Guest post by Karen McPhee

Shhh…the product is talking now!

In his book Design Like Apple, corporate design guru John Edson lays out seven principles he believes led Apple to greatness and cemented Steve Jobs’ destiny as a messianic genius. While the book is certainly worth reading, its third chapter is particularly enlightening for school communications leaders.

Guest Author Karen McPhee

Guest Author Karen McPhee

The title of that chapter wraps up current marketing theory in five simple words: the product is the marketing. My colleague Julie Gillespie, a marketing maverick in her own right, has always preached it this way: you can’t hang it in the window if it’s not for sale in the store.

Edson offers compelling evidence that the customer has become sophisticated (and perhaps cynical) enough to see through any false promises made in advertising.

The near demise of the domestic auto industry supports Edson’s point. In the 1980’s, the Big Three believed their loyal customers would overlook their declining quality and the increasingly fuel efficient foreign cars. Their advertising boasted great rides: fast, stylish, and economical. But in reality, the cars were falling apart as they were driven off the showroom floors. (I know what I’m talking about here. I bought a K-car in 1982. How fast can you say “please pass me the lemon law?”)

The folks in Detroit were hanging a lot of stuff in the window…but it certainly wasn’t reflective of what the customer found in the store.  An entire industry almost tanked because it didn’t understand this shift in marketing nuance. Celebrity testimonials, slick ads, and hollow promises were no match for the customer’s actual experience with the product.

Fast forward 30 years and not only are customers now willing to ignore a company’s claims in deference to their own experience, but they can spread “the truth” like wild fire in our viral, Twitter-fed world.

Own it. Say it. Have the courage to put it out there.

So what does that mean for school communicators?  Simply this: you can’t claim you’re doing right by every student because you know you’re not. The temptation is there. As our critics illuminate our failures, we want desperately to fight back and claim our success. Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middle. And that’s where the marketing must start.
Say what?  Acknowledge our short comings? Well, we’re not fooling anyone anyhow. People’s experience with our schools (rather directly with their children or through the latest ranking of test scores in the local paper) is tempered with a reality that is not always to our liking…and certainly not always positive. So we have to own it. Yes, OWN it. SAY it. Have the courage to put it out there.

There’s power in stating your challenges before someone else does. As a superintendent, I almost always open with a disclaimer now: “Well, you know, like every industry, we have to lot to work on. While it’s true that most students are doing really, really well in our system, we won’t be happy until we can say that for every student. So let me share some ways that we’re tackling that challenge….”jamesnash2

I don’t argue about the validity of high stakes tests. I don’t argue that most of our children can read. I don’t argue about the impact of poverty and our sometimes futile attempt to overcome a glaring lack of resources. What I “hang in the window” are the efforts, large and small, that are designed to improve our students’ success…no matter what.

That relentless effort to improve is “for sale” in my store. What’s for sale in yours?

Photos by the author & James Nash