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Is Al Ries Dangerous to Your Brand?

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In the business world's hall of fame, a special place is reserved for Al Ries. He is without doubt one of the most prominent gurus of strategic thinking.

More than 30 years ago, together with his partner Jack Trout, Ries coined the term “Positioning”—a concept that to these very day shapes the way of marketing and branding all over the world. Only few other concepts come close in importance.

Despite the rebellious, revolutionary spirit and the surefooted—even vain—phrasings that characterized them from the very start of their careers, Ries and Trout did not always grasp in full the magnitude of the revolutions they initiated. Their early books, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Marketing Warfare and Bottom-Up Marketing, proclaimed, in fact, without their authors expressed awareness, the death of the so-called Marketing Approach (“marketing successes are achieved by satisfying the unsatisfied needs of customers”).

Furthermore, Ries and Trout suggested an alternative approach, which could be named the Competitive Approach. They drew guidelines for conducting a business in competitive markets for which the Marketing Approach is quite useless.

The reason for this incompatibility is as simple as it is counterintuitive. If everybody is trying to satisfy the unsatisfied needs of customers—everybody is doing the same thing. This is a very uncompetitive behavior.

Together and apart, they brought us ideas like the need to focus first on the competitors and only later on customers, the need for strategic focus, the importance of strategic differentiation (a concept borrowed from others), the advantages of adopting an opposite behavior to that of the competitor, of divergent innovation and of primacy in the consumer's mind (because it's better to be first than to be better).

Although Ries never said it clearly, he can even be credited with the understanding that the competitive strategy and the brand are two facets of the same coin, rather than the brand being a kind of make-up applied to the product or the company in order to make it more attractive.

Regretfully, Ries's continued influence is becoming today a considerable danger to successful brand building and brand management. Despite his historic importance, in the current business and marketing realities Al Ries is outdated and limited.

Despite his often use of terms like Psychology, Perception and Mind, Ries's entire theoretical account of consumer psychology can be summed up in two principles.

The first: People find simple claims—rather than complex claims—easier to understand and learn. The second: People understand new information in terms of what they already know. This is undoubtedly true but hardly sufficient for successful strategizing and branding.

Ries has always excelled more in common sense than in psychology, which often defies common sense. For that reason, Ries is missing major changes that occurred in recent years in consumers' behavior. Even apart from these changes, Ries simply fails to understand the psychological and social instrumentalities of brands.

Unconscious motivations are beyond him. Impulsive purchases evade him. He doesn't get why consumers “buy things they don't need” and other such phenomena that are sources of huge profit to those who do understand them. He doesn't understand brands that where destined to cater for such needs.

The secret of Ries's power always lay in his simplistic formulations. He claims ‘universal truths' and formulates do/don't rules that overlook complexities. But our world is a complex world. And, therefore, whoever tries to implement such rules may lead his brand and business to obliteration.

To justify these severe and harsh statements, I invite you to examine with me the six main tenets of Ries's credo.

Ries says: Innovation should be based on creating a new product category (car) or on diverging an existing category (mini-van) but not on crossbreeding/grafting between categories (car-plane). It is a law of evolution.

That sounds good, but it is incorrect. Crossbreeding works for agriculture in order to create new species. A Tangelo (to name one example out of many) is a hybrid created by crossbreeding pomelos and tangerines. The cellular phone is becoming a device offering rich communication options as well as personal entertainment center by crossbreeding a cellular phone, a walky-talky, an Internet connection, a receiver/transmitter of MMS and data, a radio, a MP3 player and more. The PC in general (and Windows OS in particular) is a crossbreed.

A car and a plane or a boat may not mix. But a car and a living room have, in luxury car such as the Maybach. There are crossbreeds/grafts that work, and then there are those that don't.

Want a new simple rule? It works when the compromise which the breed demands in the benefits of the different components is smaller than the benefit offered by them combined. If you operate according to Ries, you are reducing your options for innovation.

Ries says: Brands need to focus in one product category. It is not advisable to extend a brand from one category to another. It is best to create a new brand instead.

This is correct only when the brand was originally created with a strong affinity to a certain product category. But this is no must.

Virgin is a brand that exists in tens, even hundreds of product categories, and is successful in many of them because its promise (“being mischievous, breaking the rules, screwing the big guys and having fun”) is not limited to one product category. Another UK brand, Dunhill, exists in many product categories catering to a variety of life style requirements of the modern-day gentleman.

My own Abstracting technique promises to replace Brand Extension. It assists the creation of brands that have beyond-category benefits and the re-branding of existing brands into such. The model includes seven extents of branding, each consecutive one another step away from product dependency to a higher level of intangible added value.

As I have already mentioned, Ries has difficulty in understanding brands that offer the consumer a psychological-emotional or a social (rather than tangible-practical) instrumentality for reaching goals/benefits. But let us put aside for a moment the sophisticated brands (although they are the ones yielding their owners the highest profits).

Ries does not like diversified conglomerates, but they do make money nonetheless. What about Samsung, Mitsubishi, GE or even HP? Actually, every private label of a supermarket chain exists in tens if not hundreds of product categories and its promise (usually something like “good value for your money”—nothing unique or brilliant) crosses all of them. Even this type of huge profit-earning brands fall out of Ries's narrow canon.

