You weaken your brand when you expand it: Laura Ries

Marketing strategist Laura Ries advises companies to narrow their focus and come up with memorable slogans using specific words as part of their advertising campaigns

Published: Jan 25, 2016
You weaken your brand when you expand it: Laura Ries

Leading marketing strategist, bestselling author and TV personality Laura Ries founded consulting firm Ries & Ries with her father Al, the legendary ‘positioning’ pioneer. Apart from consulting with firms on brand strategy, Al and she have co-authored five global best-selling books on branding. Laura’s first book was Visual Hammer (2012) and her latest, Battlecry, was published in September 2015. She speaks to Forbes India about the ingredients needed to build a strong brand that will last a lifetime.

Q. In Battlecry’s foreword, Al Ries writes: “Over time, companies drift sideways. They get into many different businesses and lose their focus”. Can you give us a few examples?

There are so many. Yahoo was the leading search engine at one time worth $120 billion on the stock market. Then, it turned itself into a ‘portal’ by adding a host of new services: Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Games, Yahoo Groups, Yahoo Pager, etc.

Those additions allowed Google to move in and dominate the search market. Today, Yahoo is worth only $29 billion on the stock market and most of that value is due to its investment in Alibaba stock. (Google is worth $428 billion on the stock market.)

Q. Any other examples?
Dell was once the largest maker of personal computers with 17 percent of the global market share. Today, it has fallen to third place with 13 percent. Dell’s stock once sold for $60 a share. Two years ago, Dell was bought out by a private equity firm for $13.75 a share.

Q. What caused Dell to collapse?
Expansion. Dell once sold computers direct to businesses. Then it started selling to the consumer market, including products such as television sets, digital audio players, printers and smartphones.

The company also made many acquisitions in areas like storage, services, data centres, security, virtualisation, networking and software. In the three years from 2009 to 2012, Dell spent $12.7 billion on 18 acquisitions. IBM, General Electric and a host of other companies have tried to expand their businesses by introducing many new products and services. Today, these and other companies have gotten smaller, not larger.

Q. Why does this happen?
Because when you expand your brand, you weaken your brand.   
     
Q. How do you correct this mistake?
A company should narrow its focus so that it stands for something. Dell once stood for ‘personal computers sold direct to business’. What does it stand for today? Nothing. As a result, Dell has to sell its products and services at low prices. Years ago, Dell had a powerful slogan: ‘Direct from Dell’ that implied that companies could save money by buying their computers from the company website. The slogan was memorable because it used alliteration, one of the five techniques mentioned in Battlecry that can increase memorability.

Q. What is Dell’s slogan today?
‘Better technology is better business.’ That’s a generic slogan that could apply to any company. Why is a narrow product line better than a broad product line? Because a narrow product line is needed to build a powerful brand.

Q. Can you give us an example?
Take Subaru, a Japanese automobile brand. In the American market, in 1993, Subaru sold 104,179 vehicles, but the company lost $250 million on sales of $1.5 billion. So a new president was hired who found that 48 percent of Subaru’s sales were four-wheelers and 52 percent were two-wheelers. He then decided to focus on four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Sales declined in the first two years, but then they took off:

From 104,179 vehicles in 1993 to 515,693 vehicles in 2014, an increase of 393 percent. (The total automobile market in those 21 years increased by 19 percent.) In 1993, Subaru was the ninth-largest Japanese vehicle brand in the American market. Today, Subaru is the fourth largest, trailing Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Q. So what is the moral of the story here?

It’s hard to find cases like Subaru because most brands are taken in the opposite direction. Companies expand their brands; they don’t contract them. That’s logical, but not a good marketing strategy.

Q. Why do companies like formal words in their marketing campaigns? You recommend colloquial expressions. Why?
Formal words like ‘motion picture’ sound important. But consumers invariably use shorter words like movies, TV or SUV. One of the most-famous charities in America, organised by the United States Marine Corps, collects toys for children during Christmas. Instead of calling the charity ‘Toys for Children’, they called it ‘Toys for Tots’, a colloquial expression that is also alliterative.

