How Educators Rising brought their brand personality to life
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sharing the virtual stage with Ashley Kincaid, co-director of Educators Rising, for a webinar all about brand strategy and personality. [Missed it? You can watch a recording of that webinar here.]
I presented an overview of brandraising, Big Duck’s approach to developing smart brands for nonprofits, and Ashley shared an in-depth case study of the work we did together to rebrand and help evolve her organization from Future Educators Association to Educators Rising.
For those of you who like to read along while watching the presentation, below is a transcript of some of Ashley’s remarks. And for those of you who would like to learn more, read this post about the power or brand personality for your nonprofit.
Future Educators Association (FEA) was a membership association for high school students interested in teaching. It hadn’t really been invested in in quite some time, but interest in it continued to grow. In 2014, I teamed up with my colleague Dan to reimagine what FEA could become. We knew that if we really wanted to accomplish our impact goal of changing the way we think about teacher recruitment and preparation and diversifying the teacher workforce, we needed to transition away from an after-school club, which is what FEA was really known for, to a more rigorous, co-curricular program where students were actually taking classes during the school day to learn more about what it takes to be a teacher.
As part of this transition, we knew we needed to rebrand. FEA didn’t represent what we were trying to become, and it’s fraught with a number of issues. I’ll give you a couple of examples just for entertainment value. FEA [fea] in Spanish, means ugly. Here we are, an organization trying to recruit minority populations into the teaching profession with an acronym that means “ugly”. I will tell you, no high school student wants to wear that on a t-shirt. Also, we really felt like the word “future” wasn’t empowering. Students who are engaged in this work today are actually in student teaching internships. They are educators today, there’s no future about it and we really wanted to think of a brand that better represented them and the power that they hold today. That’s when we teamed up with Big Duck.
We entered this project with three specific goals. First, to make a difference in how we recruit teachers and to diversify the teacher workforce, we knew we needed to build relationships with implementers. These are the folks on the ground who would actually take up the mantle and use our curriculum and other resources to implement this program in high school. We also knew we needed to attract young people. Just because a superintendent or a principal decides to implement this program in a high school doesn’t necessarily guarantee that students are going to show up at the classroom door interested. We needed to be attractive and resonate with young people. We also needed to secure funding to do this work.
Using the Big Duck model, we focused on positioning and personality. I’ll just briefly speak to our positioning statement here. It’s super important to keep it short and simple, so working with Big Duck, we crafted this short and simple statement: Educators Rising cultivates skilled teachers sustainably and at scale. Even though it is short and simple, I just want to reinforce the fact that it’s really fully thought out.
I’ll just give a quick example, so we don’t just cultivate teachers, we cultivate skilled teachers. Our model is sustainable and our teachers are sustainable. Teacher attrition is a huge issue in the education workforce and we really want to own, in people’s minds, this idea that students who come through our program are going to last, they’re durable. Then we also do this work at scale. It’s been done in little pockets all around the country but no one’s figured out really how to scale it. It’s a heavy lift to replicate and that’s where we were coming in and making a difference. We’re providing resources, tools and support that school districts and schools need to actually stand up a program like this. Albeit short and brief, it really actually says a lot and this is what we want people to think when they think about Educators Rising.
From there, we dove right into our personality and really thought about, “What are the overarching feelings we want people to associate with us? What is our tone and style?” Big Duck led us through a series of, actually, super fun exercises that Farra is going to dive into a little bit later in the webinar so that you can get a taste of it to really identify these adjectives that describes our personality.
In fact, the exercises were so fun, we replicated them in-house with our staff here to go ahead and start to build the buy-in and generate some excitement that we needed for our staff. Going through a brand transition like this is a huge, heavy lift for any organization, and it certainly is critical to have everybody on your team 100 percent on board before you try and take this public because they certainly are the front-line representatives of the brand.
Once we had our personality characteristics identified–energized, expert, fresh, charismatic and powerful–we examined our logo and our name. We said, “Does Future Educators Association as a name and does this logo really represent our personality?” While we felt like maybe “expert” showed, that was really it. We didn’t really think that the logo that we currently had felt fresh or charismatic at all, so we went for the whole enchilada. We went for a total rebrand, renaming the organization and creating a new visual identity.
