(Source: Entrepreneur; January-February 2007)
By: Bridget Rabo Ng

The need for a strong business name led the founder of a tutorial review center to highlight a promise to help give its students a head start.

When you go into the informal knowledge-transfer business, it prays to use a brand name that denotes a specific promise and then really deliver on that promise. Such has been the experience of Rossana Llenado, a hard-driving educator-entrepreneur who set up a new tutorial review center 11 years ago in a 35-sq.m. commercial-apartment space in Kapitolyo, Pasig City.

It was simply intuition and not any formal know-how in branding strategy that led to her choice of name for the review center. “I didn’t know exactly why, but I just knew that I had to come up with a strong name for the business,” she recalls.

What she had to offer was itself an ambitious business proposition; to help parents secure their children’s future by giving them a head start academically. To do this, she wanted to position her review center not only as a place for students who have failed or are failing in their subjects, but as one that can keep honor students always “ahead” of their peers.

The name she picked to match that promise was ”AHEAD” – a name that could convey not only the excellent service but also what her customers could expect once they had availed of that service.

This, Llenado recalls, is how she came up with “AHEAD” as a brand name: “First, I chose the letter A for my logo because it’s the first letter in the alphabet – for isn’t it that an A-plus student is great? ‘A’ also stood for the A-grade service that I wanted to provide our customers.

After that, she says, she took a dictionary and looked for words that begin with the letter “A”, zeroing in on the word ‘ahead’. This word conveyed precisely what she wanted her students – and ultimately her business – to become: always on the forefront, always trendsetters, always ahead of their peers. She wanted to communicate the idea that smart students go to her tutorial and review center to, well, “stay ahead”. To make sure she delivered on that promise, she spent long hours developing the AHEAD coursework with her staff, then hired honor graduates from top universities to teach in the center.

Llenado’s efforts paid off handsomely. After only one year, she already broke even on her initial investment of P200,000. And today, nine years later, AHEAD Tutorial and Review has become the leading and most awarded center of its kind in the Philippines.

AHEAD has four thriving tutorial centers in Metro Manila: one along Katipunan Avenue in Loyola Heights, Quezon City; a second at the Greenhills Commercial Center in San Juan; a third at Robinsons Galleria along Ortigas Avenue in Quezon City; and a fourth at the SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City. In the early 2006, as it initially ventured in franchising, it opened the first non-company owned AHEAD review center in Dagupan City.

Currently being offered by the AHEAD centers are review classes for the admission tests to the top Philippine universities, tutorials for all subjects and ages from preschool to the graduate level, language training, and professional training.

AHEAD has also always made it a point to stay literally ahead in its business. Each year, it would offer an entirely new review service. It was the first to offer diagnostic examinations for students reviewing for college entrance tests, the first to conduct a chemistry contest among those intending to go to science high schools, and the first to put perennial rivals La Sallian and Atenean basketball players side-by-side in a billboard for test topnotchers. “We have always made ourselves first in everything,” Llenado says with pride. “We have to be that way because if you just keep on copying and copying what another tutorial center is doing, you’ll never establish strength,” Llenado adds.

Riding on the success of the AHEAD brand name, Llenado created new divisions of what has now become the Ahead Learning Systems, such as Ahead Books and Things and AheadPro. Ahead had been publishing some of its own review and study marterials, thus it created Ahead Books and Things for the sales of such materials. On the other hand, AheadPro is a service that caters to professionals who want to improve on their English communication skills. The company was also the first to publish a well-received review book for the University of the Philippines college entrance examinations, a slim volume entitled “Score Higher in UPCAT.”

Many opportunities for AHEAD to open branches outside Metro Manila would present themselves, but Llenado has always been hesitant to take opportunities. For instance, she knew that an upscale area like Alabang in Muntinlupa City would greatly pump up her revenues, but she did not want the risk of sacrificing the quality of her service owing to the geographical distance. “I don’t want to put up a review center that I can’t watch personally,” she says, sounding like a mother terribly worried about her own child’s upbringing. “In any case, even if your review center is far from where your prospective reviewers are, they will come to you if you have a good and strong reputation.”

For this reason, AHEAD now primarily relies on word of mouth to bring in new clientele to its review centers. This was not the case during its early years, when AHEAD print advertising in leading newspapers would bring in as much as 40 percent of the company’s clientele. But two years ago, Llenado saw that the print ads were drawing only 10 percent of students to her tutorial centers. This was against the whopping 90 percent that came in as referrals by both past and present AHEAD customers.

Llenado has tried many types of advertising media in her unrelenting drive to promote her tutorial services: leafleting, billboarding, newspapers and magazines, guestings on TV and radio talk shows, and putting up a web site on the Internet. She has tried most everything. What she found most effective, however, is holding AHEAD-sponsored events where she can make a direct pitch about her company’s tutorial services.

One such event – the “Get AHEAD Gimik @ Glorietta” school fair that the company held at the Ayala Center in 2002 in cooperation with MTV Philippines – won a Gold Quill award of merit from the Philippine chapter of the international Association of Business Communicators (IABC). AHEAD has also received at least eight more awards from institutions as the country’s best tutorial and review center.

Despite its successes, AHEAD had to weather its share of major setbacks. Sometime in the late 1990s when the Asian financial crisis struck, AHEAD suffered from the sudden thriftiness of its usually big-spending clients. Enrolment dropped seriously. As a cost-cutting measure, Llenado thought of reducing review sessions and laying off some of AHEAD’s instructors. But after giving the plan more thought, she reversed herself: she offered even more review sessions at the same rate. She made that decision, she recalls, to protect the AHEAD brand name, maintain its credibility among its clientele, and prepare for better times ahead. “Ours was a new industry and we had to protect its gains,” she recalls. “We were the ones who made it grow because we were the most articulate of the lot. Of course, we were also the ones who stood to lose the most if the industry couldn’t cope with the crisis.”

Of AHEAD’s success story, Prof. Benjamin Sandoval, management consultant and chief operating officer of Mecomark, Inc., has this to say, “The company built its brand mainly through what its loyal customers had to say about its services, which happened to be of such high quality. As a result, it is AHEAD’s customers that are now doing the marketing for the company. This is the dream of most small and medium enterprises.”

Sandoval, who is also the MBA director of the University of the Philippines College of Business Administration, says that it is part of human nature to be with someone whom they can trust, and that AHEAD as a brand has evidently developed this kind of trust. “Trusted brands can make the buying decision less complicated and assure customers when they are in doubt,” he adds. Still, Sandoval has this reminder to entrepreneurs about the matter of trust: “Always remember that you and everyone else can claim anything, but it takes other people – particularly your customers – to say that you are really good.”

By consistently giving excellent levels of review and tutorial services, AHEAD is confident that it has already earned that trust and intends to continue cultivating it as a cost-effective way to further strengthen its brand franchise.

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