Al Ries, Adman Who Sought a Portal Into Consumers’ Brains, Dies at 95

Al Ries, Adman Who Sought a Portal Into Consumers’ Brains, Dies at 95

Using the concept of “positioning,” he guided companies to market their products by creating hard-to-forget messages.

Al Ries, an influential marketing strategist who in the 1970s and ’80s popularized “positioning,” in which companies try to defeat their rivals by embedding hard-to-forget words in consumers’ minds, died on Oct. 7 at his home in Atlanta. He was 95.

His daughter Laura Ries confirmed the death.

Mr. Ries (pronounced Reese) and his partner, Jack Trout, at Trout & Ries, a Manhattan firm, preached to their clients that creative advertising wasn’t enough to persuade consumers to buy their products. But smart positioning, they said, would — as Volvo did with “safety,” Crest did with “cavities” and FedEx did with “overnight,” slicing through the growing clutter of advertising messages from print, TV and radio.

“Key principle?” Mr. Ries said in an email interview with The New York Times in 2017. “Find an open hole in the mind and become the first brand to fill it.”

Trout & Ries’s successes included positioning Uniroyal as the tire manufacturer with the most patents; Trump Plaza Hotel as “Atlantic City’s centerpiece,” to connote its location on the boardwalk; and Burger King as the purveyor of “broiled, not fried” hamburgers. (That campaign led to a lawsuit by its target, McDonald’s , which countered that Burger King’s burgers were often steamed.)

For Sabena Belgian World Airlines , Mr. Ries and Mr. Trout positioned the country instead of the airline, and did so against the Netherlands. Their campaign focused on the five Belgian cities (Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Liège and Tournai) that had received three stars from the Michelin Guide as meriting a “special journey.” Only one Dutch city, Amsterdam, a much better known and highly popular destination, had gotten three stars.

The campaign’s slogan: “In beautiful Belgium, there are five Amsterdams.”

In 2005, when the industry publication Ad Age ranked the most important marketing ideas of the past 75 years, positioning came in at No. 56. Four years later, when Ad Age polled its readers about the best books on marketing, Mr. Ries and Mr. Trout’s “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” (1981) was ranked No. 1.

Mr. Ries was inducted into the American Marketing Association’s Marketing Hall of Fame in 2016.

Bob Liodice, the chief executive of the Association of National Advertisers, said in a statement: “Al Ries’s work on positioning represented a milestone in the evolution of modern marketing. It influenced a whole generation of marketers who started viewing their brands in an entirely different light.”

Alfred Paul Ries was born on Nov. 14, 1926, in Indianapolis. His father, Theodore, was a schoolteacher, and his mother, Elsie (Moeller) Ries, was a homemaker. After a stint as a merchant mariner, Mr. Ries served in the Army in Korea shortly after World War II.

He graduated in 1950 from DePauw University in Indiana, where he majored in mathematics, and began his advertising career with General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y. He later moved on to Needham, Louis & Brorby and Marsteller in Manhattan.

With two partners, Mr. Ries started his own advertising firm, Ries Cappiello Colwell, in 1963 and hired Mr. Trout four years later. There, Mr. Ries had already begun applying the concept of positioning, though at the time he was calling it “the rock” — the immovable foundation upon which every advertisement rested.

“Jack suggested we call the idea ‘positioning,’ which I instantly accepted,” Mr. Ries said in the 2017 Times interview, after Mr. Trout’s death at 82. “The name was better because it suggested a ‘position’ in the mind.”

The idea took off in the advertising industry in 1972 after Mr. Ries gave a speech that intrigued Rance Crain, the president of Crain Communications, the parent company of Ad Age. He suggested that Mr. Ries write about positioning for the publication. Mr. Ries and Mr. Trout collaborated on a three-part series.

“To establish a position,” they wrote, “you must not only name competitive names, but also ignore most of the old advertising rule as well. In category after category, the prospect already knows the benefits of using the product. To climb on his product ladder, you must relate your brand to the brand already there.”

They admired classic campaigns by 7Up, which separated itself from its soft drink cola rivals by calling itself the “uncola,” and Avis, which admitted to being No. 2 to Hertz in rental cars while offering a simple reason for people to choose its service: “We try harder.”

Positioning elevated the partners’ profile within the industry and brought a wave of clients, including Paramount Pictures, AT&T, Carvel, KPMG, Sotheby’s, IBM and Humana.

In 1979, after Mr. Ries’s original partners departed, Ries Cappiello Colwell became Trout & Ries, and in 1989 it shifted from being an ad agency to a strategic consultancy, leading to the firing of 200 employees and a move to Greenwich, Conn.

Mr. Ries and Mr. Trout also wrote “Marketing Warfare” (1986), “Bottom-Up Marketing” (1989) and “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk” (1993).

Ravi Dhar , a professor of marketing at Yale University and director of its Center for Customer Insights, said that the strength of Mr. Ries’s work in positioning was in how it forced marketers to try to simplify their messages in order for them to be heard.

“I think that’s his big contribution — that unless you simplify your message, it won’t stick,” Mr. Dhar said in a phone interview. “But simplifying is not easy. Complexifying is easy. Simplifying is hard work.”

In addition to his daughter, Laura, Mr. Ries is survived by his wife, Mary Lou (Morrissey) Ries; two other daughters, Dorothy Ries Faison and Barbara Tien; a son, Charles; his sisters Marian Block and Susan Kruse; his brothers Charles and Theodore; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His marriage to Lois Parker ended in divorce.

Mr. Ries and Mr. Trout parted ways in 1994. Mr. Trout set up his own firm, and Mr. Ries formed a consultancy, Ries & Ries (now Ries), with his daughter Laura. She recalled that she grew up watching television with her father, listening to him critique commercials.

“The commercials were more important than ‘M*A*S*H,’” she said in an interview. “I always loved going to the agency when I was a kid. I pretended I worked there and made my own little ads.”

The Ries firm’s clients have included Papa Johns in the United States; Great Wall Motor in China; and Hatsun Agro Product, a dairy company in India. Together, Mr. Ries and Ms. Ries wrote five books, including “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build a Product or Service into a World-Class Brand” (1998), which helped bring in consulting jobs.

Ms. Ries said that she extended her father’s concept of positioning by adding an emphasis on visual imagery, which she described in her own book, “Visual Hammer” (2015). For a Mexican hamburger chain, Cuarto de Kilo , for example, the Rieses persuaded the founder in 2018 to replace its logo, of a grill, with one of a lion eating a quarter-kilo burger, and adopt a new slogan, “Fiesta para la Bestia” (or “A Feast for a Beast”).

“He talked about owning a word in the mind,” Ms. Ries said, “but we found over time that words weren’t enough, that to get someone’s attention, a visual was much more powerful.