Anne Nicholls, CIPR Education and Skills Committee Member, has experienced several rebrands during her PR career in the education sector. She sets out the 15 things you must do if you want to stay sane throughout the whole process.
If you’ve never been through a rebrand then you have some delights in store. Whilst the whole process can be immensely satisfying when you see the finished product – your organisation brought to life with new colours, fonts, images and logo – getting there is a journey that is full of angst. I know because I’ve been there. Several times.
Doing a rebrand, or a brand refresh, can invigorate an organisation that has been coasting along for years. Or it can go horribly wrong. Certainly, there have been some well publicised disasters. When, the clothing store Gap felt their image was looking a little tired after two decades, they decided to ditch the old brand and logo in 2010, at a reputed cost of $100 million. But just six days later, after a barrage of negative feedback, they reverted back to the existing brand. Then there was classic case rebranding the Royal Mail as Consignia back in 2001. Consignia? Exactly. The name change cost £1.5 million and less than a year later they went back calling it Royal Mail at a cost of £1 million.
The education sector has had its fair share of mistakes as well. When Lewisham and Southwark Colleges decided to merge in 2012 they spent nearly £290,000 on a rebrand. But within less than two years the new name – LeSoCo (which unfortunately sounded like a Gallic scene-of-crime operation) – was replaced by Lewisham Southwark College. Not exactly imaginative, but at least it “does what it says on the tin”. There have been some successes as well. Back in 2000 the University of Luton was on its knees, at the bottom of league tables with a terrible reputation and declining student applications. Then in 2006 it changed its name and was reborn as the University of Bedfordshire. It hasn’t looked back.
An awareness of the importance of branding has become crucial in the education sector.
Schools are becoming academies and being thrown into a highly competitive marketplace. Further education colleges are merging. Awarding bodies are needing to find ways differentiating themselves from their competitors. And universities know that unless they get their messages, visual identity and overall strategy right they won’t attract the right students.
So here are my 15 tips on how to make a rebrand or brand refresh go smoothly so you can avoid all the nasty pitfalls.
- Get buy-in early. Your senior management, trustees or board of governors need to accept the need for a rebrand, if only in principle. It can be tough trying to convince them that a new name, logo, visual identity and messaging will make a difference, especially when they have red pound signs flashing in front of their eyes. But providing them with evidence that the existing brand isn’t working can be a powerful persuader. If research shows that only one in ten people know the name of your organisation that may be good enough.
- Ask yourselves ‘why?’. Be clear on why you want or need a new or refreshed brand. If business is thriving, why bother? Have you a problem that needs solving? Has there been a change in the competitive landscape? Or are you telling a story that doesn’t connect with your audience? Maybe some cosmetic changes like a new font and colour palette are enough. But if you are engaged in a merger, suffering against competitors or discover that few people really understand what you do, then that may be good enough reason for change.
- DIY or professionals? Doing a rebrand yourself may save money but is risky for two reasons. First, you don’t see the organisation through the eyes of your customers or audiences. Second, branding requires a particular set of skills that you are unlikely to have internally. However, branding agencies don’t come cheap. Most charge upwards of £25,000 for a modest rebrand, although you can negotiate down. (More on this later.) A small agency or single designer may offer a branding service, but this could be just a new visual identity without any of the insights that are needed. Branding involves much more. Look carefully at what they offer, their previous work and ask for references. Above all, make sure that they really understand your organisation and the marketplace in which you operate.
- Do you need a new name? The charity Scope ditched the name Spastics Society for obvious reasons. But Mencap decided not to change because of overwhelming evidence that the public recognised the name. The CfBT Education Trust rebranded itself to the Education Development Trust – a smart move as people no longer have to explain what CfBT means. Sometimes a subtle name change can make a huge difference. South Bank University added London to its name in 2013, since when applications have doubled from 6,000 to almost 16,000 in just three years, accounted for mainly by international students. A word of warning. If you change your name, make sure you have a communications plan to tell people about it. Sounds like a no brainer but you’d be surprised how often this doesn’t happen.
- Straplines – avoid the obvious. Most good schools, colleges and universities are all offering more-or-less the same thing: a good education (whatever that is). The difference is in how they do it and the quality offered. Finding the words that sum up what makes a school, college, university or education charity distinctive is an important part of the rebranding process. Avoid clichés like ‘changing lives’, ‘creating opportunities’, or any combination of the words ‘learning’, ‘excellence’, ‘best’, ‘inspiring’, ‘achieving’ and ‘quality’. If you want a strapline, here’s an exercise you can try. Brainstorm words you like, plus a few you don’t like and some quirky ones as well. Write them on separate bits of paper and ask people to combine them in different ways. See what you get.
