Tag Archives: Youngme Moon

Extension’s Opportunity for Creative Sedition

Cirque Du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil is credited by many, including Harvard Business School's Youngme Moon, with reinventing the concept of circus.

In her brilliantly insightful book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon recalls the teacher’s advice regarding what she should send with her children on their first day of kindergarten: a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or toy — any familiar object that blunted the effects of the newness and uncertainty that awaited them.

This advice ended up serendipitously reinforcing what later provided to be a critical insight of her book.

During those occasional disruptive periods of life, we prefer the newness of our altered circumstances to be anchored as much as possible by familiarity — sameness — but in our day-to-day living, we like our monochrome sameness to be occasionally embellished by flashes of newness.

Indeed, Moon contends this passion for a sameness sporadically punctuated by eruptions of newness is an innate desire that defines the sum of human existence.

Therein lies a critical branding lesson: The most successful enterprises in the future will be those who produce the optimal amount of difference by  striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

I finished the last page of Moon’s book more convinced than ever that striking this balance will be the central preoccupation for public and private entities in the 21st century.

Extension will prove no exception — something of which I was reminded last night reading an especially incisive post on the Cooperative Extension System Facebook page.

As the poster observes, funding shortfalls are already forcing Extension to do more with less, namely less staff.  Sooner or later, these shortfalls, along with other social and economic factors, will force Extension to reevaluate what it does — or, more specifically, what it can and can no longer do. In other words, it will call for the formulation of a new organizational focus.

That raises the obvious question: What should that focus be?

For some, it’s a scary question.  For others, including yours truly, it’s a question that conceivably presents us with one of the greatest opportunities in our history — at least, if we view this challenge not as the severing of a limb but as an opportunity not only to redefine ourselves but also to differentiate ourselves in a meaningful and lasting way from our competitors.

As I see it, this challenge — redefining and differentiating ourselves — brings us back to what Moon perceives as the sum of human existence: striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

She cites a number of private companies that have risen to this challenge and succeeded spectacularly.  One especially noteworthy example is Cirque du Soleil.

As Moon and countless others contend, Cirque du Soleil has redefined the whole concept of circus.  As counterintuitive as it seems, they have succeeded by eliminating much of what has traditionally been associated with circuses — dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters — and substituting something entirely new, namely elements of dance, theater, music and gymnastics.

Among some critics, Cirque du Soleil, by eliminating the usual features of circuses, no longer qualifies as a circus.  But as Moon contends, that’s precisely the basis of Cirque du Soleil’s genius: there’s a certain “seditious advantage” in positioning oneself as a circus while venturing beyond stereotype.

I think the times present Cooperative Extension with a similar opportunity for sedition — creative sedition — an opportunity to position itself within the category of government/university outreach agency while venturing beyond stereotype.

This raises the inevitable question: What form should this transformation take?

How much newness do we introduce? How much sameness do we retain?

Here’s another way of considering it: What Extension versions of dance, theater, music and gymnastics will we employ to replace the dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters?

Rest assured that I’m formulating some answers to these questions that I’ll share in an upcoming post.

In-N-Out: Another Lesson for Extension

In-N-Out Logo

Lessons for Cooperative Extension? Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon credits In-N-Out Burgers as one of the nation's most successful reverse brands.

What could the expansion of a West Coast burger chain into Texas possibly have to do with the future of Cooperative Extension?

In general terms, very little; in branding terms, possibly everything.

In-N-Out Burgers has mastered reverse-position branding like virtually nobody else’s business, says Harvard marketing expert Youngme Moon.

If reverse branding is a new term for you, think of Google, which Moon cites as the embodiment of this concept.  Before Google, the crowded textual landscape of Yahoo’s homepage was THE embarkation point for Web searches.

Google changed all that — and in a very unique and unexpected way. As Moon relates in her book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Google creators made a conscious decision to deliver the cleanest possible homepage, one free of the vast clutter that characterized the homepages of Yahoo and other search engines.

Google had determined to employ reverse position branding. They had undertaken a deliberate decision to withhold benefits that other competitors considered essential for survival.

