Is “Branding” a Dirty Word?

Branding.

This is one of the most passionately-debated concepts in the educational community.  There are opinions on both sides of the spectrum and everywhere in between.

Personally, I fall slightly left of middle, having come from the far right (anti-branding).  Sitting in on Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo‘s Branding session at EdCamp New Jersey in 2013, and further conversations with my friend Dr. Will, have changed my perspective, my career trajectory, and quite honestly, my life.

From these gentlemen, and Saturday from Joan on Twitter and Benita Gordon at EdCamp Arlington, I have learned that we are all branded, whether we like it or not.  It is up to us to take control of telling our story the way we want it to be told.

Saturday morning, I attended EdCamp Arlington.  As I was getting ready, I had a “showergem” moment, inspired tangentially by a Voxer conversation in the New UnitED Tech Voxer group.  I decided to use the opportunity to gain clarity on this issue, by bouncing ideas off of other educators in attendance.

Prior to arriving, I decided to throw the topic out on Twitter.  There, we had a rich discussion with Mr. C, Rob Patin, Joan, Mark Samberg, and Walt Sutterlin.  Ryan Jackson also shared a great thought on the topic.  In the EduMatch Voxer, group members also shared ideas.

At the edcamp, I put the topic up on the session board, and we brainstormed in Session Two.  Many great thoughts were shared by Tim Stahmer, Benita Gordon, Michelle Haseltine, Katharine Hale, Chris Gallaway, Gisella, Molly Toussant, Laurie Sullivan, and many, many more!  (Sorry to anyone I may have missed.)  These ideas really got my gears turning, and even more so when we discussed it further in New UnitED Tech.

I’ve been reflecting on branding since November 2013…I even blogged about my struggles with it once before.  Today’s great discussion has reaffirmed my stance that:

this isn’t about me.  It’s about networking and growing my PLN.  We are all in this together.  By increasing my PLN, I’m learning more and more…about more and more.  Then I can take this new knowledge and regurgitate it to other teachers who want to know more, like a mother bird feeding her young.  Or something.

Ok…this…but maybe not as yucky.  In the session, Michelle made a great point stating this, in a much less cringe-worthy way 🙂  Branding does help us connect, and as educators, we should not be afraid to put our own message out there.

As we discussed in the session, the media tends to cast our profession in a negative light, while ignoring many of the positives.  We rarely see stories of how much good happens within our collective four walls.  No, it’s not fair, but we can begin to change things when we put our stories out there, and uplift our students and colleagues publicly.  We have the power to do this.

After a full day of conversations, certain themes of the pros and cons of branding recurred:

Pros

  • Branding helps you tell your story the way you want it told.
  • The media generally portrays educators in a negative light.  Branding is an alternative from a grassroots level.
  • The ideal model of branding would be to promote a positive message while uplifting others.
  • We encourage students to build their brand responsibly, so we should lead by example.
  • If other people have the right to do/say what they want, and teachers are people, we should have the same rights de facto.
  • We need to share our stories to help each other learn through our successes and challenges.

Cons

  • Some people use branding to do the equivalent of yelling, “look at me!” (These tend to be the same people who demonstrate an unwillingness to collaborate, once people do look.)
  • It’s not about us, it’s about the ideas.

Most teachers I have met are modest.  We did not go into teaching for the fame or the fortune, so yelling “look at me” is generally not the case.  I’m not saying that it never happens, but generally, the opposite is true.  However, as I’ve said before, it’s imperative to share.  You’re only as strong as your PLN, and you make it stronger by sharing.

The number one factor I heard (and have even experienced) that makes teachers reluctant to brand ourselves, is the fear of being judged by others.  We don’t want to be misinterpreted or even associated with “look at me” behavior.  However, branding done right is not “look at me,” it’s “look at this awesome idea,” or “look at how amazing these students are,” or “look at this great work by _________.”

At our recent SXSW panel (Cori Coburn-Shiflett, Rafranz DavisShelly Sanchez Terrell, and me), the underlying sentiment was that women in edtech are each others’ greatest resource, and should also be each other’s support system.  This idea can, and should, be generalized to educators as a whole.  Ideally, when we brand ourselves, we acknowledge the value that we bring to the table, and use this strength to, in turn, empower others.

Verdict: No, branding is not a dirty word, as long as it’s coming from a place of cooperation and collaboration.

9 thoughts on “Is “Branding” a Dirty Word?

  1. Great post! I came to my current district after a 2.5 year tenure as an AP. I went back into the classroom, which was a tremendous challenge! After a few years of being visibly worn and unhappy, I decided that I needed to “rebrand” myself. Yes, it did require a few “look at me” campaigns, but I had to do something to showcase my natural talents in technology, and change the way people perceived me. Now, instead of being deemed as not the greatest fit as a classroom teacher at that time, I’m regarded as a knowledgeable ITF. So, when people think of me, they think technology. My brand. The way I want it.

    On another note, we must be aware that sometimes, anything we do well that is showcased may be viewed by others as “showing off.” Therefore, before we humble ourselves to death, we have to give ourselves permission to celebrate our accomplishments. None of us can live a judgement-free life. To live to escape judgement is unrealistic. I don’t allow naysayers to create my paths or ultimately, my destiny.

  2. Wow, Sarah, I didn’t realize how much I needed some balanced reasoning on this topic until now. It’s so easy to pile on with the anti-branding sentiment until you recognize that it is often launched by people who have already successfully ‘made their mark’ and are ready to move on. And they seem to put the message out there that individual branding is so passé.
    At the same time I recognize my own waffling on this issue. I think about how challenging it has been to dare to market myself as a leadership coach. Giving myself permission (thanks, Joan) to demonstrate what I can offer, to stand by my unique gifts and talents and make some of those known to more than family and friends has been a long journey and I am learning. Which is where your point about growing my PLN makes such a difference. I don’t have to do this alone. There is plenty of support, help, opportunity and community available if I just reach out and connect.
    You are a great role model in this and you have introduced to me so many others like Dr. Will and Jordan who have become special resources for me. Thanks to your article I can regularly ask myself How am I telling my story? And how does it support and add to the communities to which I belong? In this frame, branding is not the issue, integrity and authenticity are.

    1. Thanks so much, Sherri! Hahahahaha your second sentence cracked me up. You are so right, though. I especially appreciated what you said about not being in it alone. I appreciate you, and your fantastic ideas!

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