Marketing strategists Jack Trout and Al Ries have seen the future and it is "refocusing."
Twenty-five years after codifying "positioning" as a marketing master plan and parlaying it into Trout & Ries-a Greenwich, Conn.-based consultancy that earns $120,000 for two-month projects, $15,000 for one-day projects and between $10,000 and $20,000 for speeches-the partners are once again hoping to transport corporate America.
As companies flail about for future direction or a cure to sales morbidity, Trout & Ries believes that in refocusing it has the panacea for their ills. And if Trout & Ries finds some takers, get ready for another decade of boundless self-promotion, punctuated by books positioning the amiable Mr. Trout and the more abrasive Mr. Ries as the fathers of invention.
Of course, they didn't invent refocusing any more than they did positioning (see story at right).
"Inventing positioning is a bit like inventing sex," quipped Laurel Cutler, vice chairman and worldwide director of marketing planning at Chicago-based Foote, Cone & Belding Communications. "It's very hard to claim it."
One could say the same of refocusing, a more palatable expression of the current buzzword reengineering. Lately, refocusing has been the subject of innumerable business press articles on such corporate drifters as Eastman Kodak Co., Subaru of America, Mead Corp. and IBM Corp., all companies in search of a North Star.
"What we with `refocusing' are doing is giving this movement a word. We are defining the concept called refocusing and will be in the process of coming out with the rules and regulations of the game," said Al Ries, Trout & Ries' chairman.
Mr. Ries and partner won't write about this to a fare-thee-well as they did positioning. Not yet anyway. "It depends on who we can sell it to," Mr. Ries said.
Messrs. Ries and Trout, the consultancy's president, began the public sell-in last week at a news conference where they laid out their premise for corporate survival in the next 25 years.
Trout & Ries believes refocusing will become firmly embedded in the business vernacular over the next quarter century. To refocus, they said, companies will have to put themselves through a refocusing process that requires:
Objectivity. Unless a company is willing to admit a mistake, it remains trapped in the past.
Courage. When to change and when not to change are difficult decisions.
Sacrifice. "Everything for everybody" is the antithesis of this process.
Involvement of top management. Anything less results in endless arguments.
Some of this may sound familiar. Focus and sacrifice were touched on in the pair's first book, "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind," and amplified in a later tome, "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing."
The consultants have also added thoughts apropos to the times: to refocus you must think globally even if your business is only domestic; the more high tech a product is, the more likely the need for periodic refocusing; and, what Mr. Ries called the biggest single issue, what to call a new focus.
It might be said that with their latest gambit, Trout & Ries themselves are refocusing on refocusing.
Where positioning was externally focused on "getting inside the consumer's mind," refocusing is 90% internal, Mr. Trout said, noting that companies must refocus before they engage in positioning.
Some say it's dubious that Trout & Ries will make the same waves with refocusing they did with positioning.
While the partners take credit for Lotus Development Corp.'s shift in focus from spreadsheets to groupware with Notes-even going so far as to say they put the words "long-term differentiation" in the mouth of CEO Jim Manzi-refocusing can be a minefield.
"They make it simple for clients," said Dick Costello, president of TBWA, New York. "That's not to say simplistic. Their genius is getting rid of the extraneous stuff and boiling it down to the essence."
Observed one industry executive, however: "Refocusing puts them into a very competitive universe dominated by the McKinseys, Booz Allens and Boston Consulting Groups of the world. It involves day to day business operations and takes into account such things as manufacturing as opposed to pure articulation."
In articulating positioning, Trout & Ries affected marketing for generations and evoked some powerful negative and positive responses.
Indeed, Generation Xers, though steeped in positioning, are a bit fuzzy when it comes to the work of Jack Trout and Al Ries. Take Kirshenbaum & Bond's Charise Mita, senior brand planner for Snapple Beverage Corp.-one of the crispest positionings of the past decade.
"I'm vaguely familiar with their thinking," she said.
Older client and agency executives have very clear opinions on Trout & Ries, who count among their current clients the floundering Digital Equipment Corp.
Kevin O'Neill, exec VP-chief creative officer at Lintas, New York, a contender in the Digital pitch, said: "They position themselves as the Moses of the marketing world. Unfortunately, the commandments they bring down from the mount are a lot less persuasive than the 10 originals."
Offered Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Needham Worldwide: "We could have a discussion on whether demonstrating a remarkable grasp of the obvious is a contribution. It seems on refocusing they are a little late, too."
There's a reason for this disdain. Agency executives have been less than pleased with forays into advertising by Trout & Ries. Agencies don't mind leaving positioning to the duo but for the most part have loathed their input on the ad front.
As one agency executive put it: "They have promoted themselves at the expense of other people and in the process destroyed careers and agencies."
While that might be overstatement, some agencies in the Partnership for a Drug-Free America believe Trout & Ries are now trying to promote themselves at their expense as the two have begun criticizing the group's focus.
Whatever, obvious friction exists to this day between agencies and the consultants.
"Many times, an agency refuses to accept a strategy because it wasn't `invented here,'*" said Mr. Ries, generally considered the less genial of the two partners.
"Take Ed McCabe [chairman of McCabe & Co., New York]," began Mr. Ries in what became almost a diatribe. "We had worked on a strategy for Rally's hamburgers two years ago. We did a strategy that he refused to accept. He said, `Do the opposite.' The client went along with McCabe because he is the `creative genius.' Rally's is now in trouble. The owner brought in a new management team and a new CEO, and we suspect the account is now in trouble to some degree."
This isn't something Ed McCabe liked hearing. "That's nonsense," he said and referred the call to the client.
Bruce Ley, exec VP-marketing for Rally's, denied the account was in trouble and that Trout & Ries' advice was totally ignored. Some elements of Trout & Ries' positioning statement "were incorporated into the campaign as attributes."
Clients are generally more positive about the pair than agencies are.
The two have just finished a project for Arby's that will reposition the chain along the heritage of its original Great American West imagery but in hipper fashion.
"Trout & Ries gave us an objective outsider's opinion in terms of where to grow the brand," said Arby's Senior VP Terry Davenport. "I think we're pretty much just taking their observations and building on them. We've done more research on this repositioning than any other campaign I've seen. This is the most thoroughly thought through and researched positioning I have ever seen."
And Jeff Campbell, now senior VP-brand development at Pepsi-Cola Co., credited the consultants with Burger King Corp.'s "broiled, not fried" positioning when he was BK USA President in 1982.
If the two sometimes seem inflexible, it may be because of a painful lesson.
Recalled Jack Trout: "We wanted Western Union [a former client of Trout & Ries when it was still an ad agency] to change its name to Westar Corp. to communicate its work in advanced communications. They wouldn't, and I guess the agency's mistake was in going along with the company."