Al Ries is a marketing consultant who coined the term “positioning” and is the author of such marketing classics (with Jack Trout) as The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. He is also the co-founder and chairman of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Ries & Ries with his partner and daughter, Laura Ries. Along with Laura he has written bestsellers like War in the Boardroom and The Origin of Branding. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul and analyses why brand Barack Obama emerged stronger than brand Mitt Romney.
How would you define the brand Barack Obama? What are the three characteristics that you would attribute to him?
Consistent. The three characteristics I would attribute to Barack Obama are (1) Consistency. (2) Consistency, and (3) Consistency. He took office promising “change.” And the major changes he promised include creating jobs, reforming the health-care system and reducing the deficits by increasing taxes on the wealthy. He has never wavered from these three basic principles.
Brand experts talk about a strong story accompanying a brand. What do you think is Obama’s story?
His story is his climb from poverty to a law degree from Harvard, our most-prestigious university. It includes his birth to a Kenyon father and an American mother, one black and one white. He is unique. Very few politicians have a story quite like Barack Obama. One exception is John McCain, who was defeated by Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential elections. John McCain’s story is the five-and-a-half years he spent in Vietnam as a prisoner of war and the torture he endured. This created a tremendous amount of sympathy for him. But he lost the election because he was handicapped by the negative reaction to the eight years of the previous President, George W. Bush.
What are the right things that Obama did to build brand Obama in the run up to the elections?
His entire campaign was built around a single idea and he expressed it with a “two-sided slogan.” A two-sided slogan is like a two-sided knife. It cuts both ways. It says something positive about your brand and something negative about the competition.
Could elaborate on that?
Take “Believe in America,” Mitt Romney’s slogan. It’s a nice thought, but it’s a one-sided slogan. It says something positive about Mitt Romney, but what does it say about his opponent?
That Barack Obama doesn’t believe in America? A country that educated him at Harvard. A country that elected him to the Senate and the Presidency. A country that made him wealthy and world famous. Barack Obama doesn’t believe in America? Highly unlikely.
What does Obama believe in? The number one issue among voters is “jobs,” but he couldn’t claim much progress on this issue because of the economy. His best approach was to plead for more time to “finish the job.” So he used the slogan “Forward.”
And what did that imply?
His “Forward” slogan implied that Republicans want to go backwards to policies that failed in the past. Forward is a great slogan because it cuts both ways. This makes two in a row for Barack Obama. His 2008 slogan, “Change we can believe in,” was also a two-sided slogan. With the Republicans in power, John McCain couldn’t exactly advocate “change,” because that would offend his base. The best he could do would be to imply that he would do the job “better than Bush.”
What are the things that went wrong for Obama?
Nothing. The American economy is in bad shape. Deficits are enormous. The Republicans should have won in an easy election, but their marketing strategy was bad.
Which is the brand that you think comes closest to brand Obama?
Virgin might come close because it’s a brand associated with Richard Branson, a unique individual with many stories.
When it comes to brand names the brand name Obama is fairly different from the usual. How does that work/not work?
What many companies forget is that a brand name should be “unique and different.” The biggest mistake companies make is trying to create a brand name that says something about the product or service they are offering. A typical example is “Seattle’s Best Coffee,” a high-end coffee chain launched in America. But the competitor was Starbucks, a unique and different name unrelated to coffee. Starbucks is a far better name than Seattle’s Best Coffee, which is a generic name. Ask people, What is Seattle’s Best Coffee? And they are likely to say, Starbucks.
Could you give us another example from business to substantiate your point?
Google is a typical example. When you start with a unique name without any specific meaning, you can make the name mean whatever you want it to. Yesterday, Google meant nothing. Today, Google means “search” and it’s become one of the most valuable brands in America. On the stock market today, Google is worth $220.1 billion.
How would you define the brand Mitt Romney? What are the three characteristics that you would attribute to him?
Romney is a “business” leader and the attributes voters attribute to him are all based on his business experience. Businesses should (1) Make money. (2) Reduce expenses. (3) Avoid taxes legally.
What is that made brand Romney attractive to the white American male? And what is it that made him unattractive towards everyone else?
