Al Ries, ramrod straight at the age of 83, and his daughter Laura, make a restless pair. While the elder Ries pioneered the concept of "positioning" in the advertising mindset, he later teamed up with his daughter — with whom he now runs the strategy consulting firm Ries & Ries — to author The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, one of the several path-breaking works they have produced in their career focused on marketing and business strategy. While in India to address seminars organised by Curtains Up in partnership with Bloomberg UTV, they spoke to Hindustan Times.
So, is marketing a sleight of hand?
Al: The best marketing is very, very obvious. The fundamental principle of marketing is to be first in the mind (of the consumer) and dominate the category. The first cola was Coca Cola. The first hamburger chain was McDonalds. The first instant coffee was Nescafe. Once you achieve that strategy, it would be almost impossible for the number two player.
Laura: Google has been suffering in China (not being the first).
You are an authority on 'positioning'. In order to be number two, do you have to be contrarian?
Al: Before 'positioning', people thought of advertising and marketing as communication. But very little communication actually takes place. You talk of Rolex. They spend $5,000 per watch and you ask them about it and they say, "It's expensive." They don't know anything and they don't care. (And so) "Forget about communication. Try to occupy a position."
You are the author of Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. Is public relations still critical for brands?
Al: The traditional way of press releases is obsolete. You have got to look for ways to give exclusive stories. The Wall Street Journal is full of exclusives. If it does the story, there will be 28 others doing it too.
What is your reading on the emergence of China?
Al: China has been known for cheap products, but production cost is going up. Now is the time to build brands. The definition of a brand is "something people will pay more for than for a commodity". There are other countries that will produce things cheaper. Vietnam is the next China. India is following a similar pattern.
You have held that a brand leads a product segment and then dominates it. What do you think of Nokia and Motorola that have been unable to dominate though they led the products?
Al: Motorola has been doing too many things (radio sets, equipment, handsets). When your point is to make everything, you don't stand for anything. It is also true for Sony. Nintendo makes more money than Sony (now). Nokia is a cellphone company. (But) as categories mature, they tend to divide into cheap and expensive.
Laura: Maybe Nokia should have launched a separate brand for smartphones.
What do you think of India and Indian brands?
Al: If you don't build the brand (as a country), somebody else will. You didn't have to because you are big. Small countries have an advantage because they have to (build a brand). India has a big advantage because English is a second language. A global brand need not be an English word but needs to be understood in the English language.
Watching the scene today, what do you think is the next big thing in branding?
Al: We have just begun this global trend. In the long term, any major brand has to be global. If you are not global, somebody else is going to take it away, like (it happened to) Google in China and Korea.
You last wrote about branding through the Internet. Now you have social media, with the Facebook and Twitter phenomena. What do you have to say about branding and social media?
Laura: Social media are good for personal things. It is also good for new categories. It is not good for some things you have had before, like toothpaste. You remember how it started with e-mail (for advertising). Then people started fighting spam.
Is there some baggage that you want marketers to shed in the new century?
Al: The biggest baggage is that to launch a new brand, you need a big advertising budget. New brands take off slowly. There is a 'J' curve. The more revolutionary the idea, the longer it takes.