Laura Ries has six brand positioning principles
The concept of brand positioning was introduced to the marketing and advertising world in the 70s and 80s by Al Ries and Jack Trout in a series of Ad Age articles and a subsequent book titled Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. (If you haven’t read it, Positioning is definitely recommended reading for anyone in the branding world.)
Today’s episode features Laura Ries. Laura is Al Ries’s daughter, and has been his business partner for 25 years at their consulting firm, Ries & Ries, where they advise clients such as Disney, Ford, Frito-Lay, Papa John’s, Samsung, and Unilever.
Laura is a bestselling author in her own right. She’s co-authored five books with Al, including The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, and she’s also written her own books: Visual Hammer and Battlecry. We discuss both during the episode.
Laura and I start with her definition of brand positioning (it’s about “owning an idea in the mind”), and the introduction of an illustrative example we come back to again and again during the conversation: Red Bull. Laura says Red Bull “owns the energy drink category because it is the leader,” while Monster Energy Drink positioned itself as the opposite of Red Bull by launching with a much larger can. 5-hour Energy, on the other hand, created their own, related category by positioning as an “energy shot.”
Throughout the course of the conversation, Laura presented her six principles of positioning:
- Find an open hole. “If somebody owns a position, you’re not going to take it away from them. You have to look for another open hole that you can take advantage of…by being the opposite of the leader.”
- Narrow the focus. “Too often, brands and companies, they want to be everything to everybody.”
- The name is so important and significant. “Not just the brand name but the category name.”
- Visual hammer. “Not just a pretty logo or a person—the product itself can be the visual [hammer]. It’s something that communicates an idea about the brand.”
- Verbal battlecry. “Not just a slogan, although it might be a slogan or tagline, but it’s really the battlecry that’ll be used both internally and externally to really understand the brand.”
- PR, not advertising, is what builds brands. “New brands and new categories have more news value to them. That’s where new brands need to leverage that opportunity for PR.”
To learn more about Laura, her books, and her consulting services, visit visit www.ries.com. You’ll find some great content on her blog, and more information on their consulting practice. With the exception of an upcoming, revised edition of Positioning, all the books we mentioned on the episode are available online:
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Laura Ries, thank you so much for joining us.
LAURA: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
R: Well, I’m so happy to have you here. This season of the podcast is all about positioning an idea which of course was introduced to the marketing world by Al Ries and Jack Trout in the late ’70s. Given that Al is your business partner as well as, of course, your father, I really wanted to talk to you about the origin of the idea and what it means today. A lot of people are talking about positioning still, of course, these days but, it seems like a lot of them don’t have a solid understanding of that original intended meaning. So what does positioning mean to you?
L: Sure, positioning has and always will be is about owning an idea in the mind. Strong brands own a position if you will. That position if you are creating a new category, it tends to be that category. So Red Bull owns the energy drink category because it is the leader and it was the first pioneer of that category. That’s really the strongest position you can own in the mind, is dominating a category that is growing and is important.
Kodak dominated the film photography category and owned that position in the mind but that no longer is a powerful position. Not because Kodak did anything but because that category went away. That means that the category is incredibly important and that’s a critical part of positioning as we know it today.
R: That Red Bull example is great. I want to follow up on it. Now that’s a very crowded market of course–all of the energy drinks out there. Does the Red Bull position in your mind hold as an energy drink or do they need to adapt now because it’s a very crowded market and needs to position a little bit differently to react to that?
L: Sure. That’s an excellent question. First and foremost, being the first not in the category but in the mind is the strongest position and that’s exactly what Red Bull did. As you know when you have success, it brings a lot of competitors. In energy drinks just like in automobiles and computers, you have literally hundreds of competitors entering the market and competing with the leader Red Bull.
It’s not so much that Red Bull needs to change. The real trick is, how do you position yourself if you’re not Red Bull? That’s the challenge. Red Bull gets to ride the wave of the category. Their biggest challenge is expanding the category, managing the category and not going too much outside the category which waters down their brand which is something that they fell into the trap of doing.
If you remember, they launched Red Bull Cola. Which made absolutely no sense. They made a big announcement that they were going to take out Coca-Cola which clearly did not happen. That’s usually the danger of leadership. They get a little bit too arrogant and think they can do anything and put their brand name on anything and that usually can really undermine them and really what it does is water down their success.
R: Yeah, back to the concept of positioning. Have you, over the many years since it’s been introduced, have you ever felt there’s been any need to update or augment that original idea or has it really proven timeless and universal throughout the years?
