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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Distinct or Extinct?

Distinct or Extinct?

One of my favorite authors is Tom Peters. His work has had an enduring and powerful influence on me as a leader of learners. I am indebted to people like Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Peter Drucker, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, Chip and Dan Heath, and Warren Bennis (members of my personal Business Authors Hall of Fame) for their great ideas and thought provoking concepts. The title of this Blog entry originated with a thought provoking phrase I extracted from a series of power-point slides in a presentation Tom Peters supplied on-line
Sit down tonight and review what you’ve experienced during the day. Focus on the choices you made. Not just the critical decisions, but all of the selections you made throughout the day. For instance, what you wear, what you chose for breakfast, what channel to watch or listen to, what Internet sites to visit… You will soon enough discover that there isn’t enough time to list everything. And, certainly there is not sufficient time to identify all of the options available to you at each juncture of decision making. Furthermore, the Internet sites are nearly inexhaustible, television channels extend beyond 100, and most of the opportunities we casually evaluate before casting a choice include a wide range of selections. For instance, ordering a cup of coffee anymore is a five minute process involving countless options - What flavor coffee? Decaf or regular? Large, medium or small? Cream and sugar?

We live in an environment that grows more personalized or customized each day. From shopping on-line and designing the merchandise of our desire (selecting color, specific size…) to confronting targeted advertisements generated on the basis of what we choose to view on the Internet (i.e. ebay or Amazon recommendations evolving from prior shopping experiences) to the food establishment that encourages to make your own salad or sundae, we exist in a differentiated market of ideas, services and products.
Advertisers speak about the clutter of “noise” they must penetrate in order for their message to receive notice from consumers. With so many different mediums in a fiercely competitive marketplace, attracting attention is difficult. Long gone are the days of television programming confined to the three major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS). So too, are the morning and/or afternoon editions of the local newspaper. And, we can now add education to that list reflecting the bygone days when public schools enjoyed a near monopoly on the provision of learning experiences for children between the ages of 5 and 18, and brick and mortar colleges were the lone avenue to explore for those seeking higher education.
Charter schools and home-schooling (the fastest growing alternative to public schools according to data from the federal department of education) continue to contribute, along with private and parochial schools, to a decrease in enrollment in public schools across the country. Virtual schools providing a menu of learning experiences on-line have attracted learners at the secondary level and even more dramatically in the area of higher education.

What can public schools do to thwart further enrollement erosion and avoid becoming extinct, while soliciting support of taxpayers for sustainability? Start by asking constituent members to identify three words that describe the school. Then, analyze the accumulated list of responses and discover which words are mentioned most frequently. that will reveal the perceptions of those associated with the school. Now, ask yourself, does the list of the three most commonly used words to describe the school match your perceptions? If not, there are mixed signals, or the school's trying to do too much or be everything to all people.

Think of advertising techniques. Think of a product or service (i.e. cadillac, Apple...) and observe their advertising to see how they emphasize a few certain qualities or characteristics. The company is attempting to direct your attention and asscoiation with their "brand."

They can seek to differenitate themselves from competitors through clarity (manage meaning and focus on purpose) marketing (articulate the mission in a concise and precise fashion)

Here are excerpts several books that I have found to serve as valuable resources regarding differentiation and developing and sustaining a company’s brand, points that address the distinct or extinct issue.
From Leading People by Robert Rosen
When thinking about accomplishing a goal or fulfilling a mission, go back to these four issues to clear away the clutter: need, credibility, unique contribution, and member interest.

From Good to Great by Jim Collins
The good-to-great leaders were able to strip away so much noise and clutter and just focus on the few things that would have the greatest impact. See through complexity and discern underlying patterns – focus on what is essential and ignore the rest.

From Kellogg on Branding by the Marketing Faculty of the Kellogg School of Management
CLUTTER: To stand out, brands need to be focused and unique; great brands mean something distinct for customers. Customers are bombarded every day by hundreds of advertisements and promotions. This is why brand positioning is so important. Almost every great brand has a clear set of associations.
A brand’s positioning articulates the goal that a consumer will achieve by using the brand and explains why it is superior to other means of accomplishing this goal.
Brand Positioning
1.         target customers - in terms of some type of identifying characteristics, such as demographics and psychographics (activities, interests, opinions).
2.         develop a frame of reference – a statement of the target’s goal that will be served by consuming the brand. There are two general categories – frames depicted in terms of product features and frames that are represented by more abstract consumer’s goals.
3.         create a point of difference – assert why the brand is superior to alternatives in the frame of reference. Attributes, image, or attitude information provides a reason for believing the functional or emotional benefit. Emotional benefits shift the emphasis from the brand and its functions to the user and the feelings to be gained by using the brand. These benefits are related to enduring, basic human needs and desires.
4.         provide reasons to believe - supporting evidence for claims related to the frame of reference and point of difference. This is more important when the claims are relatively abstract (credence claims) versus concrete (verifiable) because concrete claims often are their own reason to believe.

From A Crash Course in Marketing by David Bangs and Andi Axman

How do you take what appears to be a commodity and transform it into a specialty product or service? You start by knowing what makes your product or service different from other similar ones on the market - your  USP = Unique Selling Proposition.