The white American male is focused on becoming a business success. He expects to work hard and be rewarded when his hard work pays off. The white American male resents having to share the rewards of his hard work with the government in the form of higher taxes. Women are more family oriented. They don’t mind sharing with less-fortunate individuals. That’s why many of them voted for Barack Obama.
Which is the brand (or even brands) of a product or a service that you think comes closest to brand Romney? And why?
You could list almost every American corporation from IBM to Microsoft. The general perception is that companies want to increase profits, reduce expenses and find a way to avoid taxes (legally.)
You have always said that marketing and branding are all about focus. So who do you think had more focus Obama or Romney? And why?
Barack Obama was focused on just one thing: “Let me finish the job.” That idea was expressed in his slogan “Forward.” Mitt Romney was focused on attacking Obama for the lack of jobs and the high deficits. All true, of course, but that’s a losing political strategy. A politician needs to first have a “positive” focus. I think Mitt Romney should have focused on his business experience and then used a slogan like “Let’s run the government like a business.”
I was reading somewhere that both Obama and Romney employed a technique called brand hijacking in the elections. People who type one candidate’s name into Google’s search box in some markets have seen ads for his opponent. A search for “Barack Obama,” for instance, has yielded ads for Romney, while entering “Mitt Romney” has resulted in ads for Obama. Romney has used a similar tactic on Facebook. How does that help? Would you advocate something like that in the future?
I would not advocate something like this. While it might be effective with some people, it might turn off others.
What are the branding mistakes that Romney make? How difficult was it to beat an incumbent President who was struggling with the economy and most of everything else?
Mitt Romney spent most of his time attacking Barack Obama. That’s the wrong strategy. What a politician needs to do is to offer a positive concept first (business experience) and then point out that his or her opponent lacks this concept. (Barack Obama has never worked in the private sector). It should have been easy to beat an incumbent President with his track record.
I was reading an article on Fast Company and it said “politics, after all, is about marketing — about projecting and selling an image, stoking aspirations, moving people to identify, evangelize, and consume.” Would you agree with something like that and why?
Absolutely. It’s all about perceptions, not reality. That’s what marketing is all about, creating positive perceptions in the minds of consumers.
What are the branding lessons that companies can learn from Obama’s successful campaign?
Years ago, Bill Clinton became famous for running a campaign which his consultants dubbed: “It’s the economy, Stupid.” Today, a company should adopt something similar. It’s what I call the KISS approach. “Keep it simple, Stupid.”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on November 8, 2012. http://www.firstpost.com/world/why-brand-obama-trounced-misbranded-mitt-romney-518734.html
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
Companies are in a perpetual race to expand sales. And the easiest way to do that is to expand their well known successful brands into other categories. As marketing consultant and author of many bestsellers Al Ries puts it “If a brand is well known and respected, why can’t it be line extended into another category. That’s common sense. That’s why Xerox, a brand that dominated the copier market, introduced Xerox mainframe computers. A decision that cost the company billions of dollars. That’s why IBM, a brand that dominated the mainframe computer market, introduced IBM personal computers. In 23 years of marketing IBM personal computers, the company lost $15 billion and finally threw in the towel and sold the operation to Lenovo, a Chinese company.” Ries is the author of such marketing classics (with Jack Trout) as The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. In this interview to Vivek Kaul he speaks on various aspects of branding and marketing.
You have often said in the past that there is a a big difference between common sense and marketing sense. Could you discuss that in some detail with examples?
Common sense is another way of saying “logical.” Almost every rule of marketing is not logical, it’s illogical, which I defined as “marketing sense.” It takes years of study and personal experience to develop good marketing sense. Yet too many management people dismiss the ideas of their marketing managers because “marketing is nothing but common sense and who has better common sense than the chief executive?” Line extension is a typical example. If a brand is well known and respected, why can’t it be line extended into another category. That’s common sense. That’s why Xerox, a brand that dominated the copier market, introduced Xerox mainframe computers. A decision that cost the company billions of dollars. That’s why IBM, a brand that dominated the mainframe computer market, introduced IBM personal computers. In 23 years of marketing IBM personal computers, the company lost $15 billion and finally threw in the towel and sold the operation to Lenovo, a Chinese company. That’s why Kodak, a brand that dominated the film-photography market, introduced Kodak digital cameras. In spite of the fact that Kodak had invented the digital camera, the company was never successful in marketing the cameras under the Kodak name. And recently Kodak went bankrupt.
