18 February 2014

Beware the label

Last week's news was filled with Michael Gove's big aspiration: to make schools in the state sector indistinguishable from those in the fee-paying independent sector.

Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, or your views on Mr Gove himself (and he is nothing if not an inspirer of strong reactions), it was an interesting pitch. The shorthand label he chose to describe his picture of an 'excellent state school' was 'a state school just like a private school.' He opted to present the vision not on the basis of the specific benefits of a good school, but in terms of how much it could be made to look like something it was not.

There were echoes of VW Gold advertisement from a few years back, where the wistful car shoppers were told by a hearty salesman, "Look, it sounds just like a Golf." The implied message being: an imitation is never as good as the real thing. The alternative hatchback just didn't make the Golf grade.

Mr Gove's choice of shorthand meant he missed an opportunity to spell out clearly the benefits of the vision he was trying to sell. And he made the assumption that everyone listening would agree that 'looking like a private school' was always good thing. Arguably a communications mistake on both counts.

It's something worth thinking about whenever we are trying to get ideas across, for ourselves, for our clients. It's worth going back to basics and asking who we are talking to, whether we've spent time listening to what they really want to know, and making sure we are as clear as we can be about the benefits we are offering.

Using labels and shortcuts is a risk. After all, that 'Farmers Market' sign might say delicious organic vegetables to one of us, just as much as it says over priced, pretentious produce to the other. Unless you are confident that your proposition is as solid as a Golf's, it might be better to really spell out the positives.