You weaken your brand when you expand it: Laura Ries

Q. You also talk a lot about abstract words. Can you tell us how they hurt a marketing campaign?
You have two brains: The left brain which handles words and the right one which handles visuals. The right brain is also the site of your emotions. There are also two kinds of words, abstract words and specific words. ‘George Clooney’ are specific words whereas ‘world-famous movie star’ are abstract words.

Q. So?
Both abstract and specific words are processed in the left brain. But specific words like George Clooney also conjure up images in your right brain, the emotional half of your brain. Emotion is the biggest, single memory stimulant.

What events do you remember the most? The day you graduated from college. The day you got married. The day you had your automobile accident. These ‘emotional’ events are also visual. You can never forget them. That’s why slogans using specific words are much more memorable than slogans using abstract words.

Q. Can you give us an example?
‘The ultimate driving machine’ made BMW the world’s largest luxury vehicle brand. BMW could have said, ‘The ultimate performance machine’, a broader and more inclusive slogan. But ‘driving’ is a word that can be visualised; ‘performance’ cannot.   
     
Q. What is the difference between slogans that consumers remember and the ones that they don’t? How are they related to the concept of Battlecry?
Two things make a slogan memorable: Money and memory-enhancing techniques. If you have enough money (and enough time), you can make any slogan memorable. ‘Just do it’, Nike’s slogan, is memorable because Nike spent billions of dollars to promote it over the past 27 years.

Q. But most companies don’t have the resources that Nike does. Nor do they have the time. What can they do?
They need to consider one of these five memory-enhancing techniques:
1) Rhyme. Folgers became the No. 1 coffee brand in America by focusing on breakfast with the slogan: ‘The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup’.
2) Alliteration. M&Ms became a leading candy brand by focusing on a feature of the brand with the slogan: ‘Melts in your mouth. Not in your hands’.
3) Repetition. Federal Express, an air-cargo carrier, entered the American market to compete with the market leader, Emery Air Freight. FedEx (the current name of the company) decided to focus on overnight delivery.

They could have said, ‘The overnight carrier’. Instead, they used repetition to create memorability. ‘When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight’. Within a few years, FedEx became the leader in the category.
4) Reversal. Secret became the leading anti-perspirant/deodorant for women with a simple reversal slogan: ‘Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman’.
5) Double-entendre. This is perhaps the best way to create a memorable slogan. The two meanings contained in a single slogan oscillate back and forth in your mind, thereby creating memorability.

Q. Can you give us an example?
‘A diamond is forever’ is a typical example. A diamond (the hardest substance known to man) can presumably last forever. A love symbolised by a diamond can last forever, too.

Q. You write: “Apple is an enormously successful company… but it wasn’t because of abstractions like ‘Designed in California’.” What is it that you are trying to say?
Even successful companies can fall into the trap of using grandiose, abstract words instead of down-to-earth specific words. Apple’s ‘Designed in California’ campaign had exceptionally low viewer ratings and was discontinued within a year. Three successful brands made Apple the world’s most valuable company. And they all used specific words or concepts in their introductions.

The iPod: ‘A thousand songs in your pocket’.
The iPhone: ‘The first touchscreen smartphone’.
The iPad: ‘The first tablet computer’.

Yet, when Apple introduced the Apple Watch, the company did not try to position the brand with specific words or concepts. Many people, including me, think the Apple Watch will not turn out to be nearly as successful as the three brands that came before it. A sign of trouble ahead: Apple regularly provides data on iPhone sales, but refuses to disclose Apple Watch sales.

Q. Why are companies in love with the word ‘innovation’?
“Business has only two functions,” wrote Peter Drucker, “Marketing and innovation.”

Innovation, like many other abstract words, is both important and useless. Important in business and useless in marketing. Inside a company, the management should focus on innovation.

In the long term, a company cannot be successful unless it is innovative. When it communicates to prospects on the outside, however, it should forget about innovation. That’s inside-out thinking. Instead, companies should practice “outside-in thinking”. Start with the mind of the consumer and try to fill an open hole in the mind. ‘Innovation’ is a typical abstract word that has no real meaning for consumers.

