A Compelling Message & Vision

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Remember those alcohol education/awareness programs back in high school and college?  I remember two things about them.  The first was an overwhelming feeling that the people involved in the programs were frightfully disconnected from me.  The second was an amusing “beer goggle” activity designed to simulate a certain blood alcohol level.  It was memorable, but it didn’t change my behavior.

College campuses across the country struggle mightily with alcohol and drug abuse on campus, and their challenges remind me of an all important question.  “How does one create a message and offer a service that breaks through the clutter?”

The answers aren’t always obvious, but we can glean valuable insights from the process a university uses to face these challenges.

For starters, when you analyze university outreach efforts, you quickly realize just how critical it is to know your target market.  I’m not talking about “thinking” you know your audience.  I mean understanding them at a core level.  What are their fears, desires, frustrations?  What keeps them awake at night tossing and turning?   If college students are the target market in this scenario universities must understand them from a social, psychological, and developmental level or risk becoming irrelevant.

Consider, for a moment, this alcohol awareness ad campaign.

The campaign focuses on consequences in an effort to connect with their audience on an emotional level.  Will this work with college age students?  I doubt it!  In fact, I’d argue it does more harm than good.  It doesn’t take into account the fact that college students find these kind of messages controlling and insulting.

This is where understanding your market becomes critical to success.  When we examine college students in terms of their psychological development, we realize that independence is a critical element.  It’s an important factor in their identity formation as they struggle with integrating the person they hope to become with what society “expects” them to become.  When you consider these developmental challenges it’s easy to see why college students place such importance and value on anything that validates their  independence.  As a result, when you talk to them about consequences and offer mind numbing statistics, their guard goes up, and they feel misunderstood.

If we understand college students on this deeper level we might create a marketing message that looks something like this.

This ad engages students by speaking to the duplicity of big business.  If we did our research, we’d come to find that many of these beverage companies use manipulative tactics to get college students to drink their products (big surprise!).   They fund prevention programs, while at the same time hiring “shot girls” and offering Spring Break promotions.   They plaster sex filled marketing messages everywhere, believing the tie in with their product will play to the stereotypical hormone crazed 19-year old student.  Now that’s an interesting and genuine take on alcohol prevention!  You create emotional intrigue and follow it up with information and initiatives that help “fill the gaps”.

Take a moment and look at your business at a macro level.  Who is your target audience, and how are you communicating to them? Is your message compelling?  If you answer “yes”, stop…and dig deeper.



  1. Katherine Gordy Levine  February 15, 2011

    Thoughtful and on target. I think the D.A.R.E. and abstinence campaigns failed for the point your making. The Right to Life slogan got to love of children and almost every woman responded at a gut level.

    So how do therapists work past the American idea that therapy is a sign of weakness? I tried to do that by promoting emotional fitness, but wouldn’t say my efforts have been successful. Coaching seems to have made a bigger in road.

    An article that gets me thinking is worthy indeed. Thank you David.

    Staying strong.

  2. Katherine Gordy Levine  February 16, 2011

    Not seeing a coach has no stigma and that also plays a part. I try to do a lot of psycho-education in my coaching material and if I think someone needs a therapist more than coaching, ask the client to get an independent evaluation with a therapist to discuss my belief therapy is indicated. I rarely take on a coaching client as a therapy client for conflict of interest reasons. If the client goes into therapy and wants to continue coaching all my coaching notes go to the therapist. It is tricky, but I think essential.

    I also explain at the beginning that a coach often does many things that are similar to what a therapist does, but it is a time-limited and goal driven approach and as you point out deals with strengthening skills, not developing insight. I add if coaching isn’t working it may be a sign more is needed and the more might be talk therapy, medication, family therapy.

    Just some morning thoughts. Thank you again for this post.

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