L: What an excellent and timely question. It just so happens that we are—and I haven’t even told you about this, it’s not a set up at all—but we’re working on a positioning in the 21st century book. The core idea of positioning has not changed but the world has changed in the last 50 years. There has been some changes in particular like the idea of globalization, the internet obviously, and also ideas that we’ve written in more recent books about the power of PR and the use of visual hammers which all are really 21st century ideas that have slightly changed the way positioning is thought about and the way it’s practiced.
But the core idea about positioning, it really wasn’t anything to do with the market because obviously, the market in the world has changed. Positioning is always about the mind of the consumer and that mind remains the same. The challenge is getting in the mind and what you need to do in order to get into the mind and things like using visuals and understanding globalization has made some changes to how we practice the idea of positioning today.
R: When a client comes to you and says they need help with brand positioning whether it’s for their company or their product, I’m sure it varies from client to client, industry to industry. But can you walk me through what a high level, the process that you would take that client through?
L: Sure. We continue to focus in terms of our business being that we don’t have a full-service marketing consulting agency where we do the implementation of design or other things which really focus on the strategy.
One of the things that kind of makes us different is that we do it in a one-day session, an interactive one-day session with the client. So that’s kind of different the way a lot of strategy sessions work where it might take months or a lot of research. The clients really know so much about the market, about their consumer or they have a lot of research that has told them all this. What they really need help is developing the strategy and narrowing the focus of figuring out how to clearly communicate and what that opportunity is of the position that they can own in the mind. We do have kind of a general framework that we walk through, but like you said, it’s different for every client mostly because, first and foremost, it starts with the mind.
The positioning principle number one is to find an open hole.The mistake so many companies do, if somebody owns a position, you’re not going to take it away from them. The likelihood that a number one brand falls is very few and far between. You have to look for another open hole that you can take advantage of either by being the opposite of the leader.
So for Monster Energy Drink which is another big energy drink brand, they didn’t try to copy and imitate Red Bull like everybody else did. They said, “Forget the small can, we’re going to be in a monster size 16-ounce can.” They became the opposite of the leader and became a very strong number two brand to Monster. Looking for that open hole by how to fit into that category, being on another realm or being the first in a new category. For example, you’ve got 5-hour energy shot which if you say the energy shot is a different category and they dominated and were the first to fill that hole in the mind.
R: With the Monster Energy Drink for example, before you explained the size of the can distinction being what sort of what you meant by opposite, I could imagine a lot of different ways that a brand could present itself as the opposite of Red Bull. It could be about the flavor or probably a million different things. How do you know when you’ve landed upon the right kind of opposite from a leader or is that what you figure out during the one-day workshop? How do you explore that?
L: Well, that’s a good point and that’s I think a bit of why marketing is such an art and a science. I think there’s a science in knowing that the strongest number two position in the category is to be the opposite of the leader, but it’s an art to understand is the flavor enough of a difference like you said, I don’t think it was. Listen, Coca-Cola, the owner of—for many years—the world’s best brand Coca-Cola couldn’t figure out how to beat Red Bull.
They launched KMX, Full Throttle, Tab energy drink, all of them total disasters. I’m sure they felt that they had a significant difference against Red Bull but the consumer didn’t perceive it that way. I think it has to be enough to really be relevant. For Scope it was the good tasting mouthwash compared to Listerine being the bad tasting mouthwash. A significant difference that really had an impact and a benefit to the consumer. Not even necessarily in a good way.
I think for Monster being a large size, how much better is that? It’s more calorie, it’s larger size, it’s not necessarily better but it’s different. In many ways, it’s very helpful to be visually different. The size of the can was significant, I mean just a shock to see that size can when every other imitator was in that tiny 8.3 ounce can.
R: I guess it doesn’t hurt that it’s easier to see from across the store as well because it’s so much bigger.
L: Yeah. And then again, having a name that locks into the idea of having the visual. Going after monster trucks and aggressive-type sports being the sponsor. All of those things working together is really what develops an incredibly strong brand.
The number two principle which brings me into that is how do you find that open hole. In most cases, the best way to do it is by narrowing the focus. Too often, brands and companies, they want to be everything to everybody. You can’t find a position, you can’t find an open hole by doing that. By narrowing the focus to energy shot allows you to own an idea in the mind that other people might have thought of small. The best thing is to dominate a new category that you create.
R: So in that one-day workshop, you’re figuring out where that hole is, where that opportunity is. It sounds like some of that is based on your own you said it’s as much art as science so it’s where the expert opinion or the expertise and experience comes in. Can you talk to me about anything that you do during the day with a client to figure that out? I’m sure you have all kinds of different exercises that you run. Is there anything that you find especially works?
