More a Movement than an Agency?

I finished Harvard marketing guru Youngme Moon’s superb book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd” and relegated it to a remote corner of my bookshelf so that I could move on to new subject matter.  Try as I might, though, I can’t seem to get her arguments out of my head.

She raises an issue every bit as critical to public-sector entities as it is to private-sector enterprises: How do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors — in our case, the legions of other agencies that line up each year for a dwindling share of the state and federal revenue pies?

Equally important, how do we do this in an era when “gub’mint agency,” especially in my deep-red state, engenders, shall way say, a host of negative connotations among many voters?

Our success in the future will depend on how well we differentiate our message from others.   Essentially it all boils down to whether we depict our message as special enough to merit special attention, if that makes any sense.

Here’s one idea that keeps bouncing around in my head: Long before passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which established a formal tie with the nation’s land-grant universities and that secured our funding streams, we functioned as a mass movement. This movement grew out of the agriculture societies of the late 18th century , though it was expanded to encompass other facets of life, including what was then known as homemaking.

Indeed, farmers were undertaking Extension-type outreach efforts decades before anyone even thought of developing land-grant institutions as a means of providing formal agricultural and mechanical training to common folk.  (For a deeper perspective on this issue, see my earlier piece “Of Cow Colleges and British Dominions.)

Arguably, we still function as a movement, providing lots of people with a sense of self-mastery and purpose aside from measurable economic benefits.  Indeed, Master Gardeners, which I consider to be one of the most successful Extension innovations in our long history, strikes me as a prime example of the many ways in which we still incorporate characteristics of a social movement.

Oh, and don’t forget 4-H, which enjoys even stronger movement credentials than its parent organization.

As bestselling author Dan Pink stresses in several of his books, these more intangible values are what drive growing numbers of better educated, more affluent Americans in the 21st century.

Indeed, I would argue that because we possess strong movement roots, we depart significantly from many other government agencies.  In many respects, we bear many of the hallmarks of a NGO (non-governmental organization) and in ways that other government entities don’t.

Incidentally, these insights were reinforced a couple of weeks ago reflecting on an interview with an elderly Extension volunteer, who related her memories in a ways that evoked an affiliation with a movement far more than with a government agency.

That raises the question: Could we benefit by reviving some of these long dormant traits and emphasizing them in future marketing/branding efforts?

To be sure, emphasizing our strong roots as a movement is fraught with challenges.  For starters, we run the risk of adding an extra layer of nebulousness to an image that is, well, already murky in the minds of legions of Americans.

Even so, I think there are historical factors that do make us unique and that do have the potential of helping us differentiate ourselves from others.

It’s a topic worthy of discussion.

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