Working with Big Duck to do that, we went through a number of different options for names and logos. Instead of what our staff really liked or didn’t like, based on personal preferences for color or the feel of something, we were able to use our personality characteristics to really guide us. When we sat around and talked about which of these logos did or did not work for us, which are these names did or did not work for us, it was not about personal preference. It was really about our positioning statement, our personality, how we defined ourselves.
I won’t go through all of these logo concepts, but I’ll just say a few words about some of these and the evolution and how we ended up with Educators Rising. We really felt like, for example, “Young Educators of America: What teaching should be,” the “what teaching should be” phrasing for the tagline was a little bit condescending for our audience. We already had people out in the field doing some of this work and we wanted to bring them along with us, and we knew to do that we needed to inspire them. We didn’t want to say that what they were doing today was wrong.
We wanted to shift away from what teaching should be, also “Educators Rising: Take teaching higher.” While definitely inspirational, when you’re working with high school students, you don’t ever say anything about “get higher” or “get high”. It very quickly turns into inappropriate jokes. Even with Young Educators of America, the name, we wanted to avoid the acronym as per Big Duck’s recommendation. By using a name that people really need to spell out, we don’t get lost in the sea of education acronyms.
We thought some of the iterations reflected really cool design but didn’t necessarily think it came across as expert. We did really start to land on “There’s power in teaching” here, through this logo’s development. We ultimately ended up here, “Educators Rising: There’s power in teaching.” You can even see the arrow in the E there, reinforcing that idea of rising. When we compared this version against our personality characteristics, we could really see this reflecting all five. It’s definitely powerful, but also really energized.
There’s movement in the logo. It’s charismatic, the red logo part on the left-hand side, when used alone it’s almost like a skateboard logo on a T-shirt. Students loved it. We also felt like it was expert, it really comes across as a legitimate organization but fresh, not that stale association look that we had previously. We felt like this particular lock-up, our logo and tagline and badge all really represented our personality. From there, we jumped right into messaging using, again, our personality and positioning statements as a guide.
I have to admit, this work was slightly less sexy than the visual identity piece, but equally as important, if not more important. In addition to our vision and mission statement, which we crafted here with Big Duck, every word carefully selected and really vetted, we also created a boilerplate, elevator pitch. Most importantly, key messages for different audiences. If we’re talking to teachers, here are the key messages we want to hit home. If we’re talking to students, those key messages are slightly different, so we identified what those were. If we were talking to funders, what are the key messages? We’ve used that message structure to guide all of our text.
I believe that if you were to examine our materials in an exercise similar to what you saw earlier in the webinar, is that even in the absence of color and design you would know that it’s the same organization. It’s the same language, it’s the same tone, and even though it might be slightly different for different audiences, it really reinforces the same overarching messages. What does that look like in real life?
We had to bring this positioning statement, personality messaging, all to life. We started internally. We needed our staff to live and breathe our brand, which I mentioned earlier. We started by creating brand postcards for everyone’s desk. In fact, this is a real photo from my actual desk and this is a quick visual reminder. Whether you’re an administrative assistant answering the phones, a graphic designer designing a document or a presentation, or a communications director who’s drafting marketing materials or social media posts, you never forget what our personality traits are, or our elevator pitch, our basic language is right there in front of you.
I would say that that’s one of the most critical pieces of the work is really starting internally to have staff really become the brand. You might leverage different aspects of your personality at different moments, so if you’re in front of a group of students, you might want to be really fresh and charismatic. If you’re in front of a funder, you might really bring out that expert personality trait.
As staff embodying these traits, even if personally they aren’t you, when you come to work and you’re at your desk and you’re representing the organization out in the field, you are these personality traits for everyone that interacts with you. Once we had staff internally on board, we did role playing where we did practice phone calls around how you might talk about the organization and embody these personality characteristics. We moved externally to our network of folks who are currently using the FEA brand.
We also talked about why the change mattered. We did focus groups with students and teachers. It was a lot of work but it was worth it ten times over. In fact, that’s how we learned how not to use some of the logos, like I joked previously about don’t talk about “get higher” at all with high school students. Focus groups helped us learn that, they were really honest with us, gave us great feedback and then we were able to take their quotes and comments and use them in our messages.
