Thuan Nguyen Of AVID: Five Things You Need To Build A Trusted And Beloved Brand

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Insist on great experiences for anyone interacting with your brand. Every interaction matters. You build your brand not by what you say but by what people experience. AVID is an experiential brand and we pride ourselves on the experiences people have. Successful teams, successful projects, and successful organizations are not without problems or an absence of conflict. What is important for a company or organization’s brand is how we show up to address those conflicts. When we get to the other side of a problem will we still like each other, trust each other, and be willing to dig deeper into our next problem? This is what determines if we will be successful or not as an organization in getting people to know and trust our brand.

As a part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Thuan Nguyen.

Thuan Nguyen is the incoming AVID CEO. He officially steps into his role in April 2022. Mr. Nguyen first joined AVID as Executive Vice President in 2016 and was since promoted to Chief Operating Officer and then to President and Chief Operating Officer.

Mr. Nguyen, who immigrated from Vietnam to the United States at eight years old as a refugee, credits public education and devoted educators for transforming his and his family’s lives. His drive is to create opportunities for all students to dream big and create their own paths to succeed and thrive.

He is responsible for implementing AVID’s strategy, which includes furthering its mission of closing the opportunity gap and preparing all students for college, and career, accelerating the scalability of AVID as a schoolwide and districtwide system, developing student-centric technologies to enhance and sustain the student experience in AVID, and determining how AVID can best serve urban districts.

At AVID, Mr. Nguyen has been instrumental in launching more resources for educators over the past four years than at any time in AVID’s history, creating AVID’s public service for educators, and navigating the organization through the pandemic. During Mr. Nguyen’s tenure, more than 3,200 schools have partnered with AVID Center, increasing the number of students served by more than 1.5 million.

Mr. Nguyen brings to AVID more than 20 years of experience in education. He started as a student helper delivering mail after class for Washington State Kent School District. He eventually became the Assistant Superintendent/Chief Digital Strategy Officer, responsible for the overall success of the district’s information technology, communications and security policies, programs, and services. Mr. Nguyen has held executive roles in IT, instructional technology, safety and security, environmental services, communications, public relations, and building operations and served in interim executive roles in human resources, payroll, accounting, and finance.

Mr. Nguyen was named a Computerworld Honors Program Laureate in 2008, was selected as one of the National School Boards Association’s “20 to Watch” for 2008 and was named as one of the 100 most important people in education technology as part of Tech & Learning’s 30th anniversary celebration in 2010. He has also worked on two projects permanently archived in the research collection of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. In 2013, Mr. Nguyen’s work received recognition from The Center for Digital Education, The National School Public Relations Association, The One-to-One Institute, and Project RED for web technologies, branding and communication to the community, student technology, and a one-to-one project. His team also received the national CoSN Team Award and was recognized by the National School Board Association in 2014. In 2015, he was honored by the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) as the Outstanding Technology Leader of the Year.

In 2021, Mr. Nguyen became the 58th person in San Diego State University’s history to be awarded an honorary doctorate for his work in education. The first person to receive such an honor by SDSU was John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Nguyen currently serves on the board of International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am one of those very fortunate individuals that had incredible teachers. The person that I am today was greatly impacted by teachers that cared for me and saw potential in me that I didn’t even know was there. They sparked a love of learning and believed in me, and for that I will be forever grateful. To repay them, I want to do my part in ensuring that every student in every single classroom has the same opportunities that I did, but I am not gifted enough to be a teacher so I am paying it forward and doing whatever it is I possibly can to encourage and support educators — teachers, principals, district administrators.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Very early on in my career I was asked to help communicate a need for a new facility bond for a school district. We did posters, videos, flyers, listening and learning sessions with the district leadership and shared all kinds of financial, tax collection rates, and existing facility data. After months of work, the bond failed.

When we tried again, instead of only focusing on the traditional facts and data points, we showed the inside of one of the water pipes as an example of a project the Bond would fund. Half of the pipe was filled with iron, it was gross! And sharing that visual helped the community to visualize the need beyond the numbers. The bond passed overwhelmingly.

I still have the pipe in my office to serve as a reminder that we must communicate in ways that resonate and we must be creative in how we communicate if we want to reach everyone.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

