Sunday, October 23, 2016

Branding 2.0

Branding... it is one of those words in education that generally garners one of two reactions... either educators love it and see it as an important aspect of the work in schools or educators push back against it because they argue that schools aren't businesses and that creating brands is about perpetuating perceptions and not focusing on realities. Well, I, for one, see branding as a powerful and important part of our work as educators because it can be transformative if done thoughtfully and with intentionality.

For the purposes of this post (and beyond), when I use the word branding I mean the following...

1) The work we do to tell our school/district stories using different digital platforms to accelerate and amplify the story beyond our context;

2) The work we do to engage our families in the learning within the school;

3) The work we do to create an identity that allows all members of the community to connect in some way;

4) The work we do to elicit a positive (hopefully) emotional response from the kids, staff and families when they think of our school/district;

5) The work we do to ensure that the brand promise we make to families matches the brand experience of our students and staff; 

6) The work we do to build high levels of transparency between home and school as a vehicle for developing trust;

7) The work we do to celebrate kids;

8) The work we do to help redefine the narrative of public education in this country by spotlighting the many positive things happening in our schools;

9) The work we do to communicate our brand through a personalized school/district vision or mission statement;

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to connect with educators from around the world and contemplate the power of telling our collective school/district stories and branding our educational spaces. The conversations have been incredibly thought provoking for me because I have engaged in discussions about the difference between the personal brand versus the school brand; the discomfort with feeling like educators are bragging when they are sharing their school stories; and finding the time to actually do the work. Through these exchanges, which have occurred both face to face and through various social media platforms, I have been refining my thinking on the importance of telling our story because the impact it can have goes deep and it can truly change the work unfolding within an educational organization.

How does that happen? How does taking pictures of kids within schools and sharing them through social media change what's happening in schools? How can branding a district or school or classroom be transformational? It comes down to one word... intentionality. Yes, we must be incredibly intentional and thoughtful about the brand we are building through the story we are telling because the results can change everything. 

Branding 2.0

When Joe and I had the privilege of co-authoring The Power of Branding: Telling Your School's Story (thank you Corwin Press and Peter DeWitt for that awesome opportunity), we spent a lot of time framing the concept of branding and storytelling within the context of schools. Our emphasis was on helping educators see the importance of being the Chief Storytellers within their spaces on their way to branding their classroom, school or district by using different platforms and approaches - a branding "how-to" of sorts for educators. 

Now, the time has come for Branding 2.0 - the branding with intentionality that goes a bit deeper. 

Here are the 5 steps to Branding 2.0 for educational leaders:

1) Spotlight the instructional practices that you hope to see become the norm within your school/district. For example, let's say there is a focus in your school on small group reading instruction, when taking pictures during classroom visits capture the moments that embody best practices as it relates to small group reading practices because those are the things we hope to see in all classrooms.

2) Be intentional about the pictures you take so in addition to telling a story for the community the byproduct is personal and professional development. For example, if you see a fourth grade teacher using Minecraft in a meaningful way during a math lesson, instead of just tweeting out the pic, tag some other teachers from that grade level or school on the tweet so colleagues can see what is unfolding in each other's classrooms. What can happen as a result of this practice? Here are some possibilities...

  • Teachers can discuss the lesson during common planning time and figure out next steps;
  • Teachers can use that idea as the impetus for a session at an upcoming EdCamp session (both within and beyond the district);
  • The activity can pop up in other people's classrooms as a result of a collaborative share;
  • Teachers can decide to explore other ways to incorporate Minecraft into their learning experiences;
  • We break out of our silos;
  • This could lead to intervisitations so teachers in the same building can learn from each other's expertise;
  • The list can go on and on...

3) Get kids involved in capturing the learning experiences in  their classrooms. We explored this possibility in our latest book, Hacking Leadership, whether in the form of social media interns or classroom photographers, there are meaningful ways that we can turn over the storytelling to our kids so we amplify their collective voices and give them ownership of the story!

4) Use your Twitter feed (or Instagram posts or Facebook wall) as another source of information for planning future professional development sessions. Get a team of teachers together (and maybe some students) and start planning future PD sessions/days based on what you are seeing as emerging themes in your story. What are you seeing a lot of? What are you seeing some of? What are you seeing none of? Use the answers to these questions to help plan next steps in regards to learning and teaching in your school/district. 

5) Use your Twitter feed (or whatever platform  you use) as an important data point when assessing yourself as a leader and reflecting on the practices of the educators in your space. When leaders tell me they don't have the time to tell their story I typically push back and argue that they are not doing a critical part of their job. The reality is this (IMHO) - posts on SM come as a result of classroom visits and if a leader is spending more time in their office than they are in classrooms (yes, I know there are exceptions to this) then they need to rethink the way they are doing their job and reflect on priorities. When we spend time in classrooms, even if the impetus is to tell our story, we are also seeing what is happening in regards to the actual teaching and learning - the norms, the routines, the practices, the resources being used, the strengths, the needs, etc. This information will help us reflect on how we can best support our teachers and students; this information will also help us when we sit down to write up an observation or evaluation - we will have so much valuable and rich information if we devote time to this important work!

Although I know there will still be some pushback on this whole notion of branding in education, I think the possibilities that come as a result of Branding 2.0 far outweigh the concerns. 

So, are you ready for Branding 2.0? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below... do you agree? disagree? do you have more to add to the list above? I would love some feedback so that I can refine my thinking and broaden my point of view because I believe Branding 2.0 is about intentionality and the only way to be intentional is to be informed!         


  1. Hey Tony...reading through your post and what you are talking about is very valuable but is it truly branding? These are all things that are making a huge impact on school culture, and many of them are using tools that are available to us in 2016. For example, I love the idea of using twitter to go through your feed and shape professional development, but is that branding or being data driven?

    If you were to talk about branding in terms of education, how would you define it in a simple sentence? I know you have put several ideas of this up, but it reminds me of a mission statement that has 10 sentences that no one remembers. What would you say "branding" is in a very succinct sentence? I LOVE what you are doing, but I am struggling mightily to see that this is branding. I think that you are simplifying the impact of what you are doing into a word that may actually cause people to lose the crux of the message because of the terminology that you are using.

  2. Excellent post, Tony. As you know, we at Malverne UFSD follow your branding and hack leadership stories closely. We follow, learn, and slowly implement.
    I would like to point out that I use a different "version numbering." Consider the point of origin. When the district management and the BOE uses a PR company to inform parents/residents, it's basically also branding, Branding 1.0.
    By establishing a presence on social media and blasting information by individual district departments, retweeting information and pictures, the management has made a tremendous progress. It deserved the upgrade to be called Branding 2.0.
    Now, in order to get on the same wave, I'll call your Branding 2.0 as Malverne Branding 2.5. Then, I'll use the same numbering system, so I don't confuse anyone. ~Jan