The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, September 18, 2006

Minds hate to change

This article, from legendary marketer Jack Trout, reminds us of a basic principle of marketing: once someone owns a position in the mind of consumers, it’s all but futile to try to change it. And there are real lessons here for education reform advocates.

There are countless examples of owning a position in the mind of the customer. Xerox means copiers; Western Union means telegrams. And when you try to change a position, either changing your own position or someone else’s, you’ll find that people don’t change their minds so easily.

Once people have decided that Volvo means safe cars, for example, it’s nearly impossible to get them to consider Volvos as sports cars (even if Volvo did a complete rebranding with a new product line). It’s also nearly impossible for another car company to supplant that safe car position, even if they do in fact create a car twice as safe as Volvo. Once someone owns a position in the mind, in other words, it’s there for good.

Trout writes:

When the market makes up its mind about a product, there's no changing that mind. As the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said: "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

And he goes on to say:

So my advice to you marketing experts out there? If your assignment is to change people's minds, don't accept the assignment.

What are the implications for education reform advocates? For starters, consider the history of education over the past 25 years, from the alarm bells of A Nation At Risk to the intended impact of the release of school performance data courtesy of NCLB. Then consider this from the Phi Delta Kappa poll on public education:

  • In 1974, 48% of the public gave schools in the community a grade of A or B. In 2006, the percentage awarding local schools an A or a B is 49%.
  • In 1994, 66% of parents gave the school their oldest child attends a grade of A or B. This year’s figure is 64%.

When faced with information that conflicts with their view of local schools, they disregard the information in favor of maintaining their currently held beliefs. Rather than use data from NCLB to realize that their local school isn’t performing satisfactorily, they see the law as flawed – and those invested in the status quo are only too happy to help perpetuate this view.

So what to do? The answer is in another one of Trout’s rules of positioning: if someone occupies a position, provide an alternative with a different position. In other words, create differentiation.

Three possible approaches for education reform advocates:

  • Work outside the system: open alternative schools – private, charter, etc. – and position them in a way that public schools can’t compete with. Just as Sears cannot compete with boutique stores in targeted product areas, public schools, which have to be all things to all people, cannot compete against targeted programs like private schools (which position themselves for an elite audience) or KIPP schools (which position themselves for low-SES markets).
  • Work within the system: if you want reform, don’t attack poor performers; the attack will be dismissed by those who have already bought in to the position of the local schools. Instead, highlight stories of successes in the system in the areas you care about, holding those up as examples of what the system can accomplish.
  • Change the audience: People tend to put products into positions in the absence of greater information – in other words, it’s not always the best product in a position, but the first one who claimed that position, or the one most able to speak the loudest/most frequently about it (Beta, for example, is a better product than VHS, but VHS owns the "videotape" category). If you educate the audience – give them the facts instead of just assertions/impressions – they can make better judgments and decisions. One of the reasons that many parents dismiss the results of NCLB in favor of their continued support of schools is that they don’t know enough about NCLB: according to the Phi Delta Kappa survey, 50% of parents with children in school know “very little” or “nothing at all” about NCLB.

There are people working in each of these areas; it will be fascinating to watch and report on their successes.


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