Innovative thinking, practical tips and some crazy ideas

My one-question branding hack


The terms “brand” and “DNA” appear together in business literature as often as “critical” and “thinking” do in the educational world. The assumption is that just as DNA is a way of defining a person’s uniqueness, so too brand is the way of articulating what is one-of-a-kind about any organization.
I think that “brand” and “DNA” have something else in common. While no one disputes that they exist and that each is very important, the truth is that almost nobody knows what they are. Seriously. What exactly is DNA? It’s some kind of molecular structure that somehow magically determines my uniqueness. Likewise, other than a bunch of marketing wonks, who can really define “brand” and explain exactly how it represents your school? 
And yet no one can deny the importance of being able to tell prospective parents or prospective faculty or prospective donors what makes your school so special. So, if you haven’t yet engaged the experts to develop your brand – or maybe you have and either can’t remember or no longer use what they came up with – here is my one question branding hack. (By the way, “hack” is a term borrowed from the tech world that generally refers to a clever solution to a tricky problem.)
It’s based on Simon Sinek’s “why” TED talk. If you’re not one the almost 26 million people that have seen this video, you should stop reading and watch it now. In short, Sinek proposes that the most successful companies and organizations in the world achieved their success by focusing on “why” they do what they do – as opposed to “how” or “what” they do.
Sometimes thinking about “why” your school exists or operates can be difficult. It gets bogged down in mission and philosophy. So, in working with schools I ask them this:
What would be missing from your city or community
if your school did not exist?
And that’s the one-question branding hack. It’s a pretty important question that you should be able to answer before you meet a single prospective parent (or donor or teacher). When parents ask, “why should I send my children to your school,” they are really asking what can I get here that I can’t get elsewhere.
The answer you formulate to the question is not your brand but it will likely focus on the experience that your school delivers – the combination of academics, character development, extra-curriculars, spirit, relationships and philosophy. And that will provide a glimpse into the relationship students and parents have with your school – which is at the core of branding.
Even if the answer to the question is easy because your school’s offering is unique, it will still require some introspection. For example if yours is the only arts-based school for girls in your area, you will still need to be able to communicate why an arts based education for girls is important and what it can deliver.
For what its worth I believe branding can be explained and similarly, I have successfully articulated a brand for many schools. At the same time I’m enough of a realist to understand that branding can be time-consuming, complicated or out of reach for many schools. Interestingly, I have also encountered many schools that have undertaken branding projects and are still struggling to articulate their uniqueness. 
Whatever the circumstances, if you’re looking for a clear, productive and reasonably quick way of thinking about branding, the one-question hack could be the answer.
What do you think?
Does my one question hack work for you? Have you got an alternative that you have successfully use? What are your branding hacks? Let me know.
Image courtesy of Suwit Ritjaroon at

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