AVID works. We have proven results that impact outcomes for students. More than 90% of our customers renew their contracts with us and invite us to keep working with them. That kind of retention is remarkable. Our net promoter scores are also very high, better than consumer brands like Google, BMW, etc. One reason for this is AVID builds incredible relationships with our customers and has created a passionate community of educators from across the country working tirelessly to close the opportunity gap that exists for far too many students. More than 40 years ago Mary Catherine Swanson, our founder, was a high school teacher who knew there was a need, that underserved students did not have the same opportunities because of inequities within the system. She exercised her educator agency and figured out how to close the opportunity gaps facing her students. She showed what’s possible. AVID stands out because genuinely care about public education and want all students to have opportunities. It’s not about hawking our product. We are a nonprofit and for us the work is a calling.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are resuming our face-to-face trainings this year after a two-year pause. Like so many companies, we had to pivot because of the pandemic. Prior to summer of 2020 the majority of our trainings were designed to be delivered face-to-face. The pandemic required that we find another way to train educators. We worked hard to create rich virtual trainings with terrific and timely content. Now we want to make sure that our face-to-face trainings are just as strong. We are aligning all of our trainings so that the content will be consistent regardless of how it is delivered. We are developing new products and services to help schools accelerate learning for all students and address the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are continuing to expand our public service offering and the free resources we create and curate for educators. We are also devoting more time to providing thought leadership in the education industry to help with emerging challenges.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Brand marketing is about winning people’s hearts and minds. It means that we deliver on what people want and expect from us. With more than 40 years, people have high expectations for us. The challenges schools face is real and when they turn to us to work with them, they expect to see results. We want to uphold our legacy, stay true to our mission, but continually stay relevant and improve. We cannot rest on our laurels and must continually win over the hearts and minds of new people. We try to personalize our brand. We are about making dreams come true for people and transforming people’s lives. That is by its very nature so inspiring and so filled with emotion. In our marketing, we try to get out of the way and let AVID students and AVID educators tell their stories. We change lives. We give students hope for a life filled with possibilities. That’s our brand.

Product marketing is communication — if you have people’s hearts and minds and they trust you, then product marketing is merely communicating information. It is helping customers identify what makes the most sense for them, given where they are in the journey. For example, we have developed resources supporting accelerating student learning because there were gaps, and continue to be gaps, created by the pandemic. We engage in product marketing when we communicate the resources, content, and training to support closing the many gaps faced by students today. Our customers trust that what we create will support and engage educators so they can meet the pressing needs of their students in a way that keeps everyone moving forward because we can’t afford to go backwards. Our students and teachers deserve more from us.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Investing resources and energy into building a brand is more than dollars spent on building a marketing team or developing an advertising campaign. Truly building a brand is delivering on our mission and who we are as an organization. Alignment as an organization is how we deliver on our mission. We honor the trust and confidence schools have in us when we are willing to acknowledge when something doesn’t go right. We honor their trust and confidence in our brand when we celebrate their successes with them. Investing resources into building a brand means making the right decision by our partners and delivering excellent customer service, this is the heavy lift of creating a culture where every single employee has the same level of commitment and care to the customer. It is hard work, and it takes commitment and ensuring that the core values of the organization align with the mission and how we serve our partners.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Stay true to the mission. When the pandemic first began, it really tested us as an organization from a business standpoint. We were at risk of losing all of our revenue overnight. We were talking about budget reductions, Reductions in Force (RIFs), all of those terrible things. However, staying true to our mission meant finding ways to support educators as they and their students were being sent home to learn without many of the resources they needed to be successful. While fighting to keep our company open and fully operational, we began to reach out to collaborators and partners like MIT, Amazon, and others for resources we could provide to educators. It would have been really easy to require an email address in exchange for access to these resources, but that would not have meant staying true to our mission and we chose to make the resources open and accessible to everyone, free of charge and no strings required. Because we are committed to the success of teachers and the success of students in every classroom. No matter what the crisis is that we are facing as an organization, our North Star is finding ways to support educators when they need us.
  2. Focus on what makes you unique and distinguishes you from your competitors. From the very beginning, our work has always been partnering with educators to identify what works and then sharing that from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher. That is how Mary Catherine Swanson began searching for answers more than forty years ago and then how those answers were shared, and that is still our model. We hire classroom teachers, principals, counselors, and district administrators to train the educators that rely on us for support and resources. Mary Catherine interviewed underserved students who had graduated and found success after high school to figure out what worked for them. We have a large alumni group we stay connected to because we know that staying relevant requires that the strategies, resources, and products we create are best developed through lived experiences.
  3. Speak with a common and consistent voice. Pay attention to your employees and what they are saying. Every employee is a brand ambassador because the organization is made up of people. The organization is us and how we choose to treat each other. When there is a mismatch between what we say matters and how we treat people, it is obvious, and it hurts the brand. We have core values that we have adopted as an organization, and we do our best to live them. Service, authenticity, excellence, ownership, and potential are what we want our customers to experience when they interact with us, and that can only happen if these values are integral to how we work together when our customers aren’t watching.
  4. Cultivate brand champions and let your customers tell your story for you. Our most valuable resource has been our ability to be a grassroots organization even as we have grown to scale. Learning what your customers and prospective customers think is important, the data you collect is important, and what is even more important is that data is being used to get to know what your customers need. Creating space for educators to share their stories with other educators around what is happening within their classrooms and their schools is some of the most important branding work that we do. And that the stories they are telling are their stories, not the AVID story.
  5. Insist on great experiences for anyone interacting with your brand. Every interaction matters. You build your brand not by what you say but by what people experience. AVID is an experiential brand and we pride ourselves on the experiences people have. Successful teams, successful projects, and successful organizations are not without problems or an absence of conflict. What is important for a company or organization’s brand is how we show up to address those conflicts. When we get to the other side of a problem will we still like each other, trust each other, and be willing to dig deeper into our next problem? This is what determines if we will be successful or not as an organization in getting people to know and trust our brand.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Nike, Nordstrom, Southwest Airlines, Apple, Starbucks, and Costco are a few companies that come to mind because of their brilliant customer service. The people who are addressing challenges and issues for the customer are empowered to do everything it takes to resolve the issue without needing to talk to someone else, such as a supervisor. We have followed this same model at AVID, empowering our customer service team to issue a refund or offer a variety of options so that our customers will receive excellent customer service. We trust our employees to make the right decisions and the right decisions are the decisions that are in the best interest of our educators. We will always support that. That doesn’t require money, it requires empowerment.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

