Al Ries on The Origin of Brands

    May 20, 2004

On a participatory journalistic whim, I landed an e-mail interview with author, brand guru and PR proponent, Al Ries. Ries is a legendary marketing strategist and the best-selling author/co-author of 12 books on marketing including our favorite “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.” Most recently, he published “The Origin of Brands.”

While discussing everything from Mach 3s and Martha Stewart to Red Bull and Botox, Ries was kind enough to provide Strategic Public Relations with some brand insights. He also feels that for pr professionals to seize the day, they need to own the brand launch and the risks that come with it.

SPR: Where there any specific incidents or trends that fueled “The Origin of Brands?”

Ries: Yes. We have worked with many large companies and have generally been unsuccessful in getting them to launch new brands to dominate new categories as they emerge. These include: IBM, Digital Equipment, Xerox, Western Union, Tambrands and many others.

Invariably, these companies wanted to put their established names on an emerging category rather than using a new name.

As a result, they lost control of the category to a new company with a new brand name. IBM personal computers, for example. Even though IBM was first to introduce a 16-bit serious, business personal computer and even though initially the IBM PC dominated the category (with more than 50 percent of the market) they lost out in the long run to the new brands, Compaq and Dell.

SPR: What are a few of the key ideas we will find in the book?

Ries: Every category will eventually diverge creating endless opportunities to build new brands.

The best way to assure the long-term domination of an emerging new category is to make sure your brand is first in the mind. We repeat, first in the mind, not first in the category. Red Bull in energy drinks, Starbucks in European-style coffee houses, etc.

You still have a chance to be a strong second, if you’re not first in the mind. To be second, you need to be the opposite of the leader. Listerine is the bad-tasting mouthwash, so Scope became a strong No. 2 brand by being the good-tasting mouthwash. Your parents drank Coca-Cola, so Pepsi-Cola became a strong No. 2 brand by appealing to the younger crowd. The Pepsi Generation.

Note: A .pdf summary of the book is also available.

SPR: You are a believer in the power of public relations. Which brands use PR most effectively/aggressively in your opinion?

Ries: The best example is Botox. After 8 years of PR only, Botox became a $300 million brand. It’s very hard to find Botox examples because most companies jump in way too early with an advertising campaign. You should allow the PR to run its course before using advertising.

The reason that Botox was not advertised for eight years is because the application to remove frown lines in the forehead was “off-label” use of the product. According to FDA rules, it could not be advertised.

Starbucks is another brand built almost entirely by PR.

SPR: What is the biggest challenge facing public relations in gaining more widespread acceptance?

Ries: PR people have to learn to do two things: (1) Think more strategically and (2) Vigorously stress the need for the PR function to run the launch of all new brands.

Sometimes, PR people do not try to take charge of the launch of new brands because they don’t want to take the responsibility if the brand happens to fail.

SPR: Martha Stewart’s case is calling the wisdom of brand personification into question. Do you think Martha’s brand can survive without her? Do you think brand personification is a good idea?

Ries: No, we don’t think the Martha Stewart brand can survive without her, but we do think that brand personification is a good idea.

For every failure (Martha Stewart) there are many successes. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Donald Trump, George Foreman and many others.

SPR: Brands come and brands go, what do long-term brands have in common?

Ries: Brands are shorthand symbols for categories. Instead of saying “I wear an expensive Swiss watch,” people will say, “Look at my Rolex.”

The day the expensive Swiss watch category dies is the day the Rolex brand will die.

Canada Dry ginger ale was a big brand when I was a kid but it’s a small brand today because the ginger ale category is small.

SPR: What are some of your favorite brands and why?

Ries: Laura has her own favorites but mine are Tod shoes, Corvette cars, Newcastle Brown Ale, Varilux lenses, Olympus cameras and Mach 3 razors.

These brands (and many others) are distinctive in the sense that no other brands can duplicate their performance and they are also of high quality.

Kevin Dugan is the author of the popular Strategic Public Relations blog. Kevin is Director of Marketing Communications for FRCH Design Worldwide.

Visit Kevin’s blog: Strategic Public Relations.