Monthly Archives: January 2010

Know Your Customer–Marketing 101

One of the principles of marketing is ‘know your customer.’  And if you watch television for about 15 minutes, you will clearly see that rule in operation.  Energy drink commercials are populated with cool young people doing things at a frenetic pace.  Incontinence pads are calmly discussed by white haired people sipping tea in the parlour.

It makes a lot of sense.  In fact, you have to ask yourself why this principle isn’t applied by more organisations. 

Government organizations in particular should take heed.  And in this case, I am thinking about the Ministry of Education.

The school year starts down here next week and a brand new primary school is opening up in response to the influx of people into a rather desirable part of the country.  There has been a lot of excitement about the new school.  First they had to build it from scratch. So, yes, it’s totally state of the art.  It will have 460 students when it’s fully operational and cost $17.3 million.  That’s $37,600 per kid.  I don’t know if that is high or low.

Then they had to hire teachers and support staff.  And through it all, you could track the progress on their web site which even included a web cam setup so you could watch construction in progress.  Plus on their web site they have a monthly newsletter that talks about all the fun things they are doing as they establish the school. 

And this is where I’m getting confused.

It might be a brand new school, but let’s face it, there doesn’t seem to be an urgent need to break new ground in terms of what will go on in this new building.  After all, the nice new building is going to be populated with kids who presumably have the same educational needs as their counterparts around the world.  But the people organising this school have decided to reinvent the whole concept of a primary school.

The school is in a part of the country that attracts a lot of tourists who do hiking and exploring and mountaineering and rugged sports.  And for some reason, the people organising the school think that the school should reflect that.

For example, this school will not have students.  It will have expeditioners.  Let me quote from one of their newsletters.  The pertinent section is titled “Join Our Learning Pathways to Reach the Summit:”

The students (expeditioners), with the help of their teachers (expedition leaders) and Board of Trustees (expedition planners) will select suitable and personally meaningful expedition goals.

I have to point out that the expeditioners in question are in the 5 to 7 year old age range.  So you have to wonder how much input they will have into the expedition goals.  But that’s what it says.  They  (the expeditioners) are going to do it “with the help of . . . “ 

I can hear little Dakota now, “But Simpson reruns are the only thing I find personally meaningful.  And you said I could have personally meaningful expedition goals!”

And are we really supposed to believe that the Board of Trustees, oh, excuse me, expedition planners, are going to get involved in the curriculum for each kid?

But that’s not all.

This school will not have classrooms.  It will have “learning pods” (although sometimes they are referred to as “teaching pods”).  And they don’t have numbers, they have names such as “Water,” “Sky,” and “Our Earth.” 

The article also said that areas of the campus such as meeting rooms would be called “caves,” “watering holes,” or “campfires.”

Although it looks as if the Principal will still be called the Principal, the school receptionist will have the title “Director of First Impressions.”

Usually when you hear about stuff like this (e.g., giving jobs fancy names, like garbage collectors being called “sanitation engineers) you don’t know if it’s really true or who the people who come up with these ideas are.

In this case we do. 

Do they mean well?  Absolutely.  They have noble goals.  It is very nice.  After all, reminding a receptionist that [he or she] is responsible for first impressions isn’t a bad idea.

But I think that they may have been carried away by their enthusiasm.  After all, at some point, no matter how different and unique this school may be, someone is going to have to tell little Tiffany that k-a-t does not spell “cat,” and little Dylan that 2 + 2 = 4.

And I’m not sure if it makes any difference if you do that in the Mother Earth Room or in room 102.  Which brings us back to my earlier observations about knowing your customer.

I decided to do a little market research of my own using the assumption that the students of a school are its customers.  I asked my nephews to stretch their imaginations to the breaking point and to pretend that they were going to design a brand new school.  No rules.  No limits.  Xtreme out of the box thinking.

At first I thought they had spent the summer at acting school and had perfected the “Blank Stare.”  They looked at me as if I were from outer space.

I cajoled them to put themselves in the shoes of the builders and teachers and administrators.  What would they want to see in a school.

I don’t know.  Maybe more computers.  A bigger gym.

Spongebob characters on the wall?

I could see we were getting nowhere, so I decided to, as the marketing people would say, drill down:  “Would you give the rooms names or numbers.”

Again, the Blank Stare.  I repeated the question.

Well, some rooms should have numbers and some should have names.

Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere, I thought.  Could you be more specific?

Well, the library should be called ‘the library,’ and the office should be called ‘the office.’  But classrooms should have numbers.

I was shocked.  Just numbers?  Not names?

No.  If they have names you can’t tell how to find them.  Numbers make it easy.  You know that the 100 rooms are on the first floor and the 200 rooms are on the second floor.  And that room 102 is next to room 103.  It makes sense.

