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February 21, 2019

Back to school For skills in branding and culture

It’s often said that your school days are the happiest of your life. Not always by pupils who are currently attending school, more often by people who have found out that working life is harder. But it is fair to say that when we were at school, we all knew who we were and where we fitted in to the culture. Or opted out of it.

I’ve spent much of the past two weeks looking at educational establishments, both primary and secondary. Though they were all very different, each one could be classified as a brand because they deliver impressions on both a functional and an emotional level.

In their own way, each of them was excellent and to me the excellence is communicated by how they make you feel.

Walk into a truly excellent school and you can feel something almost immediately. A calm, orderly atmosphere that has a vibrant sense of purpose just under the surface. Pupils who carry themselves with poise and confidence, smile and look you in the eye when they shake your hand. Teachers who talk about their work with a professionalism tempered by humanity. Students who are known as individuals, and celebrated both for their strengths and for the challenges they face. Such are the benefits of having a clearly defined school culture.

Sociologists recognised the importance of school culture as early as the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that educational researchers began to draw direct links between the quality of a school’s emotional climate and its educational outcomes. I’m told that organisational culture is still the least discussed element in conversations about how to improve student achievement. That said, schools seem to get it right more often than not … and more often than companies.


Schools today are like business enterprises in more ways than one. Leadership and change experts Terrance Deal and Kent Peterson contend “the culture of an enterprise plays the dominant role in exemplary performance.”

They define school culture as an “underground flow of feelings and folkways wending its way within schools” in the form of vision and values, beliefs and assumptions, rituals and ceremonies, history and stories, and physical symbols. These  are also the pillars of strong corporate cultures, as enshrined in the thinking of Schein at MIT Sloan in the 1980’s.

So where does a school start, when it wishes to build a culture? These days it might begin by defining a mission, vision and value set. This is good sensible stuff. The kind of action required by an ISO audit. But so often I find these exercises produce puffed-up statements that indicate a belief in the triumph of hope over experience.

‘To be the leading provider of quality secondary education, with due regard to the interests of our stakeholders’ might be typical of this rather anodyne thinking. ‘Innovative’, ‘caring’, ‘trustworthy’, and ‘confident’ are all words that appear far too often in the value sets I read. And when I do, I have to suppress a shriek. They’re very worthy, but frankly of no real help in shaping either brand or culture.

Great brands, great businesses and great schools are more often than not differentiated by more human and attainable value sets. I often find a good place to start is to talk to the founder of an enterprise, if he or she is still with us. The way they talk about their beginnings, about what they did and how they did it. Very often, when faced with a brief to rebrand an endeavour, I find myself taking it back to the sound beginnings it has forgotten.

Here are three good examples of simple statements that signal to me a clear brand and culture present in an educational context.

This from a small school that has delivered on its promise to my own children: ‘A place where young people are nurtured and challenged.’

This next from a famous school that places sport at the heart of its curriculum: ‘An inspirational school where pupils are celebrated for who they are and encouraged to reach their personal best.’ 

And this set of behavioural expectations from the great Harvard University:  ‘Respect, honesty, conscientiousness and accountability for our actions.’ 

Russell Hobby of the Hay Group lists five “reinforcing behaviours” that help to bring the vision and values of a school to life in its culture:


1. Celebrations and ceremonies,rites of passage, and shared mannerisms.


2. Hero making, role models, hierarchies and mentors.


3. Storytelling, shared humour, common anecdotes and both oral and written history.


4. Symbolic display, decoration, artwork, trophies and architecture.


5. Rules, etiquette, taboos and tacit permissions.



Looking at this list, it seems to me that education is often better than business at getting culture right.


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.


Join Chris in this and other discussions about business, brands and behaviour by liking The Brand Inside Africa on Facebook.



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