When we messaged out to our broader audience using the brand, we were able to highlight quotes from students, from teachers in the network who were talking about why they were excited about this change, why they felt like Educators Rising did better represent them. It was worth it to do that extra work of focus groups to get those quotes and stories. This picture here on your screen is actually a picture of a toolkit that we sent out during the official rollout. A cover letter from Dan, my co-director, and me talking about why the big transition, FAQ with voices from the field, to their pull out quotes throughout that document from students and teachers. We gave them information on how to talk about it, a postcard with the mission and vision that they can hang up at their desk. We put stickers in here that they can pass around and we also shared webinar dates.
Once the rollout happened, we held “what’s next” webinars with our network so that they could log on and give us feedback, talk to real people about what some of their concerns were. Also, what they were excited about or what questions they had. We provided them, too, with explicit timelines of when everything was happening so they didn’t feel caught off-guard by all of this. I’ll just highlight one of those documents to show a little bit about how we started bringing the brand to life for our network. We knew that in doing a major name change like this, we wanted to inspire, we wanted people to lead people with a carrot, not beat them there with a stick. We knew that one of the main concerns, what am I losing in this change? We wanted to very clearly show you’re losing very few things and you’re getting all of this good stuff. You’re keeping a lot of the stuff you love, what’s staying, plus you’re getting all of these new things and just a taste of what we’re building toward in the future. This was a really helpful document that always took people’s anxiety down really quickly because they got to see in a fresh, charismatic but also expert way what they were gaining out of this transition.
We took this work one step further to actually create tone guides, so yes, we had our personality characteristics, yes, we had our messaging, but what does that really sound like? We created tone guides for each of our major audiences, so let’s say we’re talking to teacher leaders. What’s the relationship we really want to portray? We’re their peer mentors, teacher leaders need to look to us as providing all the resources they need to lead these courses in high schools. We wanted to really put ourselves in their shoes, how do teacher leaders feel? They’re super busy, they need information really quickly, they might be skeptical of this big change so we need to reinforce the power of the organization. They might be unsure but interested, so we put ourselves in their shoes and then we said, “Okay, well, then how do we want to come across if we know that’s how they feel?” We’re super responsive, we’re knowledgeable, we’re eager to help and then even provided a good writing sample. If we know all of these things about how they feel, how we want to come across, our personality, our positioning, what does a good writing sample look like?
The reason we did this is, again, to create consistency across the whole organization, so anybody who comes into our organization now, even if we contract with someone to do some writing for us, we can provide them with our brandraising guide and we can also provide them with these tone guides that we developed and they can immediately jump in on our behalf and begin writing in a way that’s consistent with who we are as an organization.
Here’s our website. Again, really staying very true to the brand in terms of the visual identity. This also informed all of our merchandise design, so when we were thinking about high school students and creating T-shirts and sweatshirts for them, how to really, again, stay tight to our visual identity but also our personality. You can see we even created a T-shirt with just the badge on it, you can see how that looks like it almost is a skateboarding company. That’s what students even said to us. In the bottom right, you can see those are stickers that we created. Stickers are cheap, so print thousands and thousands of them and give them out everywhere you go. People love it and it’s, again, a way to reinforce your brand.
Brand personality also informs all of our social media posts. Here you can see some of our Instagram posts where we provide quotes, we feature young people. We know that Instagram, in particular, is a primary way to communicate with young people so when we’re thinking about our brand characteristics on Instagram, we definitely go more for that fresh, charismatic piece than experts. When we’re on Twitter, we actually go the more expert route because we know that a lot of our national partners and potential funders use Twitter as a way to curate news and information about other organizations, so it’s interesting how we leverage different personality traits, depending even on what social media platform we’re on and to the target audiences there.
Then, just one more picture to show a little bit about how we keep the brand alive. This photo is actually just from last month. We had one of our semi-annual team meetings where we bring in remote workers from around the country and we know, Dan, my colleague, and I, even as leaders at an internal meeting like this, we need to be the brand. While we’re expert and very clear in terms of what our goals are for the meeting and the hard work that needs to get done as we strategize and prepare for the next year, we also are fresh and charismatic and fun so that we can have our team feel the brand.
Want to see more examples of how we bring brand personality to life? Take a look at these case studies of strong brands we’ve developed for nonprofit organizations.