Thinking strategy? Think big

September is a busy time of year for many of us in the industry, and the Association of Language Travel Organisations (ALTO) got their members off to a sharp start this autumn via their leadership event held recently in London.

This one-day workshop was mainly led by management coach Paul O’Kelly, who has been working with Verne Harnish of the executive coaching firm Gazelles Inc. for almost a decade. Gazelles “provides executive education, coaching and technology services to help companies around the world build and execute a strategic plan.”

In today’s article, we’ll share a few of the insights from the ALTO workshop as well as weave in complementary concepts from other sources on strategy in today’s business environment. Throughout the article, we will consider concepts in the context of international education.

From the 4 “P’s” to the 4 “E’s”

Mr O’Kelly kicked off the ALTO workshop with a review of Ogilvy’s “4 E’s” – a new marketing framework the agency has been championing since 2009. This framework considers that the traditional marketing mix of Product, Price, Place, and Promotion – i.e., get these all right and your brand is set to go – is no longer relevant. Instead, Ogilvy argues for a new set of letters, the 4 E’s – Experience, Exchange, Everyplace, and Evangelism – which much better reflect the dynamism of the marketplace for most industries today, including international education.

In essence:

  • Experience as a replacement for Product: Because of the hyper-speed at which consumers now act and thus businesses now operate and adjust, it’s not enough to think solely about product features, the focus of days gone by. Ogilvy recommends that businesses find out all they can about the “Customer Journey,” which includes elements such as how customers generally shop in the overall business category, who influences their purchases, how and when these purchases are made, and what happens post-purchase. Without answers to these questions, Ogilvy argues that businesses cannot know how to focus their marketing effort.
  • Everyplace as a replacement for Place: Consumers create their own paths to finding products and services today; they no longer just go to a retail store. So Ogilvy recommends “intercepting” them on their turf – at times they are likely to respond – with helpful prompts (tied to the product or service) that they will be likely to appreciate. As an example, Ogilvy created a virtual digital assistant who lives in mobile phones for an Asian liquor company. This assistant helps users do everything from access promotions to get VIP reservations for hot events – while reinforcing the liquor brand itself.

When we think in international education terms, similar “intercept” services could include pre-departure tips, fun facts about the institution and/or city, discounts to recreational opportunities, etc. – depending on the point in the conversion cycle the prospective student is.

  • Exchange vs. Price: Price is but one consideration for consumers today. Given the multiple paths to purchase and overwhelming variety of offerings the consumer now faces, marketers need to understand that there is huge value in a consumer’s merely giving a brand “their attention, their engagement, and their permission” – and that people now expect to be rewarded, fairly immediately, for such things. Ogilvy provides the example of a campaign they did to raise money for HIV-positive African mothers and babies: people who donated at a trade show saw a previous display of a crying baby change to one with a happy smile.

For international education recruiters, activities to reward might include downloading an application, submitting it, meeting deadlines, or in the case of alumni, referring another person to the institution. Rewards might be discounts, campus merchandise, the sending of a 5-minute video featuring a satisfied student, etc. Such a reward system urges the prospective student along the conversion path. Please see our article, “Play to win with game strategy in recruitment marketing” for more along these lines.

  • Evangelism vs. Promotion: Ogilvy notes that “marketing in a fragmented, multichannel world needs a powerful heart” – in other words, it needs to be driven by passion. Investing a brand with such passion requires an organisation-wide commitment to the essence of the brand as well as serious consideration of how this essence intercepts with the wider world (e.g., increased sense of environmentalism). Ogilvy calls the successful marriage of brand essence with overall zeitgeist the “Big Idea.”

They provide the example of the Dove beauty line. Dove acknowledged women’s often poor sense of self-esteem to create a new message that beauty is diverse and inner – that every woman can be beautiful once she allows herself to be. A powerful message, and one that has been appreciated by many women – the target audience.

The energy of brands imbued with a “Big Idea” makes them far more likely to be trusted and to energise the consumers they’re meant for. This energy is the kind most likely to be spread by consumers to their friends, via the web/social media and otherwise.