So, one might ask, what differentiates reverse branding from run-of-mill stripped down, bare-boned discounters?

Extravagance, Moon says.  Reverse branders give something — some form of extravagance — even as they take away.  For its part, Google takes away a textually dense homepage but compensates with lightning fast searches.

In-N-Out Burgers employs a similar strategy — no Happy Meals, no children’s menus, no salads, no desserts — just a menu of only 6 items.

Yet, as legions of In-N-Out aficionados will attest, these six items, which have not changed in years, are special — extravagant. Each is made from scratch, using fresh ingredients.  In a dramatic break with common practice, customers can also request items off a secret menu, the contents of which have been revealed only through word of mouth.

It’s worked: Some In-N-Out enthusiasts eagerly confess to driving hundreds of miles for a taste.

Moon credits In-N-Out, along with a handful of other companies, with accomplishing something extraordinary: They have conditioned their customers into becoming active missionaries for their brand.

The brilliance behind reverse brands is its crystallizing effect, Moon says.

By eliminating all the extraneous stuff — in the case of In-N-Out, Happy Meals, Kids Meals, etc. — In-N-Out has cast new light on its fundamentals.

That’s what all successful reverse branders do, Moon says.

Is there a lesson here for Extension? Perhaps.

One key insight I gained from Moon’s book is that differentiation will be emerge as a critical branding consideration in the 21st century as consumers deal with a surfeit of messages of all types.

That raises the question: What can Extension do to differentiate itself from the rest of the competitive herd?

Are there advantages in reverse branding?  Could we derive some immense advantage for ourselves and for our clients by focusing on the fundamentals, those things we’ve done exceptionally well over the last century?

Of course, that raises another critical question: What are those fundamentals?

One facet of the book that especially piqued my interest was Moon’s treatment of the success In-N-Out and a handful of brands have had in enlisting their customers as active missionaries for their brand.

We’ve enjoyed an active commitment from our own clients, especially our volunteers — and most especially from our 4-H and Master Gardener alumni and volunteers — for decades.   They have been active missionaries for the Extension brand.

Incidentally, that brings me back to yet another issue I raised in an earlier piece about Moon’s book:  We began as a movement initially conceived and executed by volunteers — compared with other government entities, a unique legacy, to say the least.

How could this uniqueness contribute to future branding efforts? How could this uniqueness help us differentiate ourselves from others?

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.

Bringing a Sword to Brand

Reading this blog entry. which has to be one of the most succinct and insightful I’ve encountered in a long time, I was reminded of that controversial passage in the Gospel of Matthew (10:34): “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”

Fast Company’s William C. Taylor, discussing Youngme Moon’s splendid new book, Different, essentially contends that this is what companies, in terms of their branding, must do: not seek peace — peace of mind, in this case — but wield a sword.

This insight was driven home to him several years ago while attending a conference of unusually dolorous regional bank CEOs distraught over how desperately competitive credit markets had become.

Taylor relates how his initial sympathy for these executives was quickly dissipated after learning of the results of a study of frontline retail bank employees, roughly two-thirds of whom could offer no compelling reason why their bank should be chosen over their competitors.

The bank executives seemed unsurprised. I was stunned. How can the leaders of any company expect to perform the competition when their own people can’t explain what makes them different from the competition and better than they’ve been in the past? That’s the real problem with so many organizations today. It is also the huge opportunity for executives, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all stripes who are prepared to shake up their industries by doing something distinctive.

That, in fact, is one of the purposes of Moon’s book: to account for why most companies have failed to grasp that central fact.

For his part, Taylor serves up this Moon quote to demonstrate the costs companies have incurred from following this counterintuitive, me-too approach.

In category after category, companies have gotten so locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate — which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become… Products are no longer competing with each other; they are collapsing into each other in the minds of anyone who consumes them.

The solution: Idea brands, which Taylors aptly describes as “products and services whose performance and personality in the marketplace challenge the limits and assumptions of entire categories.”

Yes, I know, Extension is not a company but a public sector agency. Even so, I steadfastly contend that the Moon’s insights hold every bit as true for us.