Thus spake a nine year old.

And that’s the trouble, I realised:  “It makes sense.”  But I guess that when you are setting up a school and focused on how new and innovative and exciting and relevant you can make everything, you might forget that your raison d’être is not to climb mountains or retreat to the campfire, but rather to learn.

Call Me Irredeemably Uncool

This post is going to permanently earn me the title of ‘totally and irredeemably uncool old fart.’  But I am passionate about this.

I read an article recently about a big travel agency that has published a “bucket list” of travel experiences everyone “must have” by the time they reach the ripe old age of 30.

And they are offering deals to assist the more lemming-like among the under 30 crowd in achieving this noble goal.

They say:

Our Top 10 travel experiences are a must-do before you end up trying to relive your youth DJ-ing at your grandkids birthday parties, so get out there and tick off the Top 10 and make your grandkids proud!

Aside from the problems with grammar, I also have a few problems with their logic. 

Maybe it’s because I’m over 30, but I can’t for the life of me discern a causal link between the main points.  How does ticking off the Top 10 prevent one from trying to relive their youth by DJ-ing at the grandkids [sic] birthday parties?  How does DJ-ing at the grandkids [sic] birthday parties enable one to relive their youth? 

And how does ticking off the Top 10 ensure that the grandkids will in fact be proud?  Or will their reaction more likely be You pissed away my inheritance on a bucket list?  And speaking of my inheritance, when are you going to kick the bucket?

But that’s not even what’s most important.

It is the use of the terms “must-do” and “tick off.”

I’ve done a little travelling and I always thought that destinations should be chosen based in what I want to do.  “Must do” travel was when I had to get up at four in the morning on a winter’s day to fly to a meeting to scrape an angry client off the ceiling. 

What’s worse is that people, under 30 or otherwise, might actually believe that this really is a “must do” list.  That these are the things that define travel and life experiences.  That anything else you may do will pale in comparison and you will be unfriended right, left and center on Facebook and Twitter as a total loser unless you post pictures of yourself at those places.

So much for individuality.

So what are these Top Ten destinations, I hear you asking. 

According to the list, you are “supposed” to be “party[ing] (all night) in Vegas.”  They included the parenthetical “all night,” just in case anyone was unsure about whether they would be living a truly full life if they only partied for part of the night 

And how does one “party” all night in Vegas?

Once you’ve finished that, you are supposed to do the Koh Phangan Full Moon Party in Thailand.  Being a totally and irredeemably uncool old fart, I had to Google that one.  KP is an island where on each full moon night they have a huge beach party.  With 1,000 of your closest friends.  I get the impression that the rest of the time it is a nice island resort.  One web site makes the puzzling observation:  “Come and enjoy the party and nature together.  You’ll be surprised that they can come together as naturally as the body and soul.” 

I’m glad someone mentioned nature.   The objective of the party, as far as I can tell, is to “rock and drink.”  That’s fine, but why burn a lot of fossil fuel and generate a lot of carbon to fly to Thailand when you can rock and drink at home?

Then you have to “Party in Rio de Janeiro.”

Not to belabour a point, but let’s project this out a few years.  Let’s say you are a Gen Y who has dutifully ticked off all the items on the bucket list.  You are bouncing your grandchild on your knee.  He or she is proud of you for having done the bucket list.  At least that’s what you expect because that’s what you’ve been told.  I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Grandma and Grandpa, tell me about the Koh Phangan Full Moon Party you went to!

Mmm, that was a long time ago.  It’s a little hazy.  About all I remember is that’s where I got this tattoo on my shoulder.  When it was up here it looked like a dragon.  Grandma got her belly button pierced there, too.  No, you can’t see it.  Neither can she.

About the only things on the list that might make someone think about humanity and culture are “Visit the pyramids in Egypt,” and “Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.”  But just between you and me, the only thing you think about while hiking the Inca Trail is not falling to your death. 

And as far as I can tell, the only reason they have included the Pyramids is because you can get a cool picture of yourself taken on a camel and you can post it on Facebook and show your friends that you are living a full life.  Plus there’s a McDonalds and KFC right across the street so it’s not like you’ll be inconvenienced. 

My second objection is to the term “tick off.”

You don’t go to “experience,” “learn,” or “become immersed in.”  Your objective is to “tick off” the items on the list. 

That idea really ticks me off.

I’ve seen a lot of tick off tourists lately.  If you watch them in action you get the impression that their objective is not to be there and enjoy themselves.  The objective is to sail through everything as quickly as possible, take as many pictures as possible, find an internet café to post the pictures and, yes, tick the place off on their list.  Just three more countries and I’ll have the Western Hemisphere out of the way.

