Al Ries on Marketing

Why You Can (and Can't) Learn From Obama

Change Isn't Always the Best Prescription

By Published on .

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination once again demonstrates the power of one of the most fundamental concepts in marketing: owning a word in the mind.

Hillary Clinton launched her campaign by focusing on "experience." Not a bad idea, because it is a word that differentiated her from her chief rival, Barack Obama.

While Clinton was clever, Obama was brilliant. He focused on the word "change," a concept that matched the mood of the majority of the American public, yearning for change after seven years of Republican rule.

Barack Obama's theme: "Change we can believe in."

Almost immediately, Hillary Clinton realized her mistake and jumped on the change bandwagon. Her new theme: "Countdown to change."

It's too late. Obama has pre-empted the change idea. A typical example is the cover of the Jan. 14 issue of Newsweek with a picture of Barack Obama and the words "Our time for change has come."

Now, Clinton looks like a follower instead of a leader.

Then there was John Edwards. What word did John Edwards own in the mind? I don't know, do you? That's why he didn't have a chance.

If you want to run for office, if you want to launch a new brand, if you want to jump-start your business career, the first question to ask yourself begins: "What word do I want to own in the minds of my prospects..."

That would be an easy question to answer, except for the last part, which ends "...a word that nobody else owns?"

In the world of marketing, many major brands owe their success to the principle of owning a word. What I find almost impossible to understand, however, is the disconnect between a brand's advertising and the word the brand owns in the mind.

Toyota is thought by many to be the most reliable car you can buy -- yet the theme of Toyota's advertising is "Moving forward." Coca-Cola is widely known as the authentic cola ("the real thing") and all other brands are mere imitations -- but the theme of Coke's advertising is "The Coke side of life." Budweiser supposedly reigns as the "King of Beers" -- but the theme of Bud's advertising is "The great American lager." (What's the difference between a lager and a pilsner? I don't know, do you?)

What keeps brands such as Toyota, Coca-Cola and Budweiser on top of their categories is that the ideas behind them are firmly implanted in the mind.

When a consumer sees advertising for Coca-Cola, for example, it triggers up memories of what's already in the mind. "Oh, yes. That's the real thing." It's hard to put a new idea in the mind that doesn't connect with the one that's already there.

It's been many years since FedEx ran advertising with the theme "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." Yet for most people, that's the one idea connected with the brand.

What is FedEx's new advertising slogan? How many people know it is "Relax. It's FedEx"? Not too many, in my opinion.

Have you read the new book written by the former president of Starbucks titled "It's Not About the Coffee"?

It's not about the coffee? No wonder the chain extended into breakfast sandwiches, a move recently overturned by Howard Schultz, the company's chairman.

Most marketing people would probably agree that advertising slogans are useless because they're not memorable and consumers can't connect them with individual brands. How many of the following slogans can you connect with brands?
  1. "Advance"
  2. "Engineered beautifully"
  3. "The power of dreams"
  4. "Think about it"
  5. "Rethink"
In a recent year, these five brands spent $2.1 billion on advertising. Yet most people probably can't connect the brand names to the slogans. Answers: (1) Acura (2) Chrysler (3) Honda (4) Hyundai (5) Saturn.

It's gotten so bad that many advertisers have given up. Why bother, goes the thinking, when consumers won't remember our slogan anyway. Let's just run great individual advertisements.

That's a mistake. A great slogan not only connects with consumers, it can help keep everybody in the organization focused. Some great slogans.
  1. "The ultimate driving machine"
  2. "A diamond is forever."
  3. "Italy's No. 1 pasta"
  4. "The first vacuum that doesn't lose suction"
  5. "Melts in your mouth. Not in your hand."
I'm sure it's not necessary, but here are the answers: (1) BMW (2) De Beers (3) Barilla (4) Dyson (5) M&Ms.

When picking a slogan, marketing people often make three fundamental mistakes.

1. Developing a slogan in isolation.
A slogan doesn't exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is part of an advertisement, a brochure, a press release, a website, etc. That's why you shouldn't judge a slogan apart from the rest of the message.

Instead of developing dozens of possible slogans and then picking the best one, a good marketing person would first develop a "pattern" advertisement that reads like the strategy of the brand. Then figure out the best sum-up concept to put at the bottom of the ad. That concept should be slogan.

Some of the best slogans are those that are intrinsically locked into the name of the brand.
  • "Use it or lose it" for Rogaine.
  • "Roaches check in, but they don't check out" for Roach Motel.
  • "How do you spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S."
  • "With a name like Smucker's, it's got to be good."
  • "Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man."
2. Trying to develop an exciting or emotional slogan.
A good slogan is like the punch line of a good joke. The punch line alone is never funny. Nor is a good slogan necessarily exciting all by itself.

Take a joke with the punch line "Professional courtesy." In itself that's not an interesting or funny line until you hear the preceding sentence: "Why don't sharks bite lawyers?"

Or Henny Youngman's famous joke with the punch line "please" and the set-up line "Take my wife ..."

Or "Marlboro Country." It's only a powerful slogan when it's combined with the cowboy visuals.

Or the "King of Beers." It's only a powerful slogan when it's combined with the Clydesdale horses and the old-fashioned beer wagon.

3. Thinking in years instead of decades.
The three most important rules of advertising used to be: Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

Today, we seem to have forgotten these rules. Today, it seems like the three most important rules of advertising are: Creativity. Novelty. Gimmickry.

Some of the most successful advertising programs have been the ones that have run for decades, not years.

This year the Marlboro cowboy is 55 years old. It took 25 years of cowboy consistency before Marlboro passed Winston to become the No. 1-selling cigarette in the U.S. Today, Marlboro is so far ahead of the No. 2 brand that few people have any idea of its name (Newport.)

Suppose some new marketing manager had arrived and said, "I'm tired of cowboys. Why can't we use football players?"

Change is a powerful idea for Barack Obama, but it can be devastating to an advertising program.

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In addition to his monthly column, Al Ries and his daughter and partner Laura Ries host a weekly video report on their website:
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