Why Your School Needs a Brand Guide

Private Schools Marketing

Steve Forbes famously said, “Your brand is the single most important investment you can make in your business.” But what exactly is a brand… and what is a brand guide… and how can you get your entire team on board with consistent standards? Here’s a quick piece on the importance of branding that you can share with your colleagues, faculty and board.

What is a brand?

At its simplest level, a brand is a representation of a company or product – in this case, your private or independent school – that impacts your recognition and reputation. Far more than just a logo, branding is a combination of visual elements, design, colors, fonts and key messages. Think of it as your organization’s global dress code: clean, professional, standardized, and the same for all users… with all the wrinkles ironed out by your marketing team!

Your brand is represented across many teams and departments, from marketing to admissions to athletics, the arts, the board, and the parent council. Proactively providing standards, expectations, information, and materials helps to ensure you are all telling the same story and protecting your brand’s integrity and prestige. 

(Need support? Find out how to Turn Your Head of School Into a Marketing Champion.)

What is a brand guide?

A brand guide is a reference document that collects all the assets, information and rules about how to present your school – designed to help ensure consistent design and messaging. The exact contents can be customized, but most include a complete suite of visual assets, design standards, color swatches, information and files so that no one is creating their own version of anything. This way, everything you need to represent your school is in one handy place – so it’s easy to find and exactly the same every time.

Stay open to adding to or evolving your brand guide or providing more information, additional files, etc. The goal is for your brand guide to be relevant, useful and practical.

Why do you need a brand guide?

A brand guide sets expectations and demonstrates the approved standards for your institution’s marketing. You can’t (or shouldn’t) hold people accountable to standards you haven’t defined and shared with them!

In addition, a brand guide that’s well understood and fully adopted can help lighten the load for marketing. Your team is likely understaffed and responsible for so many things, so it helps to equip other teams to represent your brand the ways you want them to. The guide helps ensure that no one needs to – or will be tempted to – go off on their own to figure something out or recreate it (*shudder*). 

How can you create a brand guide?

Creating a brand guide does not need to be an overwhelming task… but if it is, we’d love to help! Start with a table of contents and decide what you will include. Here’s a quick list of common sections and inclusions.

  • Logo and Logo Usage Guidelines

Include all the approved versions of your school logos in your document, so people can see how the different formats compare. Also save all the digital files in one location (and then back it up!). Define how and when to use each logo, minimum margins, if there are any that require special permission from marketing, etc.

To do this well, you’ll want to consider every version of your logo that will commonly be used. Think about things like: vertical and horizontal versions, color vs. black and white, reversed out, just the icon, just the wordmark, secondary logos like a school seal or athletics logo, and different file formats like .jpg, .png, .svg, .eps. 

It’s especially important to get these guidelines and logo files exactly right – so if you don’t have a professional, experienced graphic designer on staff, it would be well worth the investment here.  

  • Typography and Fonts

Provide the names of your primary and secondary fonts – and include examples of how you’d like them to be commonly used together in real life. Define when and how to use them including weight and style. Think about things like: headline and body copy, web vs. print choices, optimal size and weight/style if there are bold or italic or light options. It’s especially helpful to include examples of how these fonts are displayed in an actual piece, like a sample layout that includes a headline plus subheading and body copy.

  • Color Palette

Determine your primary and secondary colors and when and how to use them. It’s not enough to say, for example, “red” and “gray.” You need the Pantone, CMYK, and RGB color codes for the exact shades of each of your primary, secondary and approved accent colors, so they look the same in print, on screen and everywhere else they’ll be used (right down to swag, signage and athletics jerseys). 

Don’t forget to define your neutral colors as well. For example, what looks better with your logo: a bright white or a softer ivory tone, or a stark black or a dark gray or brown tone? Show samples and give all the codes for each color swatch. 

There’s some leeway in matching fabric samples, but if you regularly order school t-shirts, uniforms, etc. from a certain manufacturer, you may want to record the name of the approved fabric shade in this section. The same goes for your school plaid – state the name of the tartan and show an example.

  • Imagery and Photography

Define the type, style, and tone of photography that is right for your brand and how to achieve it. Do you only want photographs, but no illustrations? Do you allow filters? Must all images meet your school dress code? Should student images be posed or ‘in the moment’? Are you okay with students wearing logos and branded items? What are your guidelines around ensuring diversity in featured images? What is the ideal ratio of single to group shots? Be sure to show examples.