With all the experience you have had consulting companies all these years which area of marketing do you feel that marketers have the most trouble with?
We have had the most trouble working with large companies marketing big brands. And the issue is always line extension. Companies want to expand their sales so they figure the easiest way to do that is by expanding their brands into new categories. In other words, line extension. We have worked with Burger King, Intel, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Procter & Gamble and dozens of other companies that invariably wanted to expand their brands whereas we almost always recommend the opposite strategy. Narrow the focus so your brand can stand for something. The second issue is timing. We have always recommended that companies try to be the first brand in a new category. But that is a difficult sell to top management. Their first question is usually, What is the size of the market? Of course, a new category is a market with zero revenues. And many, many management people never want to launch a product into any category that doesn’t already have a sizable market. We worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, a leader in the minicomputer market. We tried to get them to be the first to launch a personal computer for the business market. (IBM eventually was the first to do so, but without a new brand name which led to their failure.) In spite of days of meetings and presentations, the CEO of Digital Equipment refused to launch such a product. “I don’t want to be first,” he said, “I want IBM to be first and then I’ll beat their specs.” After IBM launched its personal computer, Digital Equipment followed, but never achieved more than a few percent market share. Eventually the company more or less fell apart and was bought by Compaq at a discount price.
How can a No. 2 brand compete successfully with a leader?.
What a No.2 brand should do is easy to explain, but difficult to execute. A No. 2 brand should be the opposite of the market leader. Why is this difficult to do? Because it’s illogical. Everyone assumes the No.1 brand must be doing the right thing because it’s the market leader. Therefore, we should do exactly the same thing, but better. That seldom works. Take Red Bull, the first energy drink and the global market leader. One reason for Red Bull’s success was the fact that it came in a small, 8.3-oz. can that symbolizes “energy,” like a stick of dynamite. So almost every competitive brand was introduced in 8.3-oz. cans and marketed as “better” than Red Bull. Except Monster, a brand introduced in 16-oz. cans in the American market. Today, Monster is a strong No.2 brand with a 35 percent market share compared to Red Bull’s 43 percent share. Also in the American market, BlackBerry was the leading smartphone until Apple introduced the iPhone. BlackBerry had a keyboard. Apple eliminated the keyboard and used a “touchscreen” instead. Mercedes-Benz was the leading luxury-vehicle brand until BMW came into the market. Mercedes vehicles were big and comfortable, so BMW became smaller and more nimble, as dramatized in the brand’s long-running advertising theme, “The ultimate driving machine.” As a matter of fact, BMW introduced the campaign with a two-page advertisement headlined: “The ultimate sitting machine vs. the ultimate driving machine.”
Do long running marketing campaigns help? How many companies have the patience to run a marketing program for two or three or four decades?
Next to line extension, that’s the biggest problem in marketing today. Companies don’t run marketing programs nearly long enough. The best example of a long-term successful campaign is the one for BMW. “The ultimate driving machine” strategy was launched in 1975 and the company still uses the same slogan today. That’s 37 straight years. Most marketing programs don’t last longer than three or four years. That’s way too short a time to make a lasting impression in consumers’ minds. I can’t recall any major marketing program, except for BMW, that has lasted more than a decade or so.
In a recent column you wrote that logic is the enemy of a successful brand name. What did you mean by that?
By “logic” I mean what you would use as a brand name if you did not study marketing and had no experience as a marketing person. In other words, common knowledge versus specialized knowledge. It’s like the Sun and the Earth. Common knowledge would suggest that the Sun revolves around the Earth and not the reverse. Look out your window and it’s obvious that the Sun is moving and the Earth is standing still. But specialized knowledge knows that isn’t true.
What is the connection with brand names?
As far as brand names are concerned, logic or common knowledge suggests that a generic name like Books.com would be a better choice than Amazon.com. If the prospect wants to buy a book, then logically the prospect would go to a website like Book.com or Books.com.
