‘We’re rebranding’: two small words with big implications. How do you stay relevant to your audiences, maintain brand recognition and create a new identity, all while keeping your finance director’s blood pressure from hitting new heights?
That was the challenge facing us at Ambition Institute last year, when we needed to create a new organisation from scratch, following a merger.
Like many in the charity and third sectors, our predecessor organisations (Ambition School Leadership and Institute for Teaching) wanted to find ways to widen our impact and reduce duplication across the sector. As two national education charities with a mission to help educators who serve children from disadvantaged backgrounds, we realised we’d both be in a stronger position to fulfil this mission if we merged.
While there was overlap in our mission, we each had very distinct brand personalities and how we talked about ourselves couldn’t have been more different. We knew that choosing one identity over another or squashing the two together wouldn’t work – neither was compatible with our vision for the future and so we needed a new brand. But we couldn’t break the bank as every penny spent should be spent in service of our mission.
I led that re-brand process, and found it exhilarating, but not without its challenges. So here are my five steps to rebranding on a budget:
Step 1: Make a decision
At Ambition School Leadership, we’d rebranded before following a previous merger but that time, we’d used an agency.
Agencies have benefits but can be expensive, so I decided to look to my own team first. We had a diverse set of skills and I was confident in their expertise. However, I also knew parts of the project would include tasks in which we lacked experience or capacity.
I completed a skills audit and a project plan, weighing up the pros and cons of doing this in-house. Even with gaps in our knowledge, it made sense for us to do the work ourselves, saving us money and essentially developing my team for the future. But I knew that while putting my team in the deep end would be a massive, career-defining development opportunity for them, it could also cause stress and set them up for failure. To manage this, we brought in a couple of temporary freelancers to mentor the team and build their skills and confidence to deliver the best possible brand for our organisation.
Step 2: Convince your top team
As a senior communicator, it’s essential to have influencing skills in your arsenal, and I definitely put them to use in this process.
From the off, I had to convince our executive committee and our board of trustees that we knew what we were doing, when quite naturally their assumption was that a job this big and this important would demand outside support. Moreover, as we were mid-merger, some of them didn’t know me or my team from Adam.
It helped me step up my game – I knew that I needed to take them on the journey, making clear why we were doing this and what exactly we planned to do.
I learned quickly how our executive leaders liked to work – some wanted lots of information and input, while others wanted to know only major risks. As communicators, we know the power bespoke communications can have. Taking time to speak to each leader individually, to hear their ideas or understand their concerns, was worth the investment of time, ten times over.
It was also important to manage. We were meticulous in collating, analysing and sharing our research before starting to share ideas, ensuring we were giving them evidence-based recommendations.
Step 3: Research, research, research
You can’t build a brand without understanding the landscape you operate in.
Through surveys, interviews and the use of a YouGov poll, we gathered the insights of over 900 educators – some of whom were part of our network, but the majority not currently working with either predecessor organisation.
The research gave us encouraging news about awareness, perceptions and understanding of both Ambition School Leadership and Institute for Teaching, both relatively new brands in the education sector, as well as how we compared to others. This helped us with some early decisions to retain some elements of our predecessor brands, such as the mission-focused word ‘Ambition’ in our name, and the colour yellow, which we heard many in the sector were associating with our organisation.
Crucially, our research also told us what our target audience wanted from a national provider of professional development. After all, the merger of Institute for Teaching and Ambition School Leadership was a response to the demand we heard from the education sector for joined-up development pathways for educators at all levels – from teachers right up to CEOs of multiple schools.
We therefore wanted our research to test our strategic aims as a new organisation and guide us towards branding decisions that would help meet them; that is, to help us build meaningful partnerships with schools and trusts where our academic rigour would be informed by frontline classroom experience, and for this to support the development of the most effective CPD offer the sector has ever seen.
Some recurring themes emerged, including expertise, quality and a clear social purpose so using detailed interviews we created a hierarchy of brand characteristics that we needed any new identity to convey. This became our central reference point for any and all ideas, whether for our name, our visual identity or our tone of voice, and also proved to be an essential tool in helping our colleagues to understand the decisions we’d made.
Step 4: Use evidence wisely
Our research told us that our partners wanted an organisation with academic rigour, clear social purpose and classroom connection.
We used this insight to inform our name, our visual identity and the tone and language we use in our key messages before testing various concepts that we felt fit the bill.
But did we use all our research to the letter? No. My advice is to remember that the research is there to guide you, but shouldn’t be used in crude terms. If we’d have gone with the bare numbers we’d have a different name and an anodyne visual identity. But we balanced these with our own audience knowledge to make decisions on what we needed to listen to and what we could disregard.
Step 5: Share your work with the world – and be proud!
When you are developing a brand in-house, it becomes something of a labour of love. Putting it out into the world for comment and critique can feel oddly personal.
That paid off when we shared our brand with our exec team. Their confidence in us (and more importantly, our process) gave us the courage to share our work more widely. We started with staff, who immediately connected with the new brand all the more because the work had been led by their colleagues.
In March we finally pulled back the curtain and introduced our brand to the world.
Post-launch we had an immediate spike in interest across social media, our website and in the media, which we’ve sustained with a 436% increase in twitter impressions, 135% increase in engagement rates and 260% increase in retweets. We’ve also had an increase of 85% in our website visitor numbers and 140% increase in new visitors.
We also saw a sharp increase in sector media coverage and though we dropped in Google rankings initially – an expected consequence of our change in name. We’ve jumped back up in a matter of weeks.
For now, I can say without hesitation that deciding rebrand in-house was the right choice for the organisation, a personal career highlight and a hugely rewarding project for a team that lives and breathes Ambition Institute’s aim to keep getting better.
Image: Ambition Institute