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An ELT Entrepreneur

Stories and anecdotes to help teachers, school owners and creators

April 14, 2009

An Introduction to Branding

In 2007 I was involved in the acquisition of a natural medicine university operating five campuses in cities across Australia. My business partner in the deal, John Feenie, had formerly headed the Asia Pacific operations of Phillip Morris and later Disney Consumer Products. John knows, and often speaks about the power of a well-developed global brand. Our strategy has been to revitalize the university’s brand, improve its key systems and structures, and expand into new channels and markets. On the plus side our school enjoys a 30-plus year reputation for excellence and it has more full-time students and offers more types of accredited health science diplomas and accredited bachelor of health sciences degrees than any other natural medicine university. On the minus side the former owner had let the facilities and infrastructure become run down, especially toward the end of his stewardship. My role, aside from capital and deal-making, has been to advise on the marketing and enrollment processes, the requisite technical systems, and the human resources that are required for solid growth (in a holistic sense) within the for-profit education environment.

Immediately following the acquisition, I found myself desperately wanting to learn more about the true meaning of clever phrases such as, “global brand development” and “capitalizing on our brand”. I wanted to introduce a logical framework that would lead to actionable and measurable tactics. It is fine to say, “People, we must enhance our brand”. What I wanted was a practical framework for the team go about it. The approach I patched together from my research can, I think, be effectively applied at almost any scale of human endeavor from an individual parent or teacher all the way up to a multi-national enterprise. I believe the do-it-yourself branding framework below can help anyone better define ‘what I stand for, and why I am uniquely destined for it.’ The benefit of having a formal branding statement is that decisions great and small will always be better when they are made in light of a clear understanding of exactly how the enterprise (or one’s own good self) benefits humankind.

It may help some readers to mentally replace the words “global brand” with “teacher” or “school operator”, and to replace the word “customer” with “student”. Just after the branding framework I have reprinted Lexxica’s concise brand statement as an example.

The Architecture of Global Branding
The foundation of every great global brand is a ‘message’ that penetrates through all cultural differences to touch upon universal human values and aspirations. Every great global brand addresses multiple layers of consciousness yet, in every case, the different layers exist primarily to fortify the foundation message and secondly to provide focus for marketing and operations.

The Foundation – Core Benefit
Top global brands present their core message as a human benefit and not a product or service attribute. At the foundation level we are looking to express a clear message about a powerful, universal human aspiration that is implicit with our brand’s offerings.

Level Two – Strategic Attribute
The second of the four layers is a clear strategic attribute; one that fully supports the foundation message. Think about it this way, without this particular attribute, the validity of our primary message might be questionable. As with the foundation message itself, the attribute we choose to focus on must be consistently applied in all markets where our brand operates.

Level Three – Functional Advantage
The third layer in our brand architecture describes our primary functional advantage. The functional advantage is what makes our strategic attribute possible. IMPORTANT NOTE: regardless of the actual infrastructure present in each market where we operate, we will reference the best locally available functional advantage in that market in order to support our global strategic attribute. Our foundation message and strategic attribute remain the same. The functional advantage layer is where we adjust for local realities.

Level Four – Unique Aspects
The uppermost of the four layers identifies one or more compelling aspects of the product or service that cannot be easily promoted by competitors. It may be our technical advantages or our long history or the high achievements of our constituents. Whatever unique aspects we select, they must work to support the three deeper layers and help set our brand apart from all others.

Remaining Consistent
Properly orchestrated, the four layers perform autonomously in each of our markets without being inconsistent. The brand names, logos and design elements must be the same; however the textual content and layout of our communications, whether in signage, advertising, brochures, or websites, may use idioms and imagery consistent with local cultural norms. Regardless of the freedom local managers will have to reference local metaphors and situations, our universal architecture framework will insure that our brand’s message remains consistent.


Lexxica’s Brand Statement

Foundation Core Benefit: People feel good because they gain an advantage by rapidly acquiring increased comprehension of important subjects.

Strategic Attribute: Lexxica’s V-Check test identifies precisely which words and facts a person knows about a subject, and which words and facts they don’t know. This allows the creation of personalized learning programs designed to rapidly increase subject comprehension for careers, academics and foreign languages.

Functional Advantage: Lexxica’s speed and accuracy result in unprecedented efficiency. No time is wasted on words and facts the learner already knows. The V-Admin system for teachers allows fast and accurate management of student progress.

Unique Aspects: Lexxica’s patented scientific processes are based on sound academic research and classroom teaching experience. Here is a summary checklist of the main aspects: Item difficulty calibration engine integrating IRT and Signal Detection Theory, corpus-based frequency and coverage metrics for all items in each subject domain, a spaced repetition system to promote long-term retention, a growing selection of online PC and mobile learning tools for students plus a paper worksheet/ quiz generator for teachers, automatic coaching and reminder emails.

Coming Next
In my next column I will review and discuss the important differences between marketing and sales (a.k.a. enrollments). If you don’t know the difference you are probably wasting time, money and opportunity!

