When "branding" is a dirty word

When “branding” is a dirty word

I have always been fascinated by storytelling. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a voracious reader, and I will even defend my regular watching of the “Bachelor” franchise by insisting that I am intrigued by the narratives the show creates about love and marriage (it’s true…I swear). I believe that branding is all about telling stories, and that the right stories provide meaning and connection for people. Seth Godin, business genius and source of much inspiration for me, defines a brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. In essence, branding helps consumers make sense of their options and understand the value an organization/product/service provides.


I came into education excited about using the principles of branding for under-resourced organizations. After all, if all schools or non-profits had compelling, user-centered brand stories, then they would be able to attract the funds, customers, and partners they needed to do their important work of making the world a better place. I assumed everyone else would be as excited as I was. I was wrong. In education, as in much of the non-profit world, “branding” is often considered a dirty word.


After many conversations and two years as a classroom teacher (about as far away from the private sector as one can get), I’ve developed my hypothesis about this phenomenon. Organizations in the public sector are inherently mission-driven. Their end purpose, unlike any for-profit, is not to make money (though they certainly need it to fulfill their missions). Language and strategies that are commonly used by for-profits can feel wrong, contrary to a mission-driven culture; they feel greed-based instead of need-based. The fear is that corporate interest will override the mission and will shift priorities from mission fulfillment to filling pockets.

There’s also a cultural challenge here. As a classroom teacher, I have never felt more connected to a purpose greater than myself. Teaching is really, really hard. Teaching in an under-resourced school is really, really, really hard. There is something unifying about working in challenging conditions, because you are striving to do something that feels like it really matters. It felt, simply, more important than everything else I had done. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe that one has to work for a pittance or work only in the public sector to make meaningful impact. I just think that that type of work easily creates an “us versus them” mentality, where you are so dedicated to the work that you do that you become (intentionally or not) dismissive of, well, everything else. It wasn’t until I left the classroom that I saw how enmeshed I had become in that mentality. As a strategist by training, I started to understand where this clash of ideals came from, and why branding might feel so damn icky to those outside the private sector.

That’s my diagnosis. So what’s the treatment plan? This is a relevant question for me, because this is the work that I do: using brand strategy and design thinking to help education organizations and non-profits fulfill their missions. Take schools, for example. A school is a brand. Like it or not, schools compete in a marketplace for students (yup, even public schools), have multiple stakeholders (students/faculty and staff/families/etc.), and have distinct value propositions. To fulfill its purpose, a school must clarify its brand: what is our purpose, why is it relevant to our target student base, and how can we meaningfully communicate our story?

As I figure out how to unite these worlds and create value for my clients, here are some guideposts I’m using:

  1. Listen and adapt. As a consultant, it is easy to bulldoze into an organization with a shiny, fully baked process, enthusiastically crowing about it to anyone who will listen. What is harder is to really listen to your clients and to the challenges they face, and to accept that your process will need to adapt, be picked apart, and adjust to fit them — not the other way around.
  2. Understand their language. Halfway through my first week as a classroom teacher, my co-teacher, Kristal said to me, “Ashley, I really don’t understand what the hell it is you’re saying. Can you please drop the lingo and speak to me like a human?” This was such a powerful lesson for me. There’s nothing more dismissive than being spoken to like a marketing machine, and there’s nothing more empowering than hearing ideas translated into the language of your everyday world. If you’re talking about branding to educators, use their language. Find examples that are relevant. Make it meaningful.
  3. Dig into the bad relationships. Most non-profit organizations have had bad experiences with the private sector, whether it’s a consulting firm that came in and dumped a process on them during a PD, only to never be seen again; a “strategic partner” that did a lot of reporting to leadership without interviewing staff; or a board that seemed to act directly in opposition to the organization’s values. Ask your client about these bad relationships. The more you understand where resistance to business practices comes from, the more empathy you develop and the more thoughtfully you engage with your client.
  4. Connect the work to the purpose. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that great branding leads to growth, which can be defined by anything from customer acquisition to out-and-out revenue. But that’s not powerful enough when you’re talking to an under-resourced organization. The end goal is to use that growth to fuel the mission. How will more revenue help your client deliver its services more broadly? How will it help them create new services? These are connections you need to make explicit so that the business stuff also has meaning.

Branding may be a dirty word at times, but it has an important place in the growth and sustainability of the mission-driven organizations that this world needs. We just need to clean it up a little, brush it off, and, well, re-brand it.

Oldie but goodie: My interview with Mouse