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Case Study: Marketing Sustainable Education

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

By: John R. Talbott

The school I attend, the Presidio Graduate School (PGS), finds itself at a strategic crossroads. When the school was founded eight years ago, the driving need was to teach sustainability to business leaders. Convinced that benevolent companies could exist and prosper, industry leaders like Dick Gray joined together to form a superior school to spread the word. The school has been successful - so successful that Stanford, Berkeley, Dominican and other local schools are in the game now. But success brings challenges. With the established universities entering the market, why would anyone want to be part of PGS?

The new President and CEO of the Presidio Graduate School, William Shutkin, has better minds than mine working on that question, so I would like to illustrate how this challenge is an opportunity for the school and a lesson to help all of us who care about sustainability to improve our marketing.

Had PGS positioned itself as a leader in sustainability education, the school would have found that sustainability is a bad product category to own. The point of sustainability is that we want every business school to teach it and every business to practice it. We don’t want anybody to differentiate on how sustainable they are. We want sustainability to be everyone's starting point.

Even worse, the school would have no reason to exist once the more established schools entered the category. It is a great temptation to try to position a new product around sustainability, but sustainability is a product category, not a market need. When you create your position, you need to create it for the market, not for the product. If you do build it for the product, you will be in trouble when the market moves on to another category or the category gets filled with better suppliers.

Wisely, PGS focused on a certain group of people who don’t mind the cutting edge nature of a startup school, who are attracted to charting their own course, and most importantly, who want to find a community of shared values. This group doesn’t want to go to the established schools because that’s not their people (full disclosure: I’m a Stanford graduate and I enjoy my friends from there. I chose PGS because it offers something different.) When sustainability is a given at every university, people attracted to PGS are the ones who will be pushing forward to the next thing. Since the school positioned itself to serve this group, it can change to meet their needs. It won't be locked into an old, tired product category.

How do you know if you’ve picked a product category rather than a market need for your positioning? Look at your strategic plan and observe what you think are your competitive differentiators and what are your fit-ins. Look honestly and clearly at yourself and ask if your market cares about your differentiators. If the market doesn’t care, you shouldn’t either. In the case of PGS, being a leader in sustainability education is not nearly as important as building a community of leaders who will lead the world in sustainability. Is the distinction subtle? I don’t think so. If you look at the school materials, you’ll see that you are being invited to join a community, not acquire a new skill. Sustainability education is already a crowded category, but the original vision of building profitable, benevolent companies is as needed today as it was eight years ago. PGS has a clear market opportunity; the school just has to change with its community, not re-invent itself.

If we fall into the trap of trying to position our products as benevolent, we’ll find a ready market. The emerging “new consumer” category is relatively large and it likes those messages, but when our product becomes mildly successful, a more efficient competitor will almost always enter the market and smash us or buy us. Sometimes, that works out well, but for those who want to build long-term companies, learn from PGS. Be a leader for a group of people. Figure out what their needs are and where they're going. Build your company so it can keep serving that market even as its needs change.

John R. Talbott enjoys learning about sustainability leadership at the Presidio Graduate School.

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