In late October, education policy and advocacy group iNACOL opened its annual conference with a bang. In an effort to coincide with a new, broader mission statement, CEO Susan Patrick announced the organization was dropping its acronymic moniker of more than a decade in favor of something more symbolic.
INACOL—the International North American Council for Online Learning—would henceforth be known as the Aurora Institute, a name taken from the Latin word for “dawn.” One reason for the shift? The organization wants to focus on other approaches to improve education, such as personalization, that go beyond online learning.
It’s not just like one email and change your website and you’re done
And in other ways, Patrick says, the name was holding them back.
“The name iNACOL was a persistent challenge,” she tells EdSurge. “People would ask how you say it, what it means, what it stands for.” The goal of the rechristening, she adds, was to find a name “that isn’t technical, that actually expresses the hope of a new dawn for every learner that we believe in.”
Of course iNACOL—ahem, the Aurora Institute—isn’t the first education organization to undergo a major rebrand in the past few years. ScriptED begat Code Nation. AltSchool became Altitude Learning. MindSpark was once Share Fair Nation. And earlier this year the Buck Institute for Education emerged from its chrysalis as PBLWorks.
These rebrands can be pricey, sometimes laborious affairs. MindSpark spent more than a year strategizing its rebrand and piloting its professional development. In the case of PBLWorks, a website refresh, legal fees and a swath of new swag helped run up a six-figure tab. But those organizations that commit to the process can look forward to reaching new audiences and even better engagement with existing ones.
“It’s not just like one email and change your website and you’re done,” says Bob Lenz, the CEO of PBLWorks, whose new name more clearly evokes its project-based learning mission. “You need a concerted campaign over at least the course of a year. Each month we’re rolling out something new. It’s getting people's attention and bringing new people back to our brand.“
For Lenz, despite a 30-year history the Buck Institute name was simply not descriptive enough. Adding to the trouble, it invited confusion with a sister agency that focused on aging research. An attempt to shorten the institute’s name to BIE fell flat when it was mistaken at a conference for the Bureau of Indian Education.
In a move characteristic of his organization’s ethos, PBLWorks took what Lenz calls an “inquiry approach” to the rebranding effort, hiring a new director of marketing and communications. Focus groups revealed that although Buck had a high brand value, many stakeholders reacted poorly to the term “institute,” assigning it a stodgy, slow-to-change vibe. “That really wasn’t who we saw ourselves as being,” Lenz says. Furthermore, “people who didn’t know our work had no idea what we did.”
The rebrand at mindSpark, on the other hand, was intended to serve as a fresh start. Beginning life in 2007 as Share Fair Nation, a Morgridge Family Foundation-sponsored project to bring free professional development events to high school and college campuses, it had cultivated a reputation for high-quality presentations coupled with an exciting, but somewhat diverting atmosphere. Attendees were routinely stuffed with free food and plenty of flashy swag, including iPad and laptop giveaways.
But as the foundation began to consider its impact—namely whether teachers were actually using any of the professional development in their classrooms—it decided to transition to a model that required districts to have a bit more skin in the game, says mindSpark CEO Kellie Lauth. Thus Share Fair was spun out into a new nonprofit in 2017, to offer longer term, customizable professional development for a fee. “We’re not an event organization; we’re more of a consultancy shop,” Lauth explains.
During the early days of rebranding, the organization tried to simultaneously market a service around reserving and renting event spaces for education trainings it did not facilitate, called thinkSpace. “We quickly realized, within even a few months, that it was very confusing and there was some competing brand overlap,” says Lauth. Shortly after, her team killed off thinkSpace and folded it into mindSpark to prevent the illusion that it was competing with itself.
Like PBLWorks, mindSpark engaged in a monthslong effort to recast its image. The team grew to include educator consultants who helped strategize over the organization’s emerging “intellectual property,” or the professional development programming they would offer to districts. Lauth’s team also hired business consultants, poured over logo colors and fonts, and brainstormed potential name choices, which were submitted to attorneys to confirm they were available.
“It was a very laborious process, but I think something that’s very important to do,” Lauth says.
Adding to the cacophony was a chorus of stakeholders, including school leaders, who voiced their opinions on potential directions for the new organization. “In the beginning, you get a lot of people who want to sit at that table to give advice around the brand,” says Lauth. “Making sure people are heard around that is important, especially internally with employees and with people who might be really strongly tied to what you had before.”
If your organization behind the scenes isn’t healthy and thriving in the first place, a rebrand is not going to help
It was also a relatively inexpensive part of the process, Lauth says. However, mindSpark also invested heavily in public relations and brand awareness in an effort to keep up with larger groups offering similar services. All that’s to say, brand consultants and attorneys certainly cost money—but the process was important to Lauth to help protect what she calls her brand’s “integrity.”
At PBLWorks, splashing out on a new website was one of the larger upfront expenses. “That was definitely not cheap,” says Lenz, adding that the cost of a rebrand for a small to midsize organization would almost never run into seven figures. But some brands are simply more expensive than others. A few years ago, the math tutoring startup Zeal shelled out a six-figure sum to purchase its short, memorable domain name, according to its founder. (Another domain name contender was in the high five figures). The company has since been acquired and the domain is no longer active.
Considering the big commitment, Lauth suggests organizations deeply understand the “why” behind any potential rebrand, noting that it’s not always necessary, or even effective.
“We work with a lot of schools that want to do rebranding because they might be struggling or they’ve got a different direction they want to go in,” she says. “After we closely examine the ‘why’ behind it, sometimes it’s not necessary. They just need a different type of organizational development or a different type of vertical or offering that will take them further then a rebrand would.”
“You can put a new name and a shiny face on anything. But if your organization behind the scenes isn’t healthy and thriving in the first place, a rebrand is not going to help.”