Now what do I do for the rest of my life?

A Sticky Situation

I promised I’d never do a rant.  So this technically isn’t a rant.

You know how everything you buy always has at least one sticker on it?  I’m not talking about price tags.  They are obsolete because of bar codes and that means you never really know how much you are going to pay until you get to the checkout.  I’m referring to the alarming range of other things stuck to the products you buy today.    

It’s not a problem if the object comes in a box or some sort of packaging which you can biff out.  But for some reason, a lot of manufacturers/retailers have decided to put stickers on the merchandise itself.

There are labels with the name of the manufacturer, warning labels, information labels and sometimes just strange things like different colored dots or symbols.

I assume all that information has meaning to someone somewhere, but to me, it is just stuff that has to be removed before I can use whatever it is I’ve bought.

Here is the non-rant:  There are two kinds of stickers:  those that peel off nicely and those that don’t.

It is with the ones that don’t peel off easily that we are concerned today.

There is also a rule associated with stickers:  The ease of removal of the sticker is inversely proportional to the importance/desirability of removing it.  This is a fancy way of saying that stickers on things like car batteries, garbage bins and tools peel off easily, neatly and cleanly. 

Stickers on cups and saucers, silverware, vases, and anything that your guests are likely to use are generally unremovable.

It used to be that soaking a sticker label with cooking oil would loosen it, but They have invented a new glue that is impervious even to that.  

Note the use of the word They.  Yes, it’s a conspiracy.

I don’t know if the manufacturers are just hoping for some extra free advertising because their product name will appear on the item into perpetuity, or if it is an alien plot to drive humanity crazy before they take over, but it can’t be accidental.  We know that easily removable stickers exist.  They can’t be that expensive because some of the easiest sticker labels to remove come on cheap products.

So why do fine china and fancy decorative items require stickers affixed with some sort of polar covalent bonding cement which practically requires nuclear fission to separate?

There ought to be a law mandating easily removable stickers on all products.  After all there are laws to protect the consumer from unsafe products.  Anyone remember lawn darts?

So if you can’t sell a dangerous product, why are companies allowed to affix stickers to innocuous products like salt shakers that can only be removed with toxic solvents and razor sharp surgical instruments.

That’s right.  The only way to remove stubborn stickers is by putting yourself at risk of brain damage from toxic fumes or exsanguination. 

We are buying lots of stuff for the farmhouse and as a result, I’m in label removal mode.  Allow me to present my latest handiwork. 

We bought this step stool to use in the kitchen.  To help reach things on high shelves.  We intend to leave it in a corner where it will be generally visible, but also, and this is important, readily available.  This is how it looks after being soaked for 24 hours in water, rubbed with, pretty much in this order, turpentine, paint thinner, vinegar, nail polish remover, window cleaner and various household dirt and grime removers.  Each chemical application was accompanied by gouging and scraping with, at first a putty knife and later a razor blade. 

I finally got it reasonably clean, but also somewhat gouged, after painting the remnants with cooking oil, letting it soak for half a day and then scraping the label and residual glue off one molecule at a time. 

What is interesting is that like all consumer products sold today, this one included a list of warnings about ways not to use the product because death or injury could result.  The list seems endless:

Do not use with wet shoes

Do not reach or stand on tip toe, you may lose your balance

Do not jump

Will not support more than 90 kg

Not for outdoor use

Children should be supervised by an adult

Do not use if cracked




Watch out for overhead power lines

Not to be used as a launching platform for the Flying Wallendas

But nowhere is there a sticker that warns you to be careful when scraping it off.  My bloodstains on the step stool proved almost as hard to get off as the labels!

The Dry Run

My 9 year old nephew got something called a ‘stunt kite’ for Christmas.

It is a really big kite with two strings that you manipulate to make the kite do, well, stunts.  The person who gave the gift claimed that they thought it was a good idea because with two strings, the two brothers could share and fly it together. A quick study of the kite, however, made it abundantly clear that flying the thing is totally beyond the skill level of the kids.  And the adults for that matter.  If Icarus had had one of these things, mythology would have been written differently.

Still, a sharable gift was a nice sentiment and it brought back memories of my childhood.  I am the middle of three, with an older sister and younger brother and if there is a single incident that defined the concept of sharing among us, it had to be the Dry Run.

One summer evening, my father came home from work with a “surprise” for us.  I was too small to read the box, but it looked very, very exciting.  It was the size of an elongated cigar box, jet black with a yellow and red airplane that looked as if it were going to fly right off the surface of the box.  The plane was trailing some magical substance that on closer inspection proved to be bubbles!  After dinner, we all gathered around the kitchen table to watch my father assemble this wonderful toy.

