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Is Al Ries Dangerous to Your Brand?

by Dan Herman  |  
June 1, 2004

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 Despite his historic importance, in the current business and marketing realities Al Ries is outdated and limited.

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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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