See how you stack up against the competition when it comes to the following: the target market you serve, price, packaging, location, follow-up service, convenience, guarantees, benefits you advertise, and so on.
“We’re not in the education business. We’re in the transformation business. We expect everyone who participates in a program – whether it’s for three days or two years – to be transformed by the experience.” John A. Quelch, Dean – London School of Business.

Your business’ mission statement should answer these questions: Who are your most important customers? What are your products or services? What is your market area? What values are important to your business? What is your business really good at? What are your special concerns for your employees?

What problems does the service/product help solve? People buy solutions to problems.
Another way to understand your product/service is in terms of customer needs it fulfills. These needs fall into two broad categories: unmet needs and perceived needs. It is easy to sell aspirin to someone who has a headache. It’s somewhat more difficult to sell life insurance to a twenty two year old bachelor.

If you can describe your product or service in terms that reveal a need your customer can identify as important, your chances of making a sale go way up.
Perceived needs are more useful to you than any possible feature because perceived needs are what people buy. Or why they buy.

Recognize that people don’t buy products and services. They buy solutions to their problems, satisfactions of their wants and needs.

In differentiating your product/service from the competition – tout the benefits of your product/service – not its features.

You don’t buy coal/oil/natural gas – you buy heat;
You don’t buy circus tickets – you buy thrills;
You don’t buy paper – you buy the news;
You don't buy glasses - you buy vision.

Our school aspires to be perceived and valued as a small school with BIG ideas. As such, we seek to accentuate what branding experts and marketers describe as a “unique selling proposition.” That is, we try to capitalize on our small size to leverage relationships as a foundation that supports our meaning and purpose. Operating on that platform, we then generate growth in programs, people and practice - despite the threat posed by the economy or increased state standards and acocuntability measures. This requires creativity, new perspectives, and determined goal orietnation and commitment. We pursue opportunities to expand possibilities for our learners, equipping them with the means and assistance to invent their futures in spite of uncertain times, follow their dreams while contending with reality, and sustain their hopes while confronting obstacles. To that degree, we recently announced some new opportunities (see copy of the latest newsletter below in italics) designed to ensure that we will be more distinct and less likely to become extinct (as in educationally or financially insolvent, or subjected to an unwanted merger or consolidation, or a decline in our customer base...) These programs are routinely listed in the instructional menus of larger schools that function on a diffeent scale of economy, but for an impoverished K-12 school of 320 learners (approximately 60% are eligible for free or reduced meals), it's a struggle to extend these same opportunities to disctinguish us from other school districts, especially small school districts, serving similar clients.

It may be summer but we are still busy at school, already preparing for the upcoming 2013-14 school year. We are excited about the expanded opportunities available for our high school learners. Despite the continued economic problems we face, we exercised creativity in scheduling and developed a partnership with Hudson Valley Community College to increase possibilities for our learners without burdening the budget. We are committed to remain a small school with BIG ideas.
High school schedules will be available for pick-up from Tuesday August 27th through Friday August 30th between 8:00 and 2:30 in the Guidance Counselor’s office. This will allow learners time to review their schedules and make any adjustments in classes.
First, Hudson Valley Community College has approved several different semester long classes that will be offered at Heatly for college credit. This high school and college partnership allows learners at Heatly to acquire college credit while also meeting graduation requirements. Learners eligible for the free or reduced lunch program will not have to pay for the credits. Those learners who are not eligible for the free or reduced lunch program will pay $50.00 per credit for each class. That’s a bargain compared to what currently enrolled learners at HVCC pay per credit. There is no fee required for learners who want to take these classes without receiving college credit – in other words, like any other traditional class.
Second, our Virtual High School program continues for a third year of operation. This program began with a generous donation from a benefactor of public school education when I began working here. He provided the district with a check and encouraged me to “plant seeds of learning in Green Island.” After evaluating our needs it was determined that we needed to grow opportunities at the secondary level in an effective and cost efficient manner. There are over 150 different courses to choose from on a vast instructional menu offered on-line. Each class is taught on-line by a certified teacher. In addition, our own staff are made available to supervise the program and supply assistance to the learners taking VHS classes. This year we will have learners taking Meteorology, Anatomy and Physiology, and many more classes. This is a great opportunity for our learners to experience classes that are otherwise not provided by small high schools due to financial and staffing restrictions.
Third, we will be introducing a School-to-Work program that prepares learners for the world of work through classes involving resume development, creation of cover letters, completing applications, interview techniques, and much more. In addition, there will be internships that seek to match the interests of learners with appropriate work places in the area.
Fourth, we are introducing a new course at the secondary level that involves elements of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The course is called STEM Fuse. It is a semester long class that engages learners with project based learning experiences leading to developing working games.
Fifth, this will be our second year of providing Math instruction at the elementary grade level for those learners who qualify for Academic Intervention Services on the basis of their performance on state tests in Math. Prior to last year we lacked the capacity to provide direct instruction to those in need of supplemental support in Math in the elementary grades.
Future programming plans involve exploring the possibility of providing universal pre-kindergarten beginning with the 2014-15 school year. Such a proposal is dependent on our ability to secure funding through grants and the availability of sufficient space. 
We’re working on it.

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