Ries says: It is better to be first (in the consumer's mind) than to be better.

Ries gives ample examples, like the fact that we all remember the name of the first man walking on the moon but not the second one. He interprets this to suggest that we will remember and pay attention only to the pioneer of a category.

This is part of the Positioning theory. But the Positioning theory, right from the start, was not in line with the up-to-date knowledge of how the memory works. Positioning is based on a metaphor of mountains with tops that you can “conquer” and “own.”

There is no basis for such an idea. The consumer may recognize Rolls Royce as a prestige brand, but this will not lead him to perceive Bentley as any less prestigious. While brands may be associated with just one concept (the best are not, think Ferrari)—it doesn't work both ways. The consumer doesn't limit himself to only one brand of prestigious cars. Similarly in fashion, Gucci and others didn't block the relatively newcomer Prada from breaking into awareness. No one can have exclusivity on any “top” concept or word in the consumer's mind. This metaphor is inappropriate and is misleading the marketing people who use it.

Moreover, the rapidly spreading “fear of missing out” (FoMO) that is becoming a primary motivation driving consumer behavior, encourages consumers to seek the new. This motivation leads to an unprecedented willingness to try and adopt novelties, often simply because they are… new.

Not only does Ries not account for the fundamental changes that occurred in consumers' behavior, it appears that he doesn't even notice them. Even worse, his way of thinking is idealistic rather than businesslike. Even if me-too products will never become category leaders, as Ries claims, and even if Coca-Cola energy drink KMX will not ever outperform Red Bull, still the second- and even the third-ranking brands in the market can make handsome profits. So what is wrong with that?

Ries says: Take a word and build it into a brand. A brand should “own” a word in the consumer's mind.

We already dealt with the ownership issue, but why a “word”? Will any word do? If you are about to implement this rule by Ries, you may spend a lot of money associating your brand with a “word” that will not bring you any gain.

You can decide, for instance, that your word would be “leadership” or “cutting edge” (but be careful, friends! The most attractive words have a lot of takers!). Let's even say that you succeeded and now market research shows that consumers indeed associate the word you chose with your brand. Why do I claim that it can be useless? If your word is not associated with the consumer's buying consideration (and if the consumer does not use the very word in his thinking—even if she does use implicitly that criterion), it would have no effect whatsoever upon choosing your brand.

The consumer's buying considerations are sometimes conscious and often not. They may be conscious but not verbal. Ries is a man of words, but the consumers aren't necessarily. What you want, in fact, is for your target audience to have a very clear anticipation (that can be unverbalized, just felt) for some benefit arising from your brand. Such anticipation makes the consumer smile when your brand comes to mind. All strong brands arouse their specific anticipation, preferably unique to them. In fact, such anticipation is THE defining characteristic of brands.

Ries says: Brands take off slowly and their success is measured in decades. Brands that take off fast—die fast.

Ries obviously haven't heard about Harry Potter, or about Nokia (which became a world market leader in only a few years) or about the Easy Group, which was established only in 2000 and is already a successful concern that incorporates a dozen companies in diverse areas such as aviation, cellular communication, hotels, banking, etc.

Simply put: Ries is wrong. There are brands that take off very fast. Some of them, not all of them, really do behave like meteors and are very successful for a short period of time. In recent years, many companies opt to do it purposely, realizing that it is more probable in today's markets to make it big for the short run. Strategically, it is possible in many categories to launch consecutive blockbusters and have, in the long run, a high average market share and to hold consumer loyalty effectively.

Ries says: Advertising, because of its increasing lack of credibility, is nearly incapable of building a brand. PR is more effective than advertising in imprinting a brand concept in the consumer's mind. The role of advertisement is to remind the consumer something already known in order to reinforce it.

This peculiar claim already drew a lot of fire, as it was meant to. But seriously, now. You can expect a very limited control over messages you send to the market via PR. Journalists will have their own mind and agenda. How, then, can PR be used as the major means for evoking and shaping a specific anticipation in the consumer's mind?

Ries goes on to claim that limited resources to support an emerging but yet unprofitable brand for a long period of time is another reason to count on PR. But the media's interest in a new brand is brief at best! There can be no doubt that advertising does a better job than PR, more precisely and faster, in evoking and shaping specific anticipations.

However, advertising is not always necessary. Some outstanding brands like Starbucks and Zara took off without any considerable advertising budgets. This is possible especially with retail brands where the consumer has opportunities to grasp the brand's promise at the selling points. There, yet another type of brands that creates for their costumers opportunities to meet, thus encouraging the formation of a community. These brands' promises travel by buzz, and they sometime become a kind of cult, like Harley-Davidson, Saturn, Linux and Vans.

Admittedly, it is a bit sad: the world has changed, and Al Ries stayed focused but behind. But hey, you have your brand to worry about, which means giving up the seductive simplicity of Al Ries's generalizations and rules.

