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 Despite his historic importance, in the current business and marketing realities Al Ries is outdated and limited.
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 (www.outsmart-mba-clones.com).