiatives in Douglas County, Colorado. These schools have been recognized nationally for their educational programs and currently serve over 1,800 students in grades PK-12. Jennifer has a degree in mathematics from the University of California, Santa Barbara and also received her MBA from the University of Denver, Daniels College of Business. She enjoys speaking on the topics of school marketing, family engagement, entrepreneurship, and the future of work and frequently guest lectures at the University of Denver and several high schools in her local community. Jennifer can be reached at jlarson@hivedm.com.


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