The other night, I attended a branding session for my school district. Yes, branding. A letter went out, addressed to school district "customers" — apparently not wanting to offend us by using outdated, totally unhip traditional names, e.g., parents and guardians, community members or moms and dads. Yikes. In this customer-directed letter, the process of branding was outlined. Which makes sense. Perhaps the school district's fancy marketing company feared we would think it was referring to branding our children the way some farmers do cows. Run, kids! Run for your lives! The hot poker with our newly designed, aesthetically pleasing and thematically relevant logo that embodies the perfect balance of inclusivity and being above everyone else is coming for you! Run! (Er, excuse me. I mean, "Run, junior customers!")
The letter explained that a new image and proper branding could take us to the next level — which, of course, anyone who has seen as many episodes of "Mad Men" as I have could totally understand. And we all saw how the world benefited when Nabisco decided to get rid of that totally creepy Cookie Man and let the deliciousness of Oreos speak for itself. That said, if Don Draper taught me anything, it's to be aware that marketing can be little more than lipstick on a pig. It works for Miss Piggy, but that's because she is a swine of substance. This was, perhaps, a different story.
My school district is seeking a new image because it has been plagued with problems — serious problems, including a sexual assault at a high school, racism and a shockingly high number of kids who do not meet the statewide expectations. We live in a very diverse area, and with that comes the challenge of catering to many different communities, cultures and incomes. The challenges are real and difficult and are far from an issue of improper branding.
The letter stated that the marketing company wanted our help in understanding the best parts of the school district so the company could highlight them in its new branding and positioning. I went to the meeting, but not to help create a motto. I went to the meeting to ask questions.
When I arrived, I was greeted by the highly paid fancy marketer from the big city. She welcomed us warmly and said she was excited to talk about the school district. Then she gave us all name stickers that wouldn't stick to our clothes and handed out pens and notepads, only to discover there weren't enough to go around. How wonderfully metaphorical.
I wanted to see why money was being spent on a marketing company rather than brainstorming to come up with solutions and financially supporting our teachers and administrators to enact these solutions. Remember when it came out that Taco Bell's beef was about 1 percent real meat and 99 percent some weird combo of alien brains, soccer balls and SpongeBob? I was super glad when Taco Bell committed to spending money on making its beef at least mostly cow instead of simply changing its bell logo to a mesmerizing spiral that would suck you in and hypnotize you into thinking that alien soccer sponge is all the rage. I told the marketer that I wanted to ensure that the aspects of our district that we highlighted would be catered to and fostered by new policies.
The marketer looked confused. "Branding and strategic policy aren't in competition," she said. I replied: "No, they shouldn't be in competition. They should be working together, informing each other. You shouldn't just be gathering the thoughts of parents to learn how to sell us something that isn't working. You should hear us and change policies in areas that we think need improvement and then sell us on the fact that you're actually making changes toward what we want."
The nice lady from the big city decided to stop writing down the things I had to say after that. How ironic when the No. 1 issue most parents brought up was that they feel unheard.
For the next 90 minutes, we spoke of the things we love about our school district, of which there are many. And we spoke about what we would love to see. At the end of the meeting, the marketer asked, "What is one word you would like to define your district?"
A parent said, "Community, not customers."
She wrote down just "community." It's a start.
Katiedid Langrock is author of the book "Stop Farting in the Pyramids," available at http://www.creators.com/books/stop-farting-in-the-pyramids. Like Katiedid Langrock on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/katiedidhumor. To find out more about her and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.