L: We don’t go into it blind. Of course, leading up to that session, we have done a lot of research and homework in terms of studying the brand, the competitors, the market. We have a sense of what we feel is the direction. What we’re not is set in stone on that. It is important, I think as a consultant, you bring the expertise of having worked with a lot of brands in a lot of different industries and seeing how positioning can apply in all these things, but you’re not an expert in this industry we’re talking about today with a client. You know way more about it.
R: Especially if it is one of those esoteric B2B industries.
L: Absolutely, even in the mainstream. It doesn’t matter. They’re always going to know more than you, but you do have fresh eyes on it. They sometimes don’t appreciate the basic things that you with fresh eyes can see. It really is important that you’re working together. Generally, going into a session, we will look at it, we will kind of have a concept in mind of how to approach this and what our solution to the issue is. But again, it’s working then with the client on that in a back and forth discussion.
R: What does the deliverable look like at the end of this workshop, or maybe it’s a follow on deliverable that you produce?
L: Well, we write a summary report about it. It basically then covers though and I’ll go through a few more of them of the principles that we’re going to talk through here of figuring out what the position is, how we might need to narrow the focus if we’re not narrow enough to own a position so that we can stand for something.
The third thing is, is the name right? We’re not a naming company per se but we do work with companies. The name is so important and significant. Not just the brand name but the category name. Working with new clients, is this a potential new category? What is the name of that category? For example, when PowerBar came out, the idea of an energy bar became popularized. Really, it’s a candy bar, let’s not kid ourselves, but they somehow created a new category calling it an energy bar.
R: Well just like the energy drinks are pretty much just soda.
L: That’s right, and energy drinks kind of followed off of that. So many times, you can piggyback off of people thought about energy bar, now we think about energy drink because really it is kind of a soda with caffeine and a few extra vitamins and other things, and sugar. But in the mind, that is seen as a separate category and that’s a really important part of it. What that category name is and how your brand links into that category name if possible as well.
The positioning principle number four is a visual hammer. For that client, what visuals are they using, what visuals might they use as a visual hammer? And a visual hammer is not just a pretty logo, or a person, the product itself can be the visual–the can, for example. But it’s something that communicates an idea about the brand.
For example, this wasn’t our idea but we recognized it as a powerful visual hammer and that’s the Corona beer with the lime on top. That was a powerful visual and they use it very wisely in all their advertising, and on their trucks, and everything else. What does it communicate? It’s the authenticity of the brand–that it’s a Mexican beer. Mexico is a lime country. The United States of America is the lemonade lemon country. That clearly communicates something and has become a powerful visual around the world. We always want to work with the client as to what is the visual hammer for the brand and how it can be effectively used.
The fifth principle is the verbal battle cry. Not just a slogan although it might be a slogan or tagline, but it’s really the battle cry that’ll be used both internally and externally to really understand the brand, to put the positioning in a verbal battle cry that hopefully, consumers will use and say to each other. Obviously, Nike’s, “Just do it.” the ultimate driving machine. These types of battle cries have become powerful messages both for that the company and the consumer.
R: I’m glad you’re talking about these two topics. For any listeners who don’t know, these are also the titles of I think your two most recent books, Visual Hammer and Battlecry. A couple of follow up questions on those. I know that you site Coca-Cola’s famous bottle shape as a visual hammer which interestingly is a trademark on the shape of the bottle. It’s hard to imagine though that they could have known however many decades ago that was that that bottle shape would have become their instantly recognizable shape that it is today. How do you advise your clients on creating a visual hammer? Are there any ways to predict what will work and what won’t?
L: Well, that’s a good point. I mean I don’t think 100 years ago when they had that bottle did they realize the power but there was a consistency in the use of the bottle. And of course, the heritage of the brand is captured in that bottle. What’s interesting is sometimes, and many times, it might be that there is a visual and you just have to utilize it. I think for Coca-Cola in recent years, I mean they didn’t really use the bottle but they’ve used it more and more because I think they’ve realized how enormously powerful that visual is.
Sometimes it can be, for example, even a spokesperson, of how you better utilize them, although these days—after the Papa John who is a very powerful visual hammer for that brand—has sort of been erased. I think leaves a very empty hole, it loses a lot the authenticity and the heritage of the brand. I think clearly, they wanted to do that but it leaves a big vacuum. Without having that, it loses a part of the emotional connection that consumers had with the brand–like him or not.
