Branding…What it IS and what it ISN’T

I am so excited to kick off not one, but THREE re-branding processes for three different clients—one is a new International Baccalaureate school, and two are existing organizations that need their branding to align with their current and future vision for their organizations.  With each client, I am taking the time to clarify some of the confusion surrounding branding.

In this day and age of highly visual communications, most people think that branding is just designing a new logo. And, while new logos are certainly a part of the branding process, they are NOT THE only element of branding for organizations.

There are a lot of great articles that talk about the history and evolution of branding (this one from Forbes, What is a Brand, Anyway?, does a great job of this), but I know your time is limited, so I would like to give you the quick and encapsulated version of Branding 101. I could spend a lot of time on this, but here is what branding is and isn’t, in a nutshell, and some steps you can take to develop your organization’s brand.

collection of brand logosTake a look at the image to the left: You are likely to recognize most, if not all of the company logos you see.  At the same time, you probably also remember something about each company, beyond the actual physical product they sell: maybe it’s a certain feeling, perhaps it’s a certain quality offered by the company, or possibly you are recalling the company’s tagline or services.  Strong branding doesn’t happen by mistake–it is the result of a well-researched strategy and approach.

So, first let’s talk about what branding IS:

  • What your audiences think of of when they hear or see your brand name
  • Everything your audiences think they know about your name brand offering—both factual and emotional.
  • What sets your organization apart from other organizations—it defines what makes your organization different and what makes it special…and what makes it valuable.

Here’s what branding ISN’T:

  • A new logo or a logo refresh
  • New typefaces
  • A new website

While the above-listed outcomes are ways in which to convey a new or refreshed brand, they are not, by themselves, branding.

Without clearly defining your organization’s product and what makes it special and valuable—through new and consistent messaging, improved customer service and organizational services that are consistent with your new messaging, AND a powerful visual identity– then your organization is not engaging in branding, but just re-writing website content, putting a pretty new logo on existing publications…and missing an incredible opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with its audiences.

You’re probably asking where you should start with a re-branding process. Research is an important component: start by obtaining stakeholder feedback on your organization’s value proposition and services. Utilizing focus groups to obtain feedback on new branding messaging, services, and the visual identity is also an important part of the research process. Be prepared to spend a few weeks (or months, depending on your organization) on this valuable process and developing its outcomes—you will be glad that you took the time to be purposeful and thoughtful in your approach in developing a strong and sustainable brand for your organization.

Need more help in developing your organization’s brand? Contact Sounding Board Marketing & Communications for more information about our Branding Strategy and Implementation Services.

Going the Extra Mile With Communications Helps Students and Families Reach For the Stars

Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to discuss and provide counsel to a number of school principals regarding their school outreach approaches. These hardworking principals are busy, wear many hats, and have the success of their students at the core and purpose of what they do every single day.

It is in this work that I have noticed a few patterns….now, there are studies that will back up everything I have to say here, but I know that real world examples speak volumes to those who are seeking inspiration for their day to day work. So here it goes:

  • All principals are busy
  • The principals who take the time and make communication a priority see major gains in parent engagement, particularly with bilingual parents
  • The principals who try reaching out to parents, but give up when they don’t have enough participation are probably quitting too soon
  • Regular, positive two-way communications goes a long way in increasing trust and a positive school climate among parents and
  • Principals who are too busy to proactively communicate typically have more conflicts to resolve and have a more difficult time getting buy in, participation and support from parents and staff members on new initiatives.

stars-shootingSo, why wouldn’t you communicate? Why wouldn’t you take 30 extra minutes each week for home visits or to invite parents and students to meet with you in a positive environment?

Okay, for those of you who are more analytical, here are the studies that back up these thoughts: According to a 2006 National School Public Relations Association White Paper, How Strong Communication Contributes to Student and School Success: Parent and Family Involvement, the research is clear that communication plays an important role in the type and quality of parent/community involvement. In A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement, Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp examined 51 research studies conducted between 1993 and 2002 and found there is a positive and convincing relationship between family and community involvement and improved student academic achievement, including higher gradepoint averages and scores on standardized tests, more classes passed, higher enrollment in more challenging academic classes, better attendance and improved behavior at home and at school. This holds across families of all economic, racial/ethnic and educational backgrounds and for students at all ages

I can’t think of anything more difficult than climbing a mountain alone. What if you need someone to pull you up? What if someone can help find an easier path? The opportunities that come with communication and outreach are endless. You don’t have time not to do it.

5 articles to help you boost, fix, or improve online engagement

I love learning new things (or getting an affirmation that old things continue to work) to help fix and improve the ways I do my work.  These are some recent PR Daily articles that I found particularly useful for boosting, fixing or improving online engagement:

3 Key Tips for PR/Marketing Spring Cleaning & Organizing

gerberdaisiesWith Spring, comes….Spring cleaning, of course! This is a great time to start getting your marketing, PR and communications organized for the upcoming school year or for the quieter days of summer.  But, you’re probably asking yourself,  “What should I focus on first?”  Here are three ideas:

