Talking Heads – Amber Waite, Head of STAHS

Case studies, Projects

MCC is pleased to present Talking Heads: a new series where we meet heads of independent schools to talk about their experience with branding.

In this first edition we’re talking with Amber Waite, Head of STAHS. Amber discusses how most schools are “a little bit afraid of being too different”, how nailing their identity now “drives every decision that we make”, and offers sound advice to other heads that “even if all you know is what you don’t want… that’s a really good starting place”.

Full transcript

I think that schools in general are a little bit afraid of being too different, and I think that that is really evident in the branding, and I think it’s really down to each individual school to decide what they want to get across in their branding. So for a lot of schools, being safe, being a known quantity is actually a massive feature of the school. For STAHS, we wanted to break that mould.

I’m Amber Waite, I’m the head at St. Albans High School. St Albans is only a few miles north of London. Some of the very best schools in the country are within 10 miles of this school, so it’s uber competitive. It can be quite daunting for families, but it’s also a worry for us, because we have to identify the thing that sets us apart.

So when I arrived, the very first thing I wanted to do was update the website, because I found it unnavigable, and through starting the project of ‘we need a new website’, it became ever more apparent that the website is more than just a repository of information, that your website is your first visual identity for the school. And so we couldn’t just bring in a new website without looking at an entire marketing campaign to go along with it. We needed to get our branding right to help us nail down our identity so that then that identity could permeate the website. It drove the films that we created to put on our website, and now it drives every decision that we make. 

We keep going back to what are we saying to people when they look at our website? What are the first thoughts that they have? When they come to our open day and see all of our banners, what does that say?

When we first embarked on the whole brand journey, my biggest worry was that I was just going down a path that I’ve seen so many schools trod down, which is one where you end up with a really off the shelf product. 

I think that quite a lot of schools you can take their branding and their strap lines and put them to any other school and it wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, and I was quite keen that we didn’t go down that route. 

So I was a little bit nervous that we would end up falling down that rabbit hole and end up with, with a really uninspiring brand, because I’d never seen a really inspiring school brand. 

I was really clear with what I didn’t want, even though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, and I think that even if that’s all you’ve got, even if all you know is what you don’t want, I think that that is a really good starting place. 

The brand that I inherited to me was entirely devoid of personality. It was quite stuffy. The colours were really garish nineties, and nothing spoke to the girls that are in my corridors, so I did think that the branding was perfunctory. It served a purpose in that we needed something on our headers. But beyond that, I felt like not a lot of thought was put into the branding. 

If you don’t have a pulled together campaign for your branding, it just makes you look disorganised. So what parents see with our current campaign is they see consistency, they see what looks like an organised, well-oiled machine. Just the act of coordinating our look and feel on things like open day, the school looks so much slicker and people walk a little bit taller, the girls are really proud of the school, that sort of professionalism, that consistency, it makes them look like they’re a part of something much bigger and much more elite. 

Having a brand in place that I feel quite a lot of ownership of and that I’m really proud of, it does make me feel even more proud of the school that I’m Head at. I mean ultimately, the brand doesn’t change the school, the brand should reflect the school.

I’ve had lots of Heads of other schools say, by the way, love your new brand, and I think that’s a real testament to the fact that it is doing its job if other schools are sitting up and taking notice of it. But we’ve had super positive response and it does, it makes me feel really happy. I look at these things and I think, gosh, that looks really pro. So it absolutely has made me feel really proud of the school, and I really like the way our brand brings the whole school together. And everything from the letterhead that we use when I write letters to parents, to our programs for our concerts, everything having that sort of underlying connectivity, it just makes the whole school feel like we’re moving in the same direction.