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A message that can’t be visualised will lack the power of emotion: Laura Ries

In an interaction with, Ries talks about the importance of visuals in branding, when does one become a brand expert, why Coca-Cola needs rebranding, what is important for start-up brands and much more

Laura Ries

Laura Ries, a leading marketing strategist, bestselling author and television personality, founded Ries & Ries, a marketing consulting firm, along with her father Al Ries in 1994.

Both Al and Laura are co-authors of five books on branding that have been worldwide bestsellers. Her first solo book was Visual Hammer. Her latest book Battlecry was published in September 2015. In addition, Laura writes her own popular blog

Laura’s first job was at TBWA Advertising in New York City in account management. Laura is a frequent marketing analyst on major news programmes from the O’Reilly Factor to Squawk Box. She regularly appears on Fox News, Fox Business, CNBC, CNN, HLN, and is frequently quoted by the Associated Press, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets. 

A resident of Atlanta, Georgia, Laura enjoys outdoor activities like horseback riding, swimming, triathlons, snow skiing and more.

In a conversation with, Ries talked in detail about the world of marketing across the globe. Excerpts:

Let’s begin with your father Al Ries. What does this mean to be his daughter, his partner and where do you see yourself vis-à-vis him?

Being the daughter of Al Ries means I am one lucky kid. Not because he is famous and sold a lot of books but because my dad patiently took the time to pass along his wisdom, knowledge and passion for branding.

My dad also taught me to drive the stick shift in his prized Corvette convertible when I was a teenager. Now as a parent myself, I can’t imagine how hard it was to hear your daughter grind the gears as she learned how to handle the clutch. He never yelled at me or cried for his car. He gently guided me and eventually, I mastered it. It has been the same way with marketing. He never forced me into the business, I pursued him and learnt from the best. I love to say I received the best marketing MBA any student could ask for. It has been 23 years since we first started Ries & Ries and I feel comfortable and confident behind the branding wheel. It is a joy to be his true equal partner now.

You have spoken a lot of visual hammers in your book. Why do you think visualisation is so important for brands?

Visuals are important for brands because they communicate emotion in a way that words alone cannot. Visuals drive emotion because they are instantly perceived by the right brain, the side of the brain that also controls emotions. The truth is you need both a word and a visual. The most powerful thing for a brand is to own an idea in the mind, the problem is how you get that idea into the mind. The answer is visual. But not just any visual, you need one that communicates something unique about your brand. Then the emotional power of that visual drives the word into the mind. Marlboro cigarette wanted to be the masculine cigarette. However, saying it wasn’t enough. It was the cowboy imagery that drove the idea into the mind and makes it the world’s leading brand.

In that case, do you think there is enough importance given to visualisers and art directors in the industry than the copywriters?

Art directors and copywriters are both vital and need to work together. Brands need both to succeed. A beautiful visual won’t help a brand if it isn’t connected to the right message. And a message that can’t be visualised will lack the power of emotion. Many times, the two need to be flexible and work back and forth to find the right solution. BMW could have more accurately called itself The Ultimate Performance Machine. But how do you visualise performance? You can’t. Instead, they used The Ultimate Driving Machine, which is much easier to visualise.

Does that reduce the value of copywriting if a visual hammer is more important than copy?

The visual hammer is more powerful but the words are more important. The trick is that the words don’t have the power until the visual is added. 

What else is the pillar of support to the branding exercise for a brand?

The central pillar of support is a narrow focus. Brands need to focus in order to find a word and a visual. If you stand for everything and appeal to everybody there is no word that can be visualised for you to own.

How does one define a brand expert and differentiate between an expert and a trainee?

I think you should never stop learning. You might be an expert today, but you need to keep training and learning if you want to remain one tomorrow. So always think of yourself as in training. That said, there is a great benefit to having years of life and branding experience. You live through the rise, fall, success and failure of many brands and categories. There is much to learn from studying what has happened. The key is learning the right lessons and knowing how to apply them to the current and future marketplace.