There is never just one indicator with anything this complex. There have to be multi-faceted ways of measuring our impact. Analyzing the interactions on social media campaigns, the open rate on the newsletters and emails we send out because open rates tell a story. If we send out a newsletter and expect a 5% or 10% open rate, then we’ve probably lost the battle as people opening it are likely viewing it as an advertisement and not information or communication. That is a sign that a customer has lost faith in our brand.

Focus groups, feedback, and listening sessions around how people are talking about us are all ways we measure our success. If an educator — a teacher, a principal, a district administrator — is talking about our impact to other educators without our even being part of the conversation but simply because they are willing to step up and share their success and they aren’t directly connected to us, then we know we are being successful.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media looks different for us than it does for more traditional companies. People don’t join our social media groups because they want to be a brand ambassador. They join our social media groups because they want to have an authentic conversation around the challenges they are facing in the classroom. When I think about social media, I think about what it takes to create a community of educators willing to help each other with day-to-day challenges of teaching. A space where resources are shared, and questions are asked and answered by other educators doing the same work. For me, social media is not about marketing and ad campaigns. It’s about building a community that helps one another and is using the AVID network as a way of solving problems. Whether sharing ideas for increasing the number of students completing the FAFSA, college applications, or scholarships, our social media channels are where educators share real-time examples and engage in real-time problems, leveraging the collective knowledge of the community around what is working and not working.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

I am a believer in disconnecting, this was more difficult during the pandemic because everything was just more intense. The other day I was sitting on the couch with the lights turned off, not doing anything other than sitting, literally, in the dark. When my wife walked in and asked what I was doing. I shared what I was thinking about, and her response was “Is this how you do it? Is this how you come up with long-term strategies and solutions to problems?”

And the answer is yes, this is how I do it. I disconnect from the day-to-day problem solving because that uses different brain muscles than long-term problem solving. I give myself space to let data and information just flow over me so I can begin connecting dots and making connections. We can get so caught up in solving problems, putting out fires, and then finding new problems to solve that we lose sight of what we need to accomplish or think about in a much bigger way. I think it is important to take a step back from fixing issues and being caught up in the busyness to allow our brains to exercise different muscles and make new connections. You don’t have to sit in the dark — but it is important to identify how to give yourself the mental break needed to take a step back and focus on the bigger picture, whether it be going for a walk, taking time off, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Being able to disconnect from the day-to-day problems to think strategically is an important way to avoid burnout.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Every student having the opportunity to fully participate in their community. I know it’s not groundbreaking, but in order for students to be active participants in their community they need skills, opportunities, experiences, and people that believe in them. I often tell our new employees that when I began working for AVID we were serving 750,000 students. Six years later we are serving more than 2,000,000. Those are numbers anyone should be proud of, and I am proud of these numbers. The reality is that we have 50 million young people in schools today, and around 25 million are underserved in some way. That’s the gap. Those are the kids we are leaving behind every single day.

Hopefully one of the positives coming out of the pandemic will be the realization of the important role schools play in serving the whole community. The stark reality is that students are being sent home and our communities are grappling with the lack of internet access and food insecurity for students who depend on the two meals a day provided at school. We know that schools meet more than students’ educational needs and the pandemic illustrated how much work we have to do as a nation to create a future where every student has the opportunity to succeed and be an active participant in their community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is something I try to remember because one of the many gifts that my educators and mentors have given me is the belief that I can do anything. That I can fix any problem. I have always had people who believed there was no problem too complex or that I couldn’t handle. I want to empower my staff to believe that they can fix problems and solve complex issues. We work with schools, and it is easy to look at data around student outcomes or who is succeeding and who is failing and then begin thinking in three-year or five-year solutions. We can easily begin to feel unempowered. And then we remember that AVID began when one teacher identified a problem and decided to solve it. One teacher made a difference. And that is happening every single day all over the country, one teacher at a time choosing to make a difference in students’ lives. This creates a multi-generational impact that ripples through the entire community. It requires taking that first step and knowing the momentum will carry us forward.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Brene Brown. We partner with educators to spark and support thriving learning cultures so every student can live a life of possibility. Learning requires vulnerability and courage, and so much of what we do aligns beautifully with Brene Brown’s research.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can stay up to date with all things AVID at www.avid.org.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market