Institutions courting international students would be well-advised to develop a process for discovering – or reviewing – their “Big Idea” – to make sure it has that magic energy that will appeal to students.

Transient competitive advantage and the big goal

In the realm of new thinking about marketing, a recent Forbes article, “The 5 new rules that will change the way you run your business,” considers that the nature of competitive advantage is changing. According to the article, though finding a competitive advantage still matters – that is, finding an important brand differentiator that makes the brand distinct and valuable in the marketplace – it is now thought to be a “transient” (or temporary) occurrence rather than a more permanent one. Things move so fast in the marketplace – international education included – that companies and organisations need to assess and adapt their competitive advantages on a fairly frequent basis. The article attributes this idea to Rita Gunther McGrath, who has written a book called The end of competitive advantage: how to keep your strategy moving as fast as your business.

At the same time, to be so nimble requires an anchor. Without a solid, long-term strategy for a business, the frequent maneuvering a business must do to adapt its competitive advantage can end up being frenzied, disorganised, and most importantly, ineffective.

To this point, Mr O’Kelly argues that businesses should define their “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG). The BHAG is where a company would like to be in ten or twenty years. To discover this, it must answer three key questions:

  1. What is your company deeply passionate about?
  2. What can your company be the best in the world at?
  3. What drives your economic engine? In other words, where is the money actually made? Where can you generate profits?

One of the challenges around defining the BHAG is getting stakeholders to agree, especially in large organisations or those with large executive boards. To overcome this, Mr O’Kelly suggests asking staff what they think the strategy is, and what they think the brand promise is. Then, in group planning sessions, the most popular and convincing ideas can be teased out, so everyone can feel consulted but so that a promising strategy emerges at the end of the day.

Mr O’Kelly also recommends the inclusion, in planning sessions, of the question, “Why are you in business?” For example, Mr O’Kelly told attendees that Nike once defined their core purpose as follows: “Our job is to crush Adidas.” This competitive desire sat behind everything the company did; it became their core purpose.

Consider “arenas” of competition – and opportunity

The previously referenced Forbes article makes a good case for throwing out the idea that competition can be understood as occurring only within an industry. Instead, the environment influencing consumers’ purchases is often one populated by many industries. Some of these are competition: for example, a traditional university might lose students not only to other universities but to vocational schools offering lower tuition but more career-specific training. Or, it might not even be competing on an institutional level – it might well be competing against another country that is also working hard, via collective marketing efforts for example, to recruit international students.

But some industries commanding the attention of a brand’s target consumers are better understood as opportunities. Take the example of a university recruiting international students. These students are rarely interested only in the courses the university offers – they are often interested in such things as the beauty of the institution’s setting, the recreational possibilities available, and the perceptions of employers who might offer them jobs upon graduating. The institution would miss the extent of its marketing potential by not leveraging such advantages – even though they are owned by other companies. It would want to promote relevant businesses or organisations in its own materials, and ideally set up cooperative marketing efforts with them.

Forbes notes:

“Rita Gunther McGrath describes it as competing in ‘arenas’ rather than industries. Whatever you want to call it, industries no longer serve as viable strategic units. Competition – and opportunity for that matter – can come from anywhere.”

The old with the new

The ALTO workshop led by Paul O’Kelly combined the best of traditional marketing thinking with newer concepts:

  • The continuing need for Big Ideas and BHAGs to ground the strategic direction of businesses;
  • The new need to embrace fresh marketing ideas due mainly to the speedy, immediate, viral consequences of the Internet in the consumer marketplace.

The Forbes article we referenced above concludes with this assertion, which seems appropriate to end this article with as well:

“Most of all, strategy is becoming less about assets and capabilities and more about connections and access. It’s not so important what you have – or even what you know – but how you can forge networks of purpose which can adapt in real time.”

For more on this idea of adaptation and how to create flexible business strategies, please see the ICEF Monitor article by Woody Wade of Wade & Co called “Beyond forecasting: how to use scenario planning to map the future.



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