But a marketing-trained person knows that isn’t true. It’s not how a mind words. When a person hears the word “Book,” he or she doesn’t think it’s a website at all. It’s the generic name for a category of things. On the other hand, thanks to its marketing program, “Amazon” has become a specific name for a website devoted to selling books. So when a person thinks, “I want to buy a book on the Internet, he or she doesn’t think “Books.com,” he or she thinks “Amazon.com.” In almost every category, a specific “brand” name performs better than a generic “category” name. Google.com is a better name than Search.com. YouTube.com is a better name than Video.com. There is a caveat, however. In the absence of a marketing program that establishes a brand name in consumers’ minds, a generic name could do well.
Why do you say that as a general rule, any name that specifically defines a category is bound to be a loser?
Consider how a mind works. If I say “coffee,” you literally hear that word in your mind spelled with a lower-case “c.” It’s a common noun, or a generic word that stands for an entire category of things. The same reasoning hold true for a more specific name like “High-end coffee shop.” If I say “Starbucks,” on the other hand, you literally hear that word in your mind spelled with a capital “S.” It’s a proper noun, or a brand name that stands for a specific chain of high-end coffee shops. Oddly enough, you can use common English nouns in another country as brand names? Why is this so? Because consumers don’t know the meaning of these common words. So these words become proper nouns instead and usable as brand names. For example, a stroll down a street in Copenhagen turned up these store names: Biggie Best, Exit, Expert, Face, Flash, Joy, Limbo, Nice Girl, Redgreen, Sand and Steps. Nice brand names in Copenhagen perhaps. But they wouldn’t work in America.
What do you mean when you say that “the internet is exceptionally good at promoting web, not physical, brands.” Could you explain through examples?
First of all, consider the fact that the Internet has created a host of new, very-valuable Internet brands including Amazon, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Groupon, Pinterest, LinkedIn and dozens of others. How many new physical brand names were created on the Internet? I can’t think of any. The Internet is the newest, latest medium. It attracts people who are interested in what’s new and different on the Internet. So there is intense interest in any new website that promises a revolutionary way to handle some of your affairs. But there’s not the same level of interest in new physical brands. Like a new toothpaste, or a new camera, or a new breakfast cereal. That doesn’t mean that new physical brands can’t take advantage of the PR potential represented by the Internet. They certainly can, but it’s going to be more difficult for a physical brand to get a lot of attention on the Internet than an Internet brand.
You recently wrote that “If you don’t have the right strategy, good tactics won’t help you very much. And social, like all media, is a tactic. What concerns me is that too many marketers have elevated tactics — especially those of social media — to the level of strategy.” Could you elaborate on this statement?
Our leading marketing publication is called “Advertising Age.” I have suggested facetiously that the publication should be called “Social Media Age,” because a high percentage of the stories the publication writes about involve social media and marketing on the Internet. Strategy is seldom mentioned. One reason for the intense interest in the Internet is because many aspects are easily measured. A video on YouTube, for example, will be measured by: (1) The number of “Views.” (2) The number of “Likes.” (3) The number of “Dislikes.” And (4) The number and content of “Comments.” That’s a range of responses no other medium can deliver. No wonder marketing people devote endless hours to evaluating the success of Internet programs. But suppose a marketing program is not successful. Do you blame the strategy or the tactics? Today, it’s too easy to blame the tactics. My feeling, however, is that most of the time strategy is at fault.
Are there any ideas on branding which you have espoused in the past which you have now junked?
Yes, we used to think that brand names ought to communicate something tangible about the brand. Duracell is a good example. It suggests that the appliance battery is a “long-lasting” brand. But today, there are too many competitors in any given market. A tangible name like Duracell is likely to be surrounded by many other brands with similar names, confusing the consumer. A meaningless name is often a better choice. It allows you to develop your own unique meaning for the brand. Google is a good example. Initially it meant nothing, but today it means “search.”
What is your opinion on big brand names. India has a lot of them like Tata and Reliance. And they attach these names to every business or product they launch? How do you view that?
That’s line extension and it might work today in India, but would never work in America. In America, there are too many competitors in every category with distinctive brand names. A line-extended name like Tata and Reliance would be at a serious disadvantage here. Why does it work in India? I’m not an expert, but I believe that India suffers from a shortage of venture capital as compared to the United States. It’s hard for an entrepreneur to launch competitive brands to Tata and Reliance because it’s difficult to raise enough money for their introduction. But I believe that will change in future so both Tata and Reliance should be concerned about the future of their brands.
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])