Tag Archives: al ries

How Al Ries Influenced Coleman Insights

This past week, we learned legendary marketer Al Ries passed away. Matt Bailey, president of our sister company Integr8 Research, sent an internal email stating simply, “Without his work, we wouldn’t have ours.”

How true that is. You can see the influence of Al Ries all over Coleman Insights, including in Tuesdays With Coleman blogs that reference him, like “What’s Your Word,” “Lack of Focus=Lack of Greatness,” “Need a Slogan? Bring the Sledgehammer”, and “The Line Extension Trap.”

Coleman Insights was not the first radio research company. The earliest research companies certainly illuminated and pointed out what the consumer was thinking about and issues to address. But in the early 80s, as I began to talk to consumers and hear what they were saying, it became clear there was a gap between what people inside the radio station and outside the radio station were thinking. I realized the program directors and general managers way overestimated the levels of interest of the listeners.

At this same time, books by marketers Al Ries and Jack Trout became very popular. These included “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind” and “Marketing Warfare” in the 80s and “The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing” and “Focus: The Future Of Your Company Depends On It” (my favorite) in the 90s.

I related to so much of what Ries and Trout were saying because of what I was experiencing as a radio researcher. Unintentionally at first but intentionally later, I made these principles a core focus of our company. The best way I can describe this is:

It’s not the product. It’s what’s in the mind of the consumer.

So, we began to really think about how the consumer thinks, and the communication process between the radio station and its listeners. It was this focus that I believe led to some of the most successful stations which used communication methods as much as or more than they focused on the music or spoken word product.

Take KZZP in Phoenix in 1985. Along with Guy Zapoleon and the team at KZZP, we recommended they start using “The #1 Hit Music Station.” You’re used to hearing that positioner now, but it was not being used back then. At that time, KZZP was in a battle with KOPA, but KOPA wasn’t clear about what it was, the station was shifting the music around and they were constantly tweaking the product, because they thought the product was all that mattered. But by using “The #1 Hit Music Station,” we went for the mind of the consumer. Within about six months, KOPA was destroyed, and it flipped months later. That principle, battling for the mind, was all based on Al Ries’ philosophy.

Back then, I heard one station using “Lite” for the first time and thought it was genius. There were stations all over the United States in the Soft Adult Contemporary format, but they weren’t differentiated from other AC stations. Al Ries talks about creating your own category, and at the time there was no Soft AC category. But when you called the station “Lite” or “Lite Rock,” you created a new ladder, and the station could become the leader in the category that every other station in the format was compared to. On so many occasions, Al Ries’s books gave me confidence that what I was seeing wasn’t just a radio thing but were universal marketing principles.

More recently, I feel some have veered away from Ries’ principles, thinking digital tools will simply track consumer behavior and we won’t need marketing “gimmicks.” Over time, it’s been made clear the branding piece is so necessary. You need to communicate how your product fits in the marketplace and how it’s different. Fortunately, it feels like there is more of a swing happening back towards the image development side.

One thing I know Al Ries would agree with is the importance of external marketing. For audio brands, external marketing is perceived differently than marketing on the brand itself. It’s perceived as an editorial message about the product. You can define what the product is, in a way through external messaging, that you can’t internally. So, in other words, all the liners in the world won’t matter that much without external marketing that gives credibility to what the radio station, podcast, streaming service, and so on is doing.

Al Ries and Jack Trout taught me the need to talk to consumers in plain, real language. We get so caught up in the hype that we forget to talk to people. And they taught me that it’s too easy to try to be “cute,” creating messages that don’t mean anything to the consumer. You need to tell them what you’re doing as clearly as possible.

When you see Coleman Insights talking about core philosophies such as Outside Thinking, the Image Pyramid, or the Brand-Content Matrix, there is an abundance of Al Ries influence to thank for it. I’ll always be grateful for his work.

What’s Your Word?

Tuesdays With Coleman

My favorite marketing book of all-time is “Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It” by strategist Al Ries, and one of the most important lessons in the book involves one simple question.

What’s your word?

Consumers make product decisions on words, not visuals.

When you look at or think about products, you don’t spend as much time evaluating them as you might think. You gravitate to the products that fit what you think you need and select the one that is most strongly associated with the need. This is where owning a word can drive a decision.

Words can determine how you’re perceived within your category or if you are perceived at all. In automotive, for example, Lexus is luxury. Volvo is safety. Despite the fact that many cars are just as safe as Volvo and some have done better in safety tests, Volvo still owns the word. My son just bought one, without even looking at other brands.

Sometimes a big brand owns the most important word for a category, like Starbucks for coffee. In that case, you need an idea that differentiates you and the best way to do that is with a single word, not a long drawn out concept.

Domino’s was second in pizza to Pizza Hut until it took the word “fast”. That was great until it got scared off by issues of driver safety. Jimmy John’s now owns the word “fast” for delivery because Domino’s gave it up.

Word association works for radio stations, too. For music stations, your word needs to be the first to come to mind.

There’s a reason why so many stations in the Adult Contemporary universe use the name “Mix”. The name itself can aid the perception of variety.

Whether in name or positioning, the word listeners use to define your station must be simple and clear. “That’s the variety station.” “That’s the oldies station.” “That’s the rock station.”

When your brand is strong and you own a word, it becomes synonymous with the category.

If your radio station is solidly known as the variety station, it will be extremely difficult for another station to take the position away.