It was an amazing invention and I wonder why they don’t still make them.  The airplane body was yellow plastic and the wings were red and white checked cardboard.  There was a string attached to one of the wings so that you could swing the plane around and make it fly. 

But that wasn’t the magic of it. 

On the front of the plane was a propeller with an oversized plastic cowling.  The cowling was actually a vessel in which you put soapy water.  The propeller turned a little device that dipped a ring into the soapy water.  This had the effect of producing bubbles as the plane flew.  And guess what?  The faster the plane flew, the more bubbles you got.

We were beside ourselves with anticipation of the maiden voyage.  The rules of patriarchy demanded that my father do the first test flight.  After that, we had to adhere to the strict Darwinian rules by which my childhood was defined. 

My sister was at the top of the food chain.  If we had been reared in a jungle, she would have been a lion.  I would have been a hyena, scavenging for the scraps of parental largesse, and my younger brother would have been some sort of invertebrate, dimly aware of larger life forms and subsisting on their leftovers.  We lined up according to rank, waiting for our turns.

My father explained that such a complex device needed to be tested before being deemed battle (or in this case, child) ready.  Therefore, the first flight, which he would pilot, would be a “dry run.”  There would be no soap suds on board.  The absence of bubbles would enable us to observe the operation of the mechanism and the plane’s flight characteristics in order to identify any potential design flaws and correct them before the presumably more risky flight with a payload was undertaken. 

My brother and I exchanged (although we didn’t know that’s what they were at the time) knowing glances.  We’d seen this behaviour before.  Could we please just fly the plane?


The plane passed the dry run test and we anxiously awaited the true maiden voyage, which again my father would pilot.  It was so good!  The plane flew so realistically and we couldn’t believe the sheer volume of bubbles.  We loved it.

My father summoned my sister into the middle of the driveway and gave her a final briefing.  She flew the plane–not as expertly perhaps–but there was still a satisfying contrail of bubbles filling the sky around us.

Then it was my turn.  It was much better flying than just watching.  I was actually in control.  I could change the volume of bubbles by increasing or decreasing speed.  I could make the plane go high and low.  Until something went wrong.  No more bubbles!  What’s wrong?  Did I break it?  My father intervened, pointing out to us what our under developed frontal lobes hadn’t led us to expect—we had run out of bubble solution.

My brother, the youngest, was also the most even tempered and reasonable.  Early on he had reconciled himself to his position in the family taxonomy and usually demonstrated an almost saintly patience while waiting for my sister and I to take our rightful turns before him.  But the sudden cessation of the bubbles was too much for him.  The fun was over and he hadn’t had his share.

My father hastened to assure him that all was well.  He would be the next to fly the wonder plane.  All we needed to do was get more soap and we’d be airborne again in no time. 

And that’s when the seeds of tragedy were sown.  My father went into the house to secure some more soap solution and he left the plane out on the driveway.  With us. 

Of course there was no way my brother was going to touch it.  He hadn’t yet been told that he could.  I didn’t touch it either.  I’d like to make you think that I was actually honouring protocol—it wasn’t my turn and therefore I had no right to fly the plane again.  Or maybe I just figured there was no point flying it if there weren’t going to be any bubbles. 

But it was probably because my sister, demonstrating all of her leonine proclivities, pounced on the plane the minute my father’s back was turned.  In no time she was flying it. 

Without clearance or adult supervision. 

My brother, sensing that the forms were not being followed, began meekly importuning.  “But it’s my turn.”  He was wasting his breath.  My sister’s logic was that because there was no bubble soap in the plane, her hijacking did not constitute an actual turn. 

“It’s a dry run!” she informed my brother.

The louder my brother protested, the more crazed my sister became.  Her antiphonal response to his calm and reasonable, albeit repetitive, charge of “But it’s my turn,” was an increasingly shrill cry “It’s a dry run!!”  Her emotional state began to affect her piloting and the plane began to perform erratically.  We wanted her to stop.  Maybe she wanted to stop.  But she couldn’t and the plane developed a mind of its own.  Maybe it had been taken over by some divine force whose purpose was to teach children to share, because with Solomon-like finality, the plane swooped to a new height, paused, stalled and torpedoed nose first into the concrete of the driveway. 

Silence fell.  Maybe my brother emitted a whimper, but if he did, it was scarcely audible.

When my father returned with more soap, he found a poignant montage.  We stood there surveying the wreckage.  The propeller was shattered.  With no propeller there could be no bubbles.  We looked hopefully at my father, who with sorrow or relief, I’m still not sure which, declared it beyond his skill to fix. 

I kept the plane for a while.  It still flew, but with no bubbles, it was hardly worth the effort.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to take the stunt kite for a dry run.  Wish me luck!