  1. Content.  Develop a gameplan over the next few months to update content on your organization’s web pages.  Delete now-expired deadlines and dates, update calendars, map out blog entry topics (including planning guest bloggers), view currently posted or linked videos (and remove any outdated videos), check links to make sure they still work, and rework messaging, where needed.
  2. Planning.  If you don’t already have a Three Year Marketing & Communications Strategy, this is the time to start the process of outlining your strategy and the steps involved, so that you can plan ahead for holding focus group meetings, sending out surveys, and implementing the first year of your strategy.   A thorough strategy includes taking inventory of how well your print and electronic methods of communications are working for your organization. If you’ve been feeling like you’re “just keeping your head above water” then run, don’t walk, to developing your strategy.  Need help?  Sounding Board Marketing & Communications can help you develop your strategy.  Are you a DIYer?  If you opted-in emails from Sounding Board, you received a FREE “Marketing & Communication Strategic Planning 101” Guide—use this guide to develop your own Three Year Strategic Plan!  If you haven’t yet opted-in to receive emails, then fill out the contact form to the right!
  3. Learning. Take the time to focus on your professional growth in marketing, PR and communications.  Even us marketing experts and consultants are lifelong learners—I know there’s always, always better ways of doing things.  Read articles on and PR Daily (and, if you’re on social media, you can follow their pages for daily updates…and, if you follow Sounding Board on social media, I post PR/marketing/communication best practices articles on my pages, as well.  In addition, I also write blog posts on a variety of best practices (click on the topics linked above, and if you want to see them when I post them, follow Sounding Board on social media—click on the social media icons above!).

I genuinely want to help you accelerate your organization’s marketing, PR and communication efforts.  If there’s anything I can do to help YOU in your efforts to obtain, maintain, retain, and strengthen your organization’s stakeholder relationships, please send me an email at or call me at 916.673.8868.

Fantastic Focus Groups-A Key to a Successful Marketing & Communication Strategy

focus-groupGathering stakeholder input is a critical part of your communications, PR and marketing strategy process.  As PR and communication practitioners, we can make some assumptions about how well our organization is relating to its stakeholders, but directly facilitating feedback from your stakeholders is the only way you can accurately gauge the success (or challenges) of your efforts.

Focus groups are a great way to generate in-depth, valuable feedback from each of your stakeholder groups.  Focus groups allow for thoughtful discussion on the areas that you are evaluating in your organization’s communications, marketing and PR.  Surveys are useful for gauging behaviors and preferences of your stakeholders and are encouraged to be used in tandem with your focus group research.

When planning focus groups, ensure that your focus groups are just that…focused! You are asking these individuals–from their stakeholder perspective–to answer questions that will provide you valuable information about your organization’s communications. To achieve this, guarantee that you:

  • Ensure that each focus group member is sent an invitation well in advance of the meeting, and that the time, date, location and purpose of the focus group meeting are clearly stated in the invitation.
  • DO schedule focus group meetings at a time and location that is feasible for each stakeholder group. For example, avoid scheduling focus group meetings with teachers during instructional or non-contractual hours. Do provide parent and community members focus group options of daytime and evening hours.
  • Be aware of the Brown Act when scheduling focus groups with elected officials from the same government (your school board, the city council) to avoid violations—this may require scheduling individual interviews instead, or two separate focus group meetings for each group.
  • Plan no more than one hour for each focus group meeting. This will allow enough time for thorough responses, but is short enough for individuals’ busy schedules.
  • Develop the same questions for each focus group but make adjustments to ensure that the questions are appropriate for the audience. For example, when inquiring about opinions about your organization’s website, students may use the site differently than parents, and parents may use the site differently than Board of Education members. Therefore, instead of asking, “What are your opinions of our website?” you may want to start with a question like, “How do you use our website?” to obtain valuable information about its use by each stakeholder.
  • When opening the focus group meeting, set some key ground rules: Encourage honesty, ensure confidentiality (meaning, people’s names will not be used in the focus group report or communication audit), keep discussion relevant to the question, and  respect the role of the facilitator (this is important, because when the facilitator either you or another staff member needs to cut off discussion to move forward to the next question, or redirect the group to the discussion, participants tend to bristle at the facilitator’s role!).
  • Have both a facilitator and a scribe: It’s challenging to do both roles successfully!
  • Provide refreshments for focus group participants: People tend to talk more when they’re not hungry…and people naturally like to talk over food!

Next, prepare your focus group, interview and survey questions based on your communications/PR research goals.  Here are some examples:

  • What are the strengths of ABC organization?  Keep this broad–the PR/communication strengths will be mentioned by participants in this discussion, but it’s important to learn the other organizational strengths, from their perspective, to tie them to the PR/communication strategy, where applicable.
  • What are its challenges?  Again, keep this broad–PR/communication challenges will ultimately be highlighted here, and there may be trends in organizational challenges that may link back to PR/communication challenges.
  • How do you receive news and information about ABC organization? Which do you use most frequently?
  • What is working well/not well about ABC organization’s: website, newsletter, social media, email system, customer service, phone system (and, add any other communication, news, PR, and/or marketing mechanisms used by your organization, here)
  • What are some of your ideas on how ABC organization can improve its communications?  You will be amazed by your stakeholders’ creativity…but also gain some insight into what they value most.

Lastly, have fun during this process!  Stakeholders value the opportunity for their opinions to be heard, and focus groups provide a great PR opportunity for your organization to show your stakeholders that you listen to them and value their feedback!

These tips were pulled straight from Sounding Board’s Unleash Your Best Communication guide.  Click here to download FULL guide, which includes more tips and advice—including a handy workbook with a communications audit guide and Heather’s five-step PRIDE Communication Audit Process!