Instead, a company should look at its innovative product and try to express that innovation in specific words like ‘The first touchscreen smartphone’.
Many companies, however, continue to try to pre-empt ‘innovation’ in their marketing slogans. Some recent examples:
Asus: Inspiring innovation. Persistent perfection.
Bosch: We bring innovation.
Firestone: A tradition of innovation.
Ford: Driving American innovation.
NEC: Empowered by innovation.
Nissan: Innovation that excites.
Siemens: Global network of innovation.
Toshiba: Leading innovation.

It’s highly unlikely that consumers will associate the word ‘innovation’ with any of these companies. They will, however, associate ‘innovation’ with Apple because Apple had launched innovative products with specific slogans.

Q. One of the things you write is that the motion picture industry should be a big user of alliteration and other memory-enhancing techniques. What do you mean by that?
In America, the motion picture industry is an enormous advertiser. Typically, a motion picture producer might spend $100 million to make a movie and $50 million to promote it with most of that money spent on advertising.

Furthermore, any individual motion picture might have only a few weeks at the box office to recover its cost of production and marketing.

Unlike Nike, a motion picture doesn’t have years to create a memorable impression; just a few weeks.

So, in order to achieve success, it needs to burn the movie’s name in the mind. And there is no better way to do that than by using rhyme, alliteration or one of the other memory-enhancing techniques.

I did a survey of 100 classic motion pictures and found only four with alliterative titles: King Kong, Marathon Man, Dirty Dancing and The Naughty Nineties.

King Kong is a good example of how long a really great name can last. It was first exhibited 82 years ago. Five of the 51 films that Woody Allen has directed have alliterative titles: Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Whatever Works, Magic in the Moonlight and Don’t Drink the Water.  

Consider the theme of Hamlet’s soliloquy: ‘To be or not to be’. These six words (with one reversal and one repetition) are some of the most memorable lines in literature. They were written 394 years ago.

If you want your advertising slogan to last for 394 years, you’d better include some memory-enhancing techniques.

Q. How can a slogan provide protection from future competition?

A slogan can build a brand. And a strong brand is the best protection a company can have from future competition. How do you build a brand that will last a lifetime? There are four critical steps:
One: Be first in a new category. Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, was the first cola. It’s still the leading cola today, 129 years later.

Two: (Which isn’t a step at all, but the most important thing you can do.) Don’t line-extend the brand. Keep the brand focussed on its category. If you want to introduce another product or service, use a different brand name.

Three: Create a slogan that communicates your leadership. Coca-Cola is widely known as ‘The real thing’. That’s the slogan the brand should be using because it communicates the fact that Coca-Cola is the original, the authentic cola.

Four: Hammer the slogan with visual hammer. In Coca-Cola’s case, it’s the contour bottle which the brand has been using extensively.

Q. You write that creating a good slogan is only half the battle won. It also needs a good visual hammer. Could you explain that?
The objective of a marketing campaign is to “own a word in the mind”. But the best way to own a word is to find a visual that can hammer that word in the mind.
Marlboro was the first cigarette targeted at men only. But to drive that idea in the mind, Marlboro used a cowboy. The cowboy is the visual hammer that made Marlboro the world’s best-selling cigarette.

Corona beer is the only Mexican brand that has made Interbrand’s annual list of the 100 most valuable brands in the world. How did Corona achieve this? With a lime. When Corona was introduced in the American market, the importers insisted that the beer be served with a lime on top of the bottle. (America is a lemon country. Mexico is a lime country.) The lime communicated the fact that Corona was the authentic Mexican beer.

Countries can have visual hammers, too. In France, it’s the Eiffel Tower. In Italy, it’s the Coliseum. In Brazil, it’s Christ, the Redeemer. In America, it’s the Statue of Liberty. In India, it’s the Taj Mahal.

(This story appears in the 05 February, 2016 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Karthikeyan Ovuraj

    Here Laura says, Expansion weakens the brand, and especially its focus and positioning. But it is not universal. My point is... It depends on the phase of a business existence and how an organization wants to transform itself! Diversification per se can not be attributed to the weakening of a brand, but there could be other factors associated as well.. What do you think!?

    on Jan 25, 2016
    • Jeffrey Summers

      Nothing is universal. Not even the universe. You missed the point and thanks for diluting the message.

      on Jan 25, 2016
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