If you don’t have a word, think about words that might still be available that radio stations have never pursued or walked away from. Words that were once considered “too narrow” may be perfect for our modern over-communicated world.

If the format leader owns the category word, there are other options. Your station can have a word to own for part of the category.

For example, two Adult Contemporary stations can’t own the Mix/variety image. So perhaps it’s a word like “soft” or “easy” or “lite” or “upbeat” (e.g., “makes you feel good.”)

It may be challenging to own the word “Rock” but perhaps you can own “Classic Rock,” or “Hard Rock” or 80s and 90s Rock.

Your morning show might well be served to own a word too, and it starts by determining what image you want it to own.

Do you want it to be thought of as the funniest? Most outrageous? The most authentic?

To do this, you have to use the same Outside Thinking principles that guide station images. For example, if your station has an image for playing 80s music and you’re trying to capture 90s images, adding an extra 90s song or two won’t do it. You must use specific language that tells the audience the station now plays 90s music.

In the same way, it is not enough for a morning show to be funny. The word needs to dominate sweepers, promos, the show open and close, and so on. It might be “the funniest morning show in Phoenix.” Or, “now, more from Denver’s laugh-out-loud morning show.” Or, “The (name) Morning Show. The one that makes you LOL.”

If the show is meant to be a friendly companion, say that. Controversial? Say that.

And, say it with enough regularity to matter. There is not enough time in your listeners’ busy lives to think they will pick up subtlety.

Once your show owns a word, a show that tries to compete for the same image will be seen as an inferior copycat.

The importance of owning a word is more important than ever.

As digital media consumption increases, you may find your word begin to show up in places other than AM/FM radio.

If you don’t defend your word…or worse, if you don’t have one at all, it’s time to head for the hills.

Lack of Focus = Lack of Greatness

Tuesdays With Coleman

Netflix just dropped the new season of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on July 19th. Each episode of the show features Seinfeld selecting a vintage car, then driving a fellow comic in that car to get coffee for a very casual interview/conversation. Episode One of the new season features Eddie Murphy, and that caught my attention.

Much of the episode centers on the two comedians talking about the old days, when they honed their stand-up craft in the New York area around the same time. There’s mutual admiration, Eddie slings a fair share of jokes, reveals he is planning a return to stand-up and shares some very insightful behind-the-curtain stories about Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.

At one point of the episode in the coffee shop, Jerry and Eddie talk about the differences between the entertainment landscape back in the day and the present day. Eddie says, “You’ve got to put time in to creating something that’s worthwhile. Now you’ve got so many options, it seems hard to focus on something. So many options.”

To which Jerry replied, with emphasis:

“A lack of focus is why we have a lack of greatness.”

This astute observation got me thinking about focus in today’s environment and where the lack of focus is coming from. In other words, is it lack of focus on the part of the creator or the consumer?

It’s both.

From a consumer angle, the lack of focus is obvious. We are bombarded with more choice than ever before. More TV shows. More apps. More diets. More games. More news. More streaming. More podcasts. More social networks. More phones. More smart devices.

More, more, more!!

And you’re still expecting listeners to pay close attention to your radio station?

This is the foundation of Outside Thinking, a Coleman Insights philosophy that’s not new, but increases in societal relevance by the day. It instructs that listenership behavior is driven by numerous factors, many of them out of your control. When we adopt the mindset of our listeners, rather than the mindset of a programmer in a board room, we can more effectively reach and communicate with them.

But what about the creator angle? We know our consumers are losing focus. Are we?

Eddie gives an example of a comic he knows that has a specific niche. He’s known for a certain kind of comedy. Eddie explains, “Every Wednesday, this comic kills it. Then a different crowd comes in on Thursday and you can’t even get a laugh.” He follows this up with a remedy: “Just work the niche. You don’t think, ‘I wanna be able to kill on Thursday.’ You say I’m gonna kill every Wednesday.”

The point is, you can’t be everything to everyone. And you need to stop trying now.

We could recommend many books on this topic, but a perennial favorite at The House of Coleman is “Focus” by marketing genius Al Ries. A chapter that really illustrates Eddie’s point is Chapter 9: “Narrowing Your Scope.”

According to Ries, “More money has been wasted reaching out to a company’s ‘noncustomers’ than any other single endeavor.”

Radio brands are well-versed in the art of focusing on loyal customers. We’re taught to grow our ratings by growing the percentage of P1s (first preference listeners), as they provide the bulk of the listening.

Maybe the question to ask of our brands in the context of focus is, “Why does a P1 listener choose our radio station first?” Understandably, this answer varies. The reason a listener chooses a “Jack” station for an unpredictable variety of music is different than why, for example, a listener may choose a radio station with dominant personality images.

P1s choose your radio station because they love it for its niche. As Ries says, “All business is a niche business. The question is, what kind of a niche do you want to own?”

This mentality requires a shift in what being “best” means.

Should you want your radio station to be the best sounding? Of course. But the winning strategy is to have the best position. Build clearly defined, differentiated images, track them in perceptual research and dominate them.

Says Ries, “The power in business doesn’t derive from your products. It derives from your position in the mind. Focus is the art of carefully selecting your category and then working diligently to get yourself categorized. It’s not a trap to avoid; it’s a goal to achieve”.

The less focused consumers are, the more focused creators must be.

Like Ries says, “The future of your company depends on it.”