Laura Ries

Why is it that we don’t see many women in brand-building and marketing space at top levels?

I think women make excellent marketing professionals. For some, raising a family and working at a big company is challenging. Many instead choose to be entrepreneurs or work at smaller and more flexible firms. But I also see a trend with my friends, many moms are keeping the corporate jobs and it is the dad that stays home to raise the kids. So perhaps the times are changing for the next generation of top professionals.

A lot of people call branding a science. What is branding for you, science or art and why?

Great question! Branding is both an art and a science. Lot of attention has been paid to science and big data. However, all that data isn’t helpful unless you can artfully interpret it and apply the correct strategy to the situation.

One thing a brand and a brand manager should not do while building a start-up brand.

Only one?  How about three. First, to get a start-up off the ground you need to be totally focused. Forget where you want to be in 10 years, stay focused on today and focus on doing one thing. Second, never use advertising to build a brand, it lacks credibility and will drain your resources. Third, be patient. It takes time to get into the mind, so don’t be discouraged if your brand doesn’t take off like a rocket. Rockets usually turn into fads. Big brands are like aeroplanes, they rattle down the runway before lift-off.

What do you think are the major challenges in marketing in the 21st century?

The biggest challenge in the 21st century is an overwhelming choice of marketing options to choose from and an overwhelming amount of marketing data to analyse. Numbers can be helpful but sometimes you lose sight of the forest buried in all the data trees.

Please give an example of any global brand that according to you needs immediate rebranding and why?

Coca-Cola is a brand in trouble. Once the most valuable brand in the world, it is losing value as consumers drink less and less soda every year. Coca-Cola’s response during the good times and bad has been extensive line extension which has only further diluted the power of the brand. Consumers are shunning sugary sodas as well as the diet ones filled with artificial sweeteners. When you put your name on everything, what does it stand for? Not much. A radical but simple solution would be to reformulate Coke to have no sugar and only natural sweeteners. To just sell one Coke that was the real thing, tasted good and wasn’t bad for you.

What roles do slogans play in building brands?

Slogans play an important role in brand building since they give consumers a way to verbalise a brand so they can remember and talk about it to their friends. The problem is that most slogans are not written this way. Toyota has a slogan “Moving Forward.” How does that help the brand? Consumers going to brag to friends about how their Toyota moves forward? Why doesn’t it have a reverse gear? Effective slogans are like FedEx’s “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” That just slips right off a consumers’ tongue when a package needs to go out.

How often and when can a brand change its positioning?

Ideally, once you have a powerful position there should not be any need to change it. And the fact is, once you own a position in the mind it is almost impossible to change it anyway. Kodak owned film photography in the mind. Of course, the market changed and shifted to digital photography. What should Kodak have done? They tried to change the positioning of the brand to stand for digital too. Total disaster. The better strategy is not to try and change the position but to launch a new brand for the new opportunity. The way Toyota launched Lexus. 

Would you say that any publicity is good, be it negative or positive?

Any publicity will make you famous whether it is negative or positive. Many brands have a bit of both, you see controversy drives the discussion. The problem is too many negatives and you might be known but you can’t get rich. Tiger Woods was one of the most popular and positive brands in the world until he got caught cheating on his wife and worse stopped winning golf tournaments. Companies are no longer lined up to use him as a celebrity endorser.

Would you say that importance of branding has increased over the past few years or has it always been so important?

I would say branding has always been important, look at the past 100 years and rise of Ford, Budweiser, McDonald’s and the Volkswagen Beetle. Recently I think branding has just finally received more of the respect it deserves.

Which book is your favourite and most useful among the ones written by you and your father?

That is a little like asking which of my sons is my favourite. Jokes aside, I think if I had to choose one I would say “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.” It summarises many of our most powerful ideas like focus, category, PR to build brands and advertising to maintain brands plus 18 other helpful ideas to guide brand building.

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