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Maybe we didn't learn about the intricacies of metrics, subtleties of qualitative research or sensitivities of branding in high school. And we certainly didn't hone our marketing skills in the classroom.

But somewhere among high school's cliques, fads, teams, clubs, parties and camps, we lived and learned the basics of marketing in ways that apply now, more than ever, in our cluttered, time-starved lives.

What three things did we learn?

1. Everybody wants to be cool

At least in their own mind. From the concert T-shirts and hair styles we donned to the cars we chose (or were humiliated) to drive… we bought and did things that made us feel and look cool around our friends.

"Cool" and its slang derivatives continue to escape definition while remaining universally understood. It is a broad term, supported by numerous unrelated and contradictory translations.

It's a state of mind. It's a look and feel. Most importantly, it's internal more than it is external. As long as I felt cool, regardless how I actually looked from other perspectives, I was happy.

Remember how one certain individual in the school could launch a new cool trend? Had anyone else tried, he or she would have failed miserably. But the right product in the hands of the right person at the right time created magic.

And it still does.

Extra-credit question: Is your product or service cool in the mind of your customer? At least, is it cool relative to your competition?

2. Everybody wants to belong

In high school, most of us were part of a rich tradition and history, something bigger than we were individually. We had our hangouts and our groups of friends where everybody knew our name.

We bought and did things that expressed who we (and our friends) were. I still laugh out loud as I see packs of teenagers roaming the mall. It's as if they wear an assigned uniform. Each individual expresses uniqueness through variations on the same theme.

I remember the pop group Tears for Fears coming to our local arena. A couple of metal heads in gym class constantly made fun of the group with mocking renditions of their songs. I found out later that they went to the concert. Why? They would have probably said, "To pick up girls." I am betting they sought to be part of an "in" event.

Extra-credit question: Does your product or service give your customers a sense of belonging to something special?

3. Everybody wants to have fun

The classroom part of school wasn't the main event. The fun surfaced from the adventures. It was about the memories, or at least the potential for memories. It was about having a cool story to tell.

Football games. Dance clubs. Parties. The goal was always fun. I remember going to parties that became legendary throughout the school year.

Funny thing… the parties themselves were quite boring and tame. But the events and conversations took on a life of their own through subsequent retelling.

Why? Because even when we didn't have as much fun as we thought we should, we made fun up.

Extra-credit question: Does your product or service give people a story to tell? Is it fun in some way?

What do we know now?

In high school, we did things to feel cool, as long as it was an expression of the larger norm, and we had fun doing it.

Have we really changed? Google. Fast Company. Scrapbooking. jetBlue. Starbucks. iPod. Manolo Blahnik. Viagra…. Apparently not.

My sister was at a recent gathering of girlfriends. Throughout the evening, she noticed each woman said something like, "Just ignore me, I didn't take my Prozac today." For this group of women, Prozac is cool, "in" and fun to drop in a conversation.

Times change. Tastes change. But how we make purchasing decisions doesn't. You may be thinking that this doesn't apply to some of the more mature commodities, in which case people make decisions based upon reliability, service, price.

A hospital would be the last place one would consider cool, "in" or fun. Yet most regional hospitals struggle with perceptions that the Mayo Clinics of the country are the place to go for advanced treatment. And people travel to these national centers of excellence because of the reasons we've discussed.

Whether you're at a hospital trying to attract new patients or a company trying to selling more software, it doesn't hurt to reflect on those three lessons learned in high school about why you and I do what we do.

Maybe we should take time to build a little more cool, belonging and fun into our products and services.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Keith Jennings is director of planning and marketing for Hamilton Health Care System in Dalton, Georgia. He can be reached at kjennings@hhcs.org.


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