R: Right. It seems like it’s really hard to rely on human spokespeople these days. I’m even just thinking of the guy in the ads for, was it Verizon, and now he’s in the Sprint ads? That’s another example of what can go wrong when you sort of tie a human face to your brand.
L: Yeah, go wrong, and I think he looks a bit out of date in the Sprint ads. It gets the brand off the ground. I mean where would Tesla be without Elon Musk. Warts and all, he is the best they have. I think maybe he needs to stop tweeting more recently. For the many years that he was the spokesperson, it would be much harder to have gotten where it is today. A powerful idea combined with that celebrity spokesperson, the founder/inventor. It’s like the Steve Jobs’s and the Bill Gates’s. They become very powerful that companies that don’t have them just don’t have the same ability to connect in an emotional way with consumers.
R: Let’s talk about Battlecry a little bit as well. Sort of a similar question here, but what is a battle cry and what isn’t? How do you distinguish between a slogan and a battle cry? I know sometimes those are the same but if you could just kind of set the parameters of what is and isn’t a battle cry.
L: Yeah, in our vernacular, I think a battle cry first and foremost is something that is memorable, that consumers will use, and that establishes and reinforces a position in the mind. Many times people might know a slogan but they don’t know what brand it’s for. That’s not going to help you. Again, what we found is some of the best battle cries use sort of a linguistic technique to help in being memorable. The book kind of breaks it down into ways in which you can think of creating a battle cry that’ll make it more easy to remember and of course you then have to make sure that you’ve gotten in the position into the wording.
So things like using rhyme. If you member the Post Office that, “If it fits, it ships.” and using rhyme is very helpful. I mean that’s why kids use rhymes to teach them to read, it’s helpful in remembering things. Alliteration is just a classic memory device, toys for tots, all sorts of brand names. Even Coca-Cola uses alliteration in helping to remember. Just repetition can be helpful, pizza-pizza for Little Caesars.
Or reversals can sometimes be helpful, “Broiling, not frying.” you don’t just say your position but the opposite of what you’re not. Of course, double entendres are always fun, a diamond is forever which every woman loves to repeat because our marriage is going to last forever just like this big beautiful diamond. Of course, diamonds last way longer than most marriages but we still have hope. The biggest downfall when it comes to thinking how do you build a battle cry is, being clear about what your position is to begin with.
For UPS, they have their slogan on their side of the truck is, “synchronizing the world of ecommerce.” Have you ever heard someone say that, “I’ve got the guy synchronizing the world of ecommerce coming over later to bring me my stuff?”
R: Well, it’s certainly not something I’ve ever personally felt the need to do or try to do.
L: No, but I love UPS. They’re delivering the world’s packages. Technically, sure, they are synchronizing the world of e-commerce but that’s not the way people talk. It might make sense in the boardroom but is a consumer going to relate to it? Does it really capture the essence of what the company is about? For FedEx will it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight. They focused on overnight and that slogan while long part of what made it so memorable and powerful was it was long because it was extra important–that package.
R: Yeah, this is an interesting theme that I see throughout your writing and your interviews. This distinction between really abstract slogans or even positioning ideas and much more concrete or relatable or just down to earth simple ideas. How do you square that thinking with again going back to Nike and their tagline, “Just do it.” and also a lot of people talk about their positioning as being it’s not just shoes, it’s not just sports apparel, it’s something a little more high-minded or lofty like the idea of victory itself. How do you square those things?
L: Well, that’s a lot to unpack. One, because it’s a really big point in positioning and in marketing. The idea of the abstract versus the specific. You’re right, we are very much in favor of always being as specific as possible. If you think about the mind, if you can relate something to something specific, something you can visualize, it’s much easier to store in the mind. That’s why when given the choice, people will try to have a specific even though it’s a general idea.
You call it a drugstore, if would be more accurate to call it a personal item store but drugstore is more specific and more memorable and you can file it in your mind. Also, if you have something specific, you can think of a visual that can communicate it. Again, it’s always the memorability that’s incredibly important. That said, you have a slogan for Nike like, “Just do it.” that has become an anthem, if you will, and I do think a good battle cry for the brand but every brand isn’t Nike.
Listen, Nike revolutionized the world. It was the first serious athletic shoe. I mean people were running in Keds, I’m not kidding. The waffle design on the bottom and then the whole story was just an iconic kind of, Steve Jobs was the iPhone of running shoes. It was so important of its time and so different than everything else. When you are such a revolutionary product and a company and you have such leadership and dominance in that category, you have an opportunity to create your own visual hammer. The swoosh, it doesn’t mean anything, it stands for Nike a leadership. You also have hundreds of millions of dollars you can spend every year driving whatever slogan you want in the mind. And if you can do it for 30 years, day after day, millions after millions, you could make that enormously memorable.
