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?