Al Ries, father of positioning, dies at age 95

Al Ries, father of positioning, dies at age 95

Al Ries, known as the father of positioning, died on Oct. 7 at age 95.

Along with his then-partner Jack Trout, Ries burst onto the advertising scene in the early 1970s with the radical concept of positioning, which held that rather than focus on brand benefits, marketers must instead fix a place for the brand in the consumer’s mind.

“Success depends on finding an open hole in the mind and becoming the first to fill the hole with a brand,” Trout & Ries wrote in a landmark series of articles published in Ad Age on the subject.

That led to a book, “Positioning: A Battle for Your Mind,” the first of many co-authored by Ries, including “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” and “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR,” written with his daughter and business partner, Laura Ries.

But it was the concept of positioning—which Ad Age ranked No. 56 on its list of the 75 most important marketing ideas in the publication’s then 75-year history—that was most closely associated with Ries. In a 2009 reader poll, “Positioning: A Battle for Your Mind” was rated the No. 1 book of all time on marketing, beating even “Ogilvy on Advertising,” which came in at No. 2. (“The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” came in third.) 

“Al Ries was a major figure in the marketing industry and his influence will be felt for many years to come,” said Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers. “His breakout work with Jack Trout on the idea of brand positioning impacted countless CEOs over the years who went on to build entire marketing plans around the concept.” 

Among the who’s who of clients served by Ries, who was inducted into the American Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame in 2016, are Apple, Walt  Disney Co., Frito-Lay, Ford Motor Co., Microsoft, Papa Johns, Samsung, Siemens and Unilever.

Highly quotable and outspoken, Ries was known as a maverick in the industry. Trout & Ries worked directly with marketers, which was sometimes perceived as circumventing agencies, which then were charged with executing their positioning ideas. Consider this 1994 comment from Kevin O'Neill, then exec VP and chief creative officer at Lintas, New York, about Trout & Ries: “They position themselves as the Moses of the marketing world.”  

Unflappable as always, Ries responded, "Many times, an agency refuses to accept a strategy because it wasn't 'invented here.’”

Ries, in fact, came from an agency background. The Indianapolis native began his career with General Electric but moved to New York to join Needham Louis & Broby and later Marsteller Inc. In 1963, he founded Ries Cappiello Colwell, an ad agency that later evolved into the consultancy Trout & Ries.

Among the strategies credited to Trout & Ries: Proposing Southwest change its name to sound less regional (it didn’t); suggesting Conductor Software change its name to Contact Software (it did, and sales leaped from $1 million to $20 million); recommending Carvel add Ice Cream Bakery to its name (it did). "They know how to get at the essence of a brand, and they are never hesitant to express their point of view,” said Syl Sosnowski, who was Carvel's VP of marketing, in a 1994 Ad Age story.

“They make it simple for clients," said Dick Costello, then president of TBWA New York in that same story. "Their genius is getting rid of the extraneous stuff and boiling it down to the essence."

The duo was also credited for creating Burger King’s “broiled, not fried” positioning in 1982.

Their ideas weren’t always popular. “They were hotly controversial in the ‘70s,” said Laura Ries. “People thought he and Jack were crazy to speak up” on some topics—for example, the pair stumped against the concept of line extensions such as Bud Light.

Sometimes the solution to a marketing problem found by the consultancy was right in front of a client’s nose. A 1984 Ad Age story recounted Trout & Ries asking KPMG “why so many flags and globes showed up on the communications materials” and were told that “KPMG was the worldwide leader in terms of billings—a position the firm never promoted.” That led to a $10 million global positioning campaign. 

Consulting assignments like KPMG’s piled up at Trout & Ries’ doorstep as they moved from client to client. "We're like a pair of gunfighters who, once we've cleaned things up, ride off to the next town,” Trout, who died in 2017, was quoted as saying in that same 1994 story.

Ries parted ways with Trout not long after to set up shop with his daughter Laura under the Ries & Ries shingle, which eventually expanded into China and rebranded as simply Ries. The consultancy will continue to operate under Laura Ries as consulting chairman and Simon Zheng in China as consulting CEO. 

“He was everything to me. My father, my mentor, my partner,” said Laura Ries. “He loved his family and his work and with me those two collided. The education he gave me was priceless.”

“He worked for international brands and he himself became one known around the world,” added Laura Ries. “That in itself is an accomplishment.”

In addition to Laura, Mr. Ries is survived by his wife of 55 years Mary Lou Ries, his other children Charles Ries, Dorothy Ries Faison and Barbara Tien, along with nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

In recent years, Al and Laura Ries conducted many seminars and tours with Italian marketing entrepreneur Frank Merenda, who had this to say about Al Ries: “There are many marketers. But there will always be only one Al Ries.”

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