- Write a detailed brief. You need to set out clearly what you want to achieve, who you want to reach, who your competitors are (with examples of their visual identity and straplines),why you need a rebrand or brand refresh and how far you want to go. Provide a brief that’s too open ended and you may not get what you want. The more detail you can provide the better. This will save you money as it means the branding agency don’t have to do the work for you. Above all, be clear on what’s included and what isn’t for the fee. For instance, do you want them to handle copywriting, create a new strapline, organise new photography, carry out audience research, redo the whole website and produce a full set of materials? Cost will be the deciding factor.
- What are the parameters? Are there things that you cannot change, like the logo and name? Or are you giving the branding agency free reign to come up with something radical? Be clear in the brief.
- Don’t start without research. Research can produce some surprising findings and great quotes you can use. But there is a temptation to cut corners and plunge straight in to a rebrand without any audience research. This may save money but you put yourself at risk of getting it all disastrously wrong. However, external research, whether done by a branding agency or research company, comes at a price because it’s time consuming. A combination of an email questionnaire with, say, a dozen in-depth telephone interviews should give you the insight you need at an affordable price. The interviews must be done by an outsider for objectivity, but you can save time by approaching the people first to get their agreement.
- Saving money. A typical rebrand for a university, college or medium-sized charity could cost around £60,000 or more. This figure can be brought down to under £20,000 providing you are clear on what you are asking for and prepared to negotiate. Copywriting could be done in house, along with creating a new strapline. Asking for a full suite of publications will bump up the cost. Instead, get the agency to provide the flagship publication and templates for everything else. These can then be given to other (cheaper) designers or, if provided in Microsoft Word versions, be used in house by non-design staff. If using an agency. Redoing the whole website will bump up costs, so just ask for a concept for the home page with specifications on how to roll the brand out across the whole site.
- Be practical. You may get presented designs that look pretty but just don’t work in practice. When the University of the Arts London launched its new logo back in 2006 it seemed an ingenious design showing the six colleges in a colourful stellar constellation.. The problem was that it was too clever, so few people got it. But even worse, when the logo was shrunk to a size that could be used in social media it ended up looking like an apology for a squashed spider. The visual identity that replaced it is less imaginative, but simple, bold and works in all formats.
- Make sure the templates work. If you are asking your designers to produce templates check them all out first to identify any glitches. Find out what software packages you use. It’s no good having all the templates in InDesign if no-one in your organisation knows how to use it. Or you might be given images in Illustrator that you can’t open because you don’t have the latest version. My advice is to ask for two versions – one for designers to use and a Word version for staff.
- Get feedback but go with your instinct. You need to strike a balance between going overboard on consultation with your external audiences and sticking to what staff like. There will always be someone who absolutely hates anything purple, cringes at the new font and doesn’t like the new language. Trust your instinct – to a point. But take on board what people external to the organisation say.
- Don’t forget language. Branding is not just about logos, typefaces, images and colour. It must include language as well. It’s no good having a bold new visual identity that says “we are bold forward thinking” if you’re still using archaic language full of jargon.
- Think about organisational culture. You have a bright sparkly new visual identity, strapline and language that sums up your customer-focused approach. The problem is that when people phone up they are left hanging on the line and it can take days to get a response to an email. Branding includes people’s experience of an organisation, not just its public face. Culture change may be needed.
- Work out a plan for roll-out. Once you have your lovely new brand identity it needs to be put into practice. That means people need to start using it. A sensible approach is to run some awareness sessions and produce a brand bible for staff. This should be adapted from the one that the agency provides which is mainly at designers. Inevitably, some people will ignore all this and go “off piste”. Reigning them in needs back-up from senior management. Give in to whims and you’ve lost the battle.
So there you have it. One question that may be hovering in the air is why this is something that concerns public relations professionals? Isn’t branding something that’s a separate discipline. In a large organisation like a university that may be the case, but PR folk in smaller organisations are increasing having to multi-task. And after all, establishing a brand identity is an integral part of reputation management.
Finally, if you need to convince people that branding is important, here is a quote from an organisation called CharityComms.
“Brand is the most significant single factor in driving personal connection and commitment …Good branding goes to the heart of your organisation – it should shine through in everything you say and do.”