It wasn’t that “Just do it.” was such a great phrase, it was that it was simple, they were the leader, and they communicated it over and over again in a memorable way. I mean think about it, every time you turn around, Coca-Cola changes its slogan.
R: Right, they just did I think recently.
L: They’d be better off saying, the real thing for 50 years, but they’re not smart enough to do that. Nike was smart enough to keep it. That’s what has made it so memorable and so powerful. As well with the swoosh being a very simple visual but it all comes back to it stands for their leadership which really came about in shoes. Shoes tend to be what they dominate most although they’ve expanded into other clothing and other items as well.
R: Great. Well, I want to just ask a couple of wrap up questions. Since you’ve been a prolific author, I’d like to ask authors other than your books and your father’s books, what branding or business books do you recommend whether they’re classics or something just recent that you’ve seen.
L: In terms of books, some of the most interesting and because I think psychology is an incredibly important part of marketing and understanding the brain and how people think. I’ve always loved Malcolm Gladwell. I think from the Tipping Points and the Outliners, all of those books have just I think been dead on and really kind of follow with a lot of the ideas that we think about and talk about and write about in terms of positioning. Those would be I think really great books.
I think you’ve got to know a little bit about everything to be good at marketing. You have to know the finance and numbers because if a brand isn’t making money, they’re not going to be in business. You can’t overlook those things. So you need to know about finance, and you need to know about psychology, and you need to know about design, and you need to know about a whole bunch of things.
R: Last question, as one of the more successful brand thinkers and consultants out there, do you have any advice for younger brand strategists or even designers that are just interested in getting into brand consulting?
L: Sure. First and foremost, get out there. Meet a lot of different types of people, work with a lot of different types of companies, get as much experience as you can working with different companies, in different cities, and different people in different countries. I think there’s a lot you can absorb by just seeing how things work in different places. I think really what a consultant does is they work off their experience. What young people don’t have is they don’t have a lot of experience.
I worked with my dad so I had the freshness and the newness and being in touch with technology and youth but he had so much experience and it always has been and continues to be working together is a really nice mix. For a young person, you’ve got go out, you got to earn the experience. You can’t expect to have all the answers. If you don’t, you can listen to other people, you can chime in and have an opinion. But get that experience, get that world experience. We really are such a global society these days and the opportunity to travel has never been easier.
I think for our business, we’ve learned so much by going around the world not just seeing how people are different and countries are different, but even so how they’re so similar, how the ideas of positioning really apply. We’ve worked with a relatively small milk dairy company in India that was selling milk in little plastic baggies in little roadside stands, but the positioning principle still worked, and it was a very rewarding experience to say the least.
R: Great. Well, thank you. I think that’s great advice and having lived overseas and done brand consulting in different parts of the world, I know and agree with you that sometimes, you feel like a little bit of an imposter as an American trying to tell brands what to do in different parts of the world. But then you realize that all these principles that you understand are at least somewhat universal and certainly valuable no matter where you’re doing business.
L: Absolutely. I think it’s important, like you said, not to see like, “Oh yeah, this works in America, it’s going to work there.” No. You have to see how which parts of positioning or whatever principal work in multiple countries around the world because there are some things that are specific to individual countries and you have to make adjustments. Because if people are following the details, I’d have a 6-principle. I want to make sure I leave that with everybody.
What’s incredibly important is that PR, not advertising is what builds brands. I think there’s a greater respect for PR today more than ever. But it’s also important to understand that new brands and new categories have more news value to them and gives the opportunity to get that PR, to drive that word-of-mouth. That’s where new brands need to leverage that opportunity for PR and then once brands are established, where is the opportunity for PR for Starbucks, or Coca-Cola, or Nike. Although Nike found a controversial way to get it didn’t they? The power of that PR was enormous for them. A very interesting case study.
R: I’d love to do a follow-up call with you just on that topic. I feel like that could be an episode unto itself.
L: It could be probably.
R: But I know I’ve got to let you go now. I really appreciate you spending some time with us and taking us through those six principles. I’ll post on the blog that list of principles, and links to the books that we talked about, and ways that people can find out more about you and your business. Thank you so much, Laura, for joining us.
L: Great. Thanks for having me here.
R: No problem.