March 10, 2009

An Introduction to Opportunities

How to look for them and what to do if you find one

Hello my name is Guy Cihi. Perhaps we’ve met at a recent ETJ or JALT event or maybe you’ve known me for many years. Either way I look forward to sharing some of my experiences and adventures as an ELT entrepreneur. I hope you’ll find something useful here; a nugget you can apply to your own ELT story. I look forward to your comments and questions. To get things started on the right foot let me begin by saying that while I am a hardworking man, I also know that I have been a very lucky one too. I am eternally grateful for that.

I came to Japan in March 1985 as vice president of marketing for a newly formed venture called Learning Technologies. I borrowed $10,000 from my father to buy stock in the fledgling company. Other than that I had about -$6,000 in credit card debt to my name. I flew in on JAL with my new business partner, Herb Scheidel. We arrived at dusk and rode to Tokyo in his new ‘Benz’. I’d always thought of them as Mercedes. What did I know? Not much apparently. I was 27 and I remember thinking how good it felt to be riding in those leather seats. It snowed the next morning and I don’t mean a light dusting - it was six inches deep in Tokyo. The hotel manager said it was rare thing; an auspicious sign. Herb took me for a ‘welcome to Japan’ lunch at Nadaman in the New Otani. Our table looked out over beautiful snow covered boughs, painted bridges, waterfalls and stone walkways. The New Otani’s immaculate garden is breathtaking on any day. It was magical on that particular day. Within four years our company was dominating in Children’s English and my stock was worth several million dollars. I paid my father back for the loan and, although he never asked, I paid him back for my college education too.

Before coming to Japan I worked as an industrial designer at several top design and marketing research firms in New York, Connecticut and Atlanta. I was pretty good at it. By age 24, two of my designs were selected for the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog. The first was a nifty socket wrench set for Litton Industries and the second was a beautiful, compact garden hose and reel for the Toro Company. The lessons I learned in my early career have helped me to be a successful entrepreneur. The dean at my design engineering school, a wise old rascal named Bob Redmond taught me that the first step in any good design process is to correctly identify the problem. When you think about it, you’ll see that the best designers, entrepreneurs and teachers, the really successful ones, have correctly identified and solved an underlying problem of profound magnitude.

I began my design career at a firm called King Casey Designs for Marketing in New Canaan, Connecticut. The founder, Eugene Casey, introduced me to a really clever approach. Every design program started with interviews to discuss existing competitive offerings. If we were working on snow blowers for the Toro Company, for example, we would interview people who purchase and use snow blowers. We would also interview people who make and sell snow blowers. Only after making a careful effort to understand the human / machine psychological interface would we start working on improved designs. The next step was to draw sketches and make working prototypes to take back to the consumers and salespeople for feedback. The finished designs that we produced for our clients were always the ones that the consumers and salespeople had said they preferred most. It sounds like a fairly obvious approach right? You would be shocked to discover that most design shops just wing it and work from creative intuition. The same goes for many would be entrepreneurs. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! I wonder if there any language schools and teachers out there just winging it? Nah!

At age 24 I left Connecticut to join a design firm in Atlanta, Georgia. It was there I got my first little taste of culture shock. One of the designers asked me if I knew the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee. A Yankee, he patiently explained, is a Northerner who comes down south for a visit. A damn Yankee is a Northerner who comes down south and doesn’t go back. I loved Atlanta! My work ranged from re-engineering blood dialysis machines for Abbott Laboratories to designing set-top cable TV boxes for Scientific Atlanta. Cable TV was just getting started in those days and the Clash had just released London Calling. The owner of the design firm, a good man named Jack Seay, taught me some words of wisdom that I think capture the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit. I smile whenever I think of him with his booming southern accent saying, “Guy, there’s no no such thing as a problem, just an opportunity waiting for a solution!” I have tried to live by those words.

The role of every good designer, every good entrepreneur and every good teacher is to search for problems that can actually be solved. Many good opportunities can be identified by dissecting what consumers and salespeople say, but it’s really quite difficult for people to pinpoint subconscious needs and concerns. It’s also next to impossible for people to imagine things that don’t yet exist. Sometimes it is easier to get people talking about things they don’t like, but dislikes are not opportunities, they’re only clues. You’ll have to methodically chip away at a subject to reveal the good opportunities. If you do succeed in identifying a juicy opportunity, be prepared to invest the money, time and effort necessary to make a sample or a working prototype of your solution. Without it, customers, investors and students will find it very hard to understand what you’re talking about.

Next time I’ll write a little more about my early days in Japan and what I learned then. I’ll also write about branding architecture and provide an example of it. I’ll wager that every teacher and school owner in Japan can materially benefit from thinking through and developing their own branding statement. It always helps to be clear about who you are and what you stand for in life.

Guy Cihi, CEO

March 09, 2009

Coming soon...

A discourse on the differences between marketing and sales and what to do to increase enrollments.

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