The Importance Of Branding Your Classroom
by Terry Heick
Branding was one of the most important developments in business history.
As the business landscape grew increasingly crowded, standing out—and reinforcing what makes you stand out in brief, emotional bursts that build loyalty—became the difference between success and failure.
The concept of branding is a simple one: distill an inaccessible and complex idea into something accessible and simple. Something clunky to something with a handle.
Brand can be as complex as an emotion or as simple as a color, all in an easy metaphor. Coca-Cola becomes classic. The Chevy truck is like a rock. UPS is brown. And once Apple got the hang of it, they went from a fledgling and gangly computer company to a global symbol of elegant design.
Yes Macbooks, iMacs, and iPads are cool, but part of what makes them cool is Apple’s brand. OS X and iOS are stunning to look at, tempting interaction with their highly visual docks, colorful icons, and searing screen resolutions.
Their embedded interdependence with other Apple products? Also a matter of brand. The iPad felt immediately familiar to iPhone users because of their experience not only with the function of the iPhone operating system, but their affinity for the Apple brand. iPad owners understand and value the Apple brand, which feeds all Apple products and provides them with extraordinary loyalty rates.
Why Brand Matters
Google is the company that has become its own verb.
They’re also challenging Apple with their Android mobile operating system, not to mention their aggressive entry into new digital markets, from bandwidth to the Chromebook. They have an online productivity suite (Google Docs), the most successful media distribution model in mankind’s history (YouTube), the global standard for email (Gmail), a response to both twitter and facebook rolled into one (Google+), and a score of other more minor products.
They make more money than they could ever spend, and can seemingly do what they please from their Mountain View, California headquarters, where billion dollar patent lawsuits barely cause a ripple.
But they’re still finding their way with brand; their Google Doodles are about as close as you’ll get to some semblance of identity, and it’s a challenge to get a feel for what Google is.
It’s all of those things on a functional level, but as a brand it’s slightly less precise as they sort out their identity moving forward. Branding is an exercise in identity, and in competitive landscapes this requires knowing who your competition is. This is something Google may still be trying to understand themselves, perhaps in part because they have few direct competitors.
What this all of this mess means to your classroom could be significant.
Just as product and service have a brand, so does your classroom whether you plan for it or not. What is the perception of your classroom? Is it dominated by you—are you your classroom’s brand?
Is the content area itself—“math”–the brand? American Lit, Psychology 101, etc.
Is it how challenging or fun the class is? The cool presentations? The decorations on the walls? The technology in the lessons?
While you juggle a million things–standards, proficiency, research–the students are mercifully ignorant of most of that. In your class, they see a grade, a credit, or an opportunity, when they need to see a brand.
A brand in a classroom is not unlike a business brand. You’re essentially creating a “face” for what students will experience in your classroom, and it’s often communicated in directly and indirectly in equal parts: through signs and tone, message and implication, content and non-content. It should be a message that is informative without being dry, brief with being reductionist.
“You can trust me, I have credibility.”
“The content you get here will be visibly relevant.”
“I understand the walls outside of this classroom.”
“You cannot be passive, or I have failed you.”
Lessons #1: Brand matters
One immediate lesson is that brand matters. A lot.
Machiavelli was right. Perception—in the public domain–is more important than reality. How you’re perceived, and how your school, grade level, content area, and course are thought of, while possibly not be “true,” are all that really matters. More than anything else, your brand must be unmistakable and accessible.
The big ideas in your curriculum, your tools of classroom management, the opportunities for voice and choice and others all contribute here, but if they don’t all coagulate into a neat little icon of brand, you’re costing yourself engagement and credibility with students.
Lesson #2: Brand must be emotional
If there isn’t a strong emotion associated with your classroom that can lead to learning, you don’t have a brand. And if you do, it’s impotent and forgettable.
At the intersection of emotion and brand is really a matter of tone—and that tone is everything.
Where that tone comes from isn’t easy to pin down. It starts with the relationship between the teacher and the students, and what kind of fiber that’s made of. How you choose, package, and refine content plays a role as well. How do you churn standards into viable curriculum The students notice. That’s part of brand.
Ideally your brand will be grounded in curiosity and support, where an authentic need-to-know leads to curiosity, which leads to learning facilitation, which leads to a collaborative layering of student knowledge, all colliding to create the right content at the right time, with the right tone, in a way that honors the learner.
But on a larger scale, that tone and emotion must be a more immediate connection—not learner–>teacher–>content, but rather learner–>content—>application, where the teacher is simultaneously embedded and out of the way, central and peripheral.
If the classroom is a stage and the whiteboard a microphone, you are the brand, for better or for worse. If there aren’t immediate, charged connections between learner and content that absolutely vibrate, the onus is back on the teacher to entertain, play Jedi mind-tricks, do cartwheels, and enforce compliance.
And like that, the tone—and brand—change for the worse.
Lesson #3: Accessibility comes first
One of the functional lessons of branding is how it distills complexity into simplicity. There are hundreds of ways to “spin” a product. Take Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS. What makes it desirable to users is a complex collision of user-interface design and clever marketing, factors Apple spends tens of millions of dollars a year to refine.
But more than anything else, brand must be accessible to the end user. In the process of branding, the product is ultimately changed. Not simply how that product is perceived, but how it is understood and used. Steve Jobs was clear about the role of brand way back in the 1990s, when Apple was, while a top 5 brand in the world, still in transition from Macintosh.
“This is a very complicated world. This is a very noisy world. We’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear of what we want them to know about us.”
What will your students know about your classroom? What can they expect and trust? And how have you made that brand accessible? How do they know?
Lesson #4: Brand is the product of an ecosystem
Brand doesn’t just happen. Rather, it’s the result of execution.
How intentional that execution is dictates how controllable the brand becomes. The assessment design, technology integration, grouping strategies, time management, and a dozen other factors combine to engender a brand that your students pick up on in the first week of school. Perhaps even the first day.
The lesson here is that though you may hang pop culture posters, embed snarky clip-art, and play music while students enter the classroom, those factors only begin to contribute to mood, which contributes to atmosphere, which begins to contribute to brand.
A brand is the product of an entire ecosystem of factors: your natural personality, your “take” on academic standards, your relationship with other staff members, your grading system, your insistence on—and definition of—rigor and authenticity, and so on.
Brand must be singular, but what produces it can’t be.
In the end, the most important lesson is for you to control the perception of your classroom. It has been said that learners may not remember much about what you teach them, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. That’s brand.
Ask an Apple lover what they love so much about their latest iWidget, and they’ll likely have a hard time coming up with a compelling argument based on logic or function. They simply trust the product and love participating in the brand. Which kind of makes Apple a cult, and in the consumer world, that’s unfortunately normal.
Marketing agencies can concoct powerful brands that can make sheep of us all, from the cars we drive to the logos on our shoes. Even which social media platform you favor. But there are lessons to be learned there. If you can make your content area have cultish appeal by creating a vibrant and inviting brand for your classroom, well, then you’re halfway towards a personalized learning experience. You’ve given the students a place to start, and something they can trust.
And you’ve opened the door to the infinite complexity of what you teach that they’ll carry with them long after they leave your classroom.
Image attribution flickr user jasmi and deviantart user rawrockaddict