This is also a great place to reiterate your school’s policies about showing students in photography, required permissions, etc.

  • Design Elements

Determine the patterns, illustrations, iconography, shapes, or other design elements that represent your brand and how to use them within branded materials. Show usage examples. If necessary, indicate which can be used by anyone and which should be used only with permission and support from your school’s marketing team.

  • Brand Messaging and Voice

Share who your brand is targeting and the key messages you’ll share with them, as well as a guide to the brand’s voice or personality. This is a great section to remind users of the school’s core values.

It can sometimes help to describe the personality of your brand voice using human characteristics – or even identify a celebrity who ‘sounds’ like the brand (consider the difference between a brand that speaks like Morgan Freeman vs a brand that speaks like Zooey Deschanel).

  • Style Guide

Many brand guides also include a style guide that shares grammar rules, standard vocabulary, and usage guidelines. For example: how to abbreviate your school name, when to capitalize different departments and programs, and whether you use an Oxford comma.

  • Application Examples

Many brand guides include application examples so users can see what the brand could or should look like on things like stationery, water bottles, uniforms or posters. These can help provide color and context to your brand in the real world and help bring the guidelines you’ve shared to life. 

  • Special Categories

Depending on who will use the brand guide and what is important to your school, you can customize additional sections to include things like social media guidelines, iconography, animation and more.

How can I get started?

When you’re starting to build a brand guide, add what you know and the pieces that exist today. This is a great time to make small changes – like refining a detail in your logo, refreshing your secondary color palette or choosing more widely available fonts. Collect the necessary files, name them appropriately, and save them where they’re accessible and understandable. Then work with an expert to create what is missing. 

Partnering with an external agency – like the private school marketing experts at Metric Marketing – can streamline the process, help you identify and fill the gaps on missing areas, provide fresh ideas from an unbiased source, and help you gain internal alignment and buy-in.

Once your brand guide is finished, be sure to pause and secure the necessary approvals and make sure all the key stakeholders have bought in and signed off on your work. You want to be able to say with confidence that this is the standard and everyone is in agreement that this is how you’ll all operate going forward, across all teams and departments. 

Finally, make sure the guide and all related files are easily accessible for the people who need them. Printed guides are great… but digital access is even better, so it’s always available, easy to update if needed and can live in the same place as the related files. Some brands go as far as creating brand microsites that house all this information in an engaging and dynamic online experience – but a PDF on a Google Drive (with labelled folders for different logo files and templates) is a great default ‘first step’ solution.

What about brand education and enforcement?

A brand guide is only helpful if people know it exists – and understand that content. Speaking about the brand guide at faculty meetings or PD days throughout the year is a great way to explain its purpose, ensure people know how to find it and define the process of getting approvals from the marketing department before anything is created, printed or sent out. For example, “If you plan to make t-shirts for your club, please send an email to X with Y days' notice before ordering so we can ensure they are consistently aligned with our global brand standards.”

As you move forward with your brand, it’s important to hold people accountable. It might sometimes feel like policing, but it’s a slippery slope and once someone sees liberties being taken they will assume that they can do the same. Quickly veto odd colors, wild fonts, typed-out “wordmarks” and poor illustrations. Emphasize that consistency in your brand appearance is a reflection of the standard of excellence of your entire institution – and at the end of the day, everyone cares and wants to represent the school well.

What should I do to maintain our brand guide?

While brand guides are intended to live for a long time, brands are living things – and the world changes quickly. It’s a good idea to revisit your brand guide and your assets/templates once a year to ensure they are kept up to date, links are intact, etc. It’s also a good idea to stay open to change! You don’t need to update your guide with every small idea that comes up throughout the year, but definitely make note so you can address a few changes during your annual review. Team members and other school community leaders might have suggestions for new content, you might find that you’re answering the same question over and over or things outside of your control might change (for example, a color code or a font that goes from free to paid). Stay open to making changes that will help make your guide as user-friendly as possible – and will help keep your job as ‘brand police’ as easy and hands-free as you can.

We’d love to help!

At Metric Marketing, we develop measurable and practical strategies to help private and independent schools like yours to make the most of your marketing efforts. We'd love to discuss your private school's marketing requirements with you. Contact us today to speak with our marketing professionals or sign up to receive more marketing tips in your inbox.


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