As one state legislature after another has underscored in recent months, Extension is no longer a sacrosanct budget item.  As a matter of a fact, we’re being confronted with a question starkly similar to that posed to the frontline bank employees: What separates us from the scores of other agencies lined up for slices of the dwindling state and federal revenue pies?

Every chance I get, I tell younger Extension professionals that one of the best things they can do for their careers is to master the science of stickiness — to ensure that their messages, whatever these happen to be, stick in the minds of their clients and stakeholders.

Of course, what applies to us as individuals applies to Extension as a whole. In this age of austerity we have some serious ‘splainin’ to do. We’ve got to craft a message that sticks.

Sooner or later, this ‘splainin’ must be expressed a new brand, an idea brand, which will enable us to redefine ourselves within this radically new and challenging  environment.

What applies to private-sector companies applies to us: We no longer enjoy the luxury of peace-of-mind branding.

Yes, sooner or later, we must begin anew — and when we do, we should bring a sword.

Youngme Moon’s Anti-Creativity Checklist

Okay, I admit it: I’ve become an unrepentant member of the Youngme Moon fan club.

Watching this checklist, I was inevitably reminded of the struggles of a couple of close friends who are dealing with a similar collective mindset.

They are faculty members within a highly technical and applied field at a major U.S. land-grant university.  The outreach work they are undertaking on behalf of their department offers incalculable benefits to one of the fastest-growing segments of their state’s economy.  Their efforts already have garnered substantial private sector support and will undoubtedly set a benchmark for similar projects in other highly technical, applied disciplines throughout their university.  They’ve also developed a unique way to crowdsource their efforts.

The concept they’ve developed has the potential to place  their department and their institution on the political and economic radar in a way that comparatively few faculty members could conceive in the course of their careers.

Inexplicably, though, they have been stymied by other faculty members who have raised many of the same obstructive questions outlined by Moon. They steadfastly maintain that the department’s first priority should be keeping pace with their counterparts at other technological universities by enhancing the rigor of undergraduate and graduate admissions and teaching standards.

Therein lies the tragedy: As Moon would describe it, they’ve chosen to stick with the prevailing metrics rather than adopt behavior that has the real potential of distinguishing them in a uniquely different way.

There is a lesson here to Cooperative Extension professionals.  For a variety of reasons, our approach in the future must be creative – not only creative but also disruptive.

Thoughts on Youngme Moon

I’m reminded of the challenge of differentiating our message from scores of others at about this time of year when my colleagues and I meet to develop the  next annual report.

One issue is always in the forefront of my mind: Ensuring that the theme and subject matter are interesting enough to engage the active interest of state legislators.  Yes, it’s important that other clients and stakeholders see it, but legislators are at the top of the list.  They hold the principal purse strings.

Even so, I know how colossally difficult this is. I’ve spent a few days during legislative sessions walking through Statehouse corridors  watching legislators being buttonholed by one lobbyist or constituent after another, often plied with glossy publications of every shape and description.

As hard as we try, I know that more often than not, the fruits of our creative efforts run the serious risk of being consigned to “File 13” along with all those other glossy publications.

My perennial concern: presenting this report in a way that distinguishes it from every other similar product.

Small wonder why I’m captivated by Harvard marketing guru Youngme Moon’s new book, “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Succeeding in a World Where Conformity Reigns but Exceptions Rule.” I try and limit book purchases to a couple a month and happen to be seriously backlogged this month, but, alas, I couldn’t resist a book with that captivating a title.

Here’s the big problem as she sees it: Corporate marketing is operating on the basis of a highly antiquated strategic model.  It prompts businesses to conform to their competitors’ branding rather than explore ways to separate their product from the hundreds, if not thousands, of similar products.  The end result is a gradual homogenization of products.

One of the more notorious examples: college ranking systems, which work to dissuade universities from experimenting with new models of pedagogy that will not likely reflect well in the metrics.

Moon’s purpose for writing the book is to start a dialogue rather than to offer hard and fast solutions.  Needless to say, there are major implications for Cooperative Extension — otherwise, I wouldn’t have taken the time to post this.