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Dan Herman, PhD, CEO of Competitive Advantages, is a strategy consultant, keynote lecturer, workshop/seminar leader, and author of Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Strategy, Marketing, and Branding (

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  • by ries rie-der Tue Sep 2, 2008 via web

    Haha you say Ferrari is not associated with one concept, after personally acknowledging it as the "best"

  • by pr-ad Wed Oct 8, 2008 via web

    Mr.Herman you are trying to advertise probably your PhD, strategy consultant, author and lecturer, is the author of Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Strategy, Marketing, and Branding.

    The effort is quite basic for so many titles.Unless you want to be the
    Covey of the marketing and you address this to suckers.
    One note,but only one ,because it is valid for all your examples and I have no time to argue on such a weak article: Nokia became world leader when it gave up everything it did (including Big,Fat,Ugly TV Sets Made In Finland)and FOCUSED ONLY ON THE CELL MOBILES.Focused.The Example with Dunhill is as poor like all the rest including Tangelo.In your next article you may include the babana peeler.Honestly:Mr.Ries is marketing genius with no expiry term as life proves his laws everyday.These proves make them valid ,not an arcticle.I am sorry.

  • by pr-ad Thu Oct 9, 2008 via web

    "Unconscious motivations are beyond him. Impulsive purchases evade him. He doesn't get why consumers “buy things they don't need” and other such phenomena that are sources of huge profit to those who do understand them. He doesn't understand brands that where destined to cater for such needs."

    Very interesting study is the above part of the article.

    Now I am sure that there are a lot of business prospects that start their business just like this: Hey lets offer to the customers things they don't need.Then they go in the banks with a detailed business plan for this outstanding idea ,get a big loan and here are we all now:in a big financial
    crise caused from the caterers of the "things people don't need"

  • by nse Wed Oct 29, 2008 via web

    i donot necessarily agree with all you said as regarding Al Ries and his focusing cos i see proof of his knowlegde and predictions come true in organisations who defy Focus techniques. i might agree with you when it comes to the advertsing over PR though PR plays a useful role as well.

  • by Auga Wed Nov 25, 2009 via web

    In the business of marketing and branding, there is no hard and fast rule. And thus there will be a lot of exceptions to any rule or any observation that you make which is precisely what you have pointed out in Virgin.

    And even in Virgin, the positioning is intact.. it does not stand for too many things, it stands for a naughty, tongue in cheek, youth spirit. So if you tomorrow launch Virgin Insurance, I seriously doubt it would be a success and I think it will go down the route of Virgin Cola.

    About brand extensions, Ries never looked at brand extensions from the profit point of view. He was looking at the brand power, brand strength point of view. Your extensions might rake in some money in short term but in the long term, you end up with your customer being confused.

    Rest of the other arguments too have the same fate

  • by saniat Fri Apr 23, 2010 via web

    mediocre effort really..

    below is the sad story of "Maybach"

    Calendar Year US Sales
    2003[5] 166
    2004 244
    2005[6] 152
    2006 146
    2007[7] 156
    2008 119
    2009[8] 66

    Initially, Daimler-Chrysler predicted annual sales of 2,000 global units with 50% coming from the United States. However such lofty sales expectations never materialized. In 2007 Mercedes bought back 29 US dealers, reducing the total from 71 to 42......" (wikipedia)

    Looks like no one really liked their "Living Rooms" in their "Cars", cause categories do not converge..... :-)

    I hope this will help you in writing articles that makes more sense Mr. Herman. But no doubt you have generated enough attention towards you by criticizing Mr. Ries. Atleast some of your strategies are working.... :-D

  • by ben Wed May 12, 2010 via web

    Such a poor article with weak arguments and false facts. There are many statements in your article that are not true as pointed by the previous comments. I will point out another one of them...

    Ries says: "It is better to be first (in the consumer's mind) than to be better."
    You say: "There is no basis for such an idea...Prada, a relative newcomer, has done well despite the presence of Gucci"...

    First of all, Prada is not a relatively newcomer, and even if they were then Ries' point will still stand. Being first in the mind is better as Gucci's sales and brand value is much higher than Prada.

    According to a Business Week top 100 Global Brands Score Board Prada's brand value in $m is $3,287 and is ranked #94 far behind Gucci's $7,697 at #46. Gucci's brand value is more than twice that of Prada.

    If you are going to say Al Ries is wrong, at least give examples that would refute what he says not support it.

  • by Alan Tue Mar 20, 2012 via web

    An interestingly flawed critique I suggest. Having been an advocate of both Reis and particularly Jack Trout( Differentiate or Die) and hacked my way thru 40 years of worldwide commercial affairs ( As well, for my sins a fair time at Mars Inc) there are few instances where the combined talents of Reis and Trout are totally wrong. As with any focused people/books and businesses, time/opportunities catch us out - we model/mix a bit, but - hey ho in the main they were /are and will be right.

  • by Andrew Chia Sat Jul 28, 2012 via web

    Yes, Prof, nobody is right all the time. I don't agree with everything Ries says, but I do agree with most of what he says.

    I agree with most of the above comments that your critique is flawed, because i think you have not really grasped the ideas put forth by Ries, even though it's a bit complicated for me to point out.

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