Al Ries, Jack Trout and the Book that Changed Branding Forever

By Alan Brew

It was July, 1975 and Jack Trout, the president of a relatively unknown but up-and-coming ad agency, was pitching a breakthrough concept to a New York Times reporter* — a concept that, he was convinced, was so revolutionary it would make his firm famous and change advertising forever.

Along with his partner, Al Ries, he talked about something they called “Positioning” — a way of basing every ad on a single, powerful idea and implanting indelibly in the mind of the consumer.

They had originally called their idea “the rock,” it being an unshakable “truth” that people could not question or dispute in a world that was saturated with unbelievable claims. Jack Trout later suggested they call the idea a “Position.” Al Ries liked the idea. He said it had the advantage of suggesting a position in the mind and that the concept itself could be called “Positioning.”

A couple of articles in trade magazines had created a lot of buzz. Al Ries and Jack Trout were already talking to publishers about writing a textbook on the subject. Right now, though, they were focused on selling their idea to the New York Times reporter and how positioning could be applied to their own business – the agency business. Their agency, Ries Cappiello Colwell, was 12 years old at the time and was ranked 125th in size among domestic agencies.

Jack Trout spelled out the theory using a diagram of “the advertising agency pyramid.” Usually, he said, one starts at the bottom, a no‐name agency—and there are hundreds of them that no one has ever heard of.

“If you want to make it big, you have to drive to the top,” he said, thrusting a finger toward the peak. “You have to get your name into the minds of key marketing management.”

He rattled off some agencies and their concepts: Doyle Dane Bernbach with creativity; Ogilvy & Mather with research; the shops that have developed into packaged goods specialists, and J. Walter Thompson with bigness.

The battle for your mind

“You have to find one that nobody else is attached to,” he told the reporter. “And today creativity is as cluttered as packaged goods.”

Positioning made Al Ries and Jack Trout famous. Their seminal book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” was published in 1980. Soon after, Ries Cappiello Colwell was renamed Trout & Ries, and in 1989 they fired 200 employees and transformed themselves as a strategic consultancy.

“The Battle for Your Mind” is the key part of book’s title. “The principle?” Mr. Ries said in an email interview with The New York Times in 2017. “Find an open hole in the mind and become the first brand to fill it,” as Volvo did with “safety,” Crest did with “cavities” and FedEx did with “overnight,” slicing through the growing clutter of advertising messages from print, TV and radio.

I was given copy of the book in 1985 by John Diefenbach, the visionary CEO of Landor Associates. I had just joined the company. “Read this,” he said. “It’s an important book. It will change our business.”

I duly read it, and as engaging a read as it was, I couldn’t see why a book by two ad men could have any relevance to Landor’s very successful business of corporate identity and packaging design. He was right, of course. It changed our business.

“Positioning” gripped the agency world, and the term spread like a virus across the wider industry, permeating the language of every design firm, marketing agency and PR company in the clamor for client attention and budgets. We were all in the branding business now, and Positioning was our mantra.

Long ago and far away — what’s next?

All that was a long time ago. Nearly half a century has slipped by since Jack Trout’s interview with the New York Times reporter. Times were different then and the world was a much simpler place.

Advertising was a monologue told through the twin megaphones of television and radio.  In the 1970s, the major commercial networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — could still reach the majority of the US population. There was a seductive ROI in the power of reach and implanting a simple, single idea in the minds of consumers.

Times have changed. User-centric media fragmentation has changed the game yet again. The influencer ecosystem is challenging the tenets of brand management and we are in the new era of data, brand narrative and messaging and the influencer ecosystem.

A recent study by Cal State Fullerton Professor of Marketing Chiranjeev Kohli points to increasing reliance on data with AI-based assistants becoming the starting point for consumers.**

“The creation of marketing and branding content continues to shift toward reliance on data, as we get more data that tells us exactly what consumers are buying and why,” says Professor Kohli. “Additionally, marketers will use AI to optimize their products and distribution efforts. Data will be king.”

Could he be right? I’ll ask Alexa.

*New York Times.