Proclaiming the 'fall of advertising'

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In their new book, Al Ries and his daughter, Laura Ries, posit the radical notion that advertising, because of its increasing lack of credibility, is nearly incapable of building a brand. Instead, Ries and Ries argue in "The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR" (HarperBusiness, 2002) that brands must be built through the third-party endorsements PR can gain for them in the media. Advertising, the book holds, is best used to maintain and reinforce a brand.

This isn’t the first time Al Ries has tried to popularize an unorthodox marketing idea. With his former business partner, Jack Trout, Ries co-authored in 1972 a series of articles on positioning for BtoB sister publication Advertising Age. The concept of positioning has since become axiomatic in the industry.

Perhaps the same will be true of the idea advanced in "The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR." Recently, we asked the Rieses, who together run Ries & Ries Inc., a branding consultancy based in Roswell, Ga., about the implications of their book.

BtoB: How does your book challenge the traditional relationship between advertising and public relations?

Al Ries: The basic theme of the book is that public relations should replace advertising as the major communications vehicle for launching or repositioning a brand. Traditionally, advertising has been viewed as the primary vehicle for building brands. Look at the American Advertising Federation campaign "Advertising: How great brands get to be great brands."

In the past, public relations has been considered a secondary function behind advertising. But the biggest believers in PR in the world are America’s 15,000 advertising agencies. They don’t spend any money on advertising; they hound the press with releases on their new advertising campaigns.

BtoB: On the cover of your book is the sock puppet splayed in the middle of the highway. Did the idea of PR building brands become clear in the wake of Internet companies spending tens of millions of dollars on branding, only to go out of business?

A.R.: This is something that has been percolating for a while. It goes back to the articles that Jack [Trout] and I wrote on positioning. What we were saying in those articles is that advertising is not a good way to put new ideas into mind. It’s especially difficult to change a brand.

A brand’s position in the mind is like a hole in the ground. You can deepen the hole. You can widen the hole. But one thing you can’t do is move the hole.

Laura Ries: The Internet is a good case study in how advertising is very inefficient in building brands. We saw it to an extreme that we’ve never seen before.

A.R.: Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Priceline and even AOL benefited from enormous amounts of publicity. Sure, they might have done advertising, but it was PR that built those brands. Without PR you’re lost.

BtoB: What are a few b-to-b examples of using PR to build brands?

A.R.: Microsoft. Sure, they spend hundreds of millions over the years on advertising, but name a Microsoft ad. Most people can’t. The real communications has taken place in the publicity. If you go back in history, starting with the Xerox 914 copier, that got incredible publicity. If you move on to the IBM 360 line of mainframes, that got incredible publicity, too.

Digital Equipment Corp., Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Lotus: In general, when you review the history of these major, major brands, they were built primarily by PR. Sure, there was advertising, but most people got their message from PR. Advertising was a reminder function.

BtoB: Is PR brand-building more important in consumer or b-to-b marketing?

A.R.: If there is any difference, it’s more important in b-to-b, where the customer is less likely to evaluate the offering. In computers, software and all sorts of high-tech black boxes, the question is: Do they work or don’t they? That’s hard to know. A lot of people are greatly influenced by stories in the media about the success or failure of these products.

L.R.: With a soft drink, you can pick up a can of cola and see if it’s good or bad. There’s also the price-point difference.

BtoB: If there is an over-reliance on PR for corporations to tell their message, will the credibility of the press be eroded—similar to the erosion of credibility in advertising?

L.R.: Everything is relative. It’s not that PR is necessarily perfect; it’s just that in relation to advertising it’s much more credible.

BtoB: If there is an over-reliance on public relations, advertising will be scaled back, and there will then be less editorial space and more difficulty placing PR. Do you see that as a weakness in your theory?

A.R.: You can look at it two ways. First, you could say what would result if everyone followed our advice, which they’re unlikely to do. Second, my opinion is many established brands don’t do enough advertising, and they don’t do the right kind of advertising, which is reinforcing and reaffirming the brand, rather than constantly taking their brands in new directions.

BtoB: How did you practice what you preach in promoting your book?

L.R.: We started with PR eight months ago.

A.R.: We started with a newsletter, Jack O’Dwyer’s newsletter ["O’Dwyer’s PR Daily"]. It’s the classic PR technique of leaking it out. We’ve got a stack of publicity. We would be willing to bet anybody that this book received more coverage than any business book published this year.

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