The Nose: While cowboys brand cattle, Tacoma schools rebrand themselves

Staff writerJuly 17, 2014 

Product rebranding is a strange and vaguely superstitious ritual, like voodoo.

It’s the magic potion that smoothed the wrinkles of Colonel Sanders’ face on your bucket of fried chicken. It’s the mystical veil that covered the naked chest of the Starbucks mermaid on your cup of coffee. It’s the mysterious eraser that removed “Tacoma” from The News Tribune on your daily newspaper.

Some folks think rebranding campaigns are done with smoke and mirrors, lipstick and pigs. We always assumed they were limited to cars, colas, clothing and other commodities.

Tells you how little we know about the Madison Avenue game.

Turns out taxpayer-funded institutions are just as fiercely image-conscious as any for-profit company, and they try to reinvent themselves with the help of the Mad Men, too.

Take Tacoma Public Schools. Pierce County's largest school district paid $69,000 to a Tacoma ad agency last year to freshen up its brand, and has now won a national award for the effort.

Congratulations, voodoo masters.

Removing the gum: A Chicago-based public relations outfit called Ragan’s PR Daily recently handed out its 2014 awards. The top prize in the category of “Best Branding/Rebranding Campaign among Nonprofits” went to Tacoma Public Schools and its hired gun, JayRay Ads & PR. (JayRay applied for the award; a school district spokesman said he didn’t know about it until after it won.)

So why was an image makeover necessary? JayRay said “a bad reputation stuck to the district like petrified chewing gum under a school desk.”

In a word, icky.

Ragan’s went even further: “The Tacoma Public Schools system had been suffering from low public esteem for years. The district faced one-sided newspaper reporting, its own academic underachievement, years of skimpy budgets, and its ‘clunky’ website.”

Golly. We bet it was the last one picked to play kickball at recess, too.

Then, abracadabra!: A Cinderella-style transformation took place. Logos were redesigned, letterhead and business cards revamped, strategic communication plans restrategized.

Tacoma Public Schools felt confident, invigorated and as fresh as a new stick of Juicy Fruit. It anointed itself the only innovative school district in Washington. It vowed to graduate at least 85 percent of students by 2020. And it passed a $500 million school bond measure by a record margin.

Along the way, the rebranders must’ve used voodoo dolls on the local newsies. “There was no negative publicity from media, civic leaders, or parents about TPS’ rebranding,” Ragan’s marveled. “TPS saw a shift in perceptions of the district, as evidenced by several supportive newspaper editorials.”

So apparently one-sided reporting is OK as long as it’s the good side.

Oh, yeah, the district was also credited with initiatives such as requiring all eighth-graders to take algebra and all high schoolers to take the SAT test.

The national PR company described these as internal rebranding measures.

Silly us. We thought they had something to do with educating kids.

The best thing about a rebranding campaign?: The narrative behind it doesn't have to be completely true.

To that end, we have some ideas for how Tacoma schools can put even more polish on their image. They should declare their intent to:

• Require all kindergartners to pass the state bar exam.

• Proclaim Superintendent Carla Santorno the most innovative person in the history of the world.

• Rename several campuses in honor of Seattle Seahawks, such as Russell Wilson High School and Richard Sherman Elementary School.

•  Distribute five golden tickets among high school diplomas, for a special insider tour of the Brown & Haley candy factory.

• Pack all chronic underachievers in bubble wrap and send them to Spokane.

• Buy the TNT from the McClatchy Company.

Frank talk about donuts: As Pierce County prepares to open its new Sheriff’s Department digs in Parkland later this summer, Councilman Jim McCune has identified the real reason deputies want to have a precinct out there.

“Have you tried the donut shop?” he teased Sheriff Paul Pastor at a council committee meeting Monday. “I heard it’s great!”

McCune didn’t name the place, but he didn’t have to. Frank’s Donuts & Muffins has sustained PLU students and other Parklandians for decades.

Pastor snapped back: “That is a cultural stereotype! We do not all eat donuts!”

The sheriff played it straight, but we think there was a hint of a smile peeking out of that legendary moustache.

And maybe a few maple bar crumbs.

From cop shop to pot shop: Speaking of precincts, the building that used to hold the Pierce County Sheriff’s Mountain Detachment, about three miles outside Eatonville, has a new occupant:

A medical marijuana establishment.

Thus, balance has been restored to Barney’s Corner. One tenant with the munchies for donuts will give way to another.

Got news for The Nose? Write to TheNose@thenewstribune.com. Twitter: @thenosetribune

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service