November/December 2014

Bridget McGuiggan, APR, is director of communications for Community Consolidated School District 181, which serves Hinsdale and parts of Clarendon Hills, Oak Brook, Burr Ridge and Willowbrook.

In an era of education marketing, once a school district recognizes the value of identity and understands the power of communication, branding is the next discussion to have. One suburban district is using the four-step public relations planning process RACE (Research, Analysis, Communication and Evaluation) to bring the conversation to the school board and community.

For Community Consolidated School District 181, the conversation started with a review of the history of district communications. With help from Audrey Galvin, we gathered materials for review, such as business cards, brochures, web content and presentations. This sparked discussion about inconsistencies in these items. We also reviewed social media communication, physical goods like tablecloths and giveaway items, and multimedia pieces such as video productions. We identified considerable differences in fonts, colors, language, imagery and other elements. In fact, few components appeared coordinated. Even the name of the district itself had been used in a variety of ways (Hinsdale 181, Elementary District 181).

This is a common challenge for districts. When many people are responsible for producing materials, when leadership changes occur, when there is no style guide to follow, and when no one is charged with coordinating this work, the result will be a lack of cohesion. If communications are not a strategic and purposeful reflection of the district, an opportunity is lost.

The District 181 team researched branding and its role, becoming students of the process and outcomes. One of the first lessons we learned is that branding is not synonymous with creating a uniform look. For a school district, branding is about the identity that distinguishes the district in a way that can be easily communicated. According to, “... your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.”

A critical component of District 181’s branding research was reviewing past survey data to more fully understand the community’s perception of the district’s strengths and unique traits – our “place in the world.”

Galvin and I analyzed our research and discussed the findings with our administrative team, which supported our work of taking a hard look at the district’s brand.

The goal of shaping a brand began with the redeploy of the district website. The site was ready for improved navigation and a new look. As one of the district’s most critical communication channels, the website made for a natural starting point. The expertise of the district’s website development company, Finalsite, helped shape the next strategy: the creation of identity and style guidelines, which are used in the development of visual and verbal communications. Guidelines include exact district colors, verbiage for district-specific terminology, typography, and sizing and spacing of a logo. Other key strategies involved engaging the board and community in the next steps of this process and digging deeper into the district’s reputation and history.

We developed identity and style guidelines and shared them with the administrative team in August 2013. The guidelines continue to be revisited and expanded and will be shared with the board of education later this school year. Keynote and PowerPoint templates, developed at the start of the 2013-14 school year, were updated for 2014-15. The website redeployed in December 2013 and as a living tool it is updated almost daily. Dozens of brochures and event promotional materials have been created or re-produced, all following the guidelines, as have board and committee agendas, minutes and memos from the superintendent’s office.

Creating the budget is a critical to the four-step process, and was a key element in District 181’s decision making. Some districts may choose to do a hard launch, with newly-branded materials distributed all at once. This can be a powerful way to announce a change but is not always a financially-viable option. Discarding envelopes, business cards and other goods that follow the new branded look can be wasteful. For District 181, a soft launch was a better solution. Materials and publications that were updated in the first stages of branding were all within the normal schedule of production, so there was no additional cost.

Our evaluation of the project continues. Initial identity and style guidelines have been reevaluated for effectiveness. The administrative team has informally remarked on the benefits of working from templates, which not only show unity and coordination, but also save time in not having to make on-the-spot style and format decisions that detract from the work of messaging. Website analytics are reviewed regularly, and the site earned an Award of Excellence in the 2014 INSPRA Communications Contest. The website will be further evaluated in the district’s annual stakeholder survey.

For District 181, what began as a two-person discussion on inconsistency turned into a much broader conversation about identity. And it’s only the beginning. The soft launch focused on the easy part – the design printed material and online posts to create a coordinated look and feel. The harder part is the deeper work that will serve as our compass moving forward – discovering who we are and what makes us unique. As shared in Ohio State University’s brand guidelines, “A brand is … the cumulative result of every experience, communication and reference made by or about our institution over time as experienced by others. Simply put, a brand is not something we buy; a brand is something we build.”

In a school district branding process, a number of key questions arise: What have we built? What did we earn? Can we articulate the promises we have made to the community? Can we speak in one clear voice? Are we moving in one clear direction?

That is a conversation worth having.