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[INTERVIEW] Susan Jones on the Teachings of Trout and Ries Relevance in 2019

Susan Jones speaks about the Teachings of Trout and Ries Relevance in 2019

As an award-winning professor, author and consultant, Susan Jones has had a well-rounded career in direct and digital marketing. Jones is a professor of advertising, social media, content marketing and B2B classes at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. Her practice focuses on corporate training and seminars, as well as marketing planning, product development and copywriting. Susan is also an IMC instructor here at West Virginia University, teaching Direct and Digital Marketing online in the Reed College of Media.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Jones on our weekly Marketing Communications Today podcast — here are her thoughts on Trout and Ries' ideologies, particularly tying in contemporary brands.

Matthew Cummings: Can you tell us more about the philosophy of Trout and Ries as it was first presented a few decades ago now?

Susan Jones: Their books came out in the 1980s. Each of the books was updated for the 20th anniversary, which was in the 2000s. The first book was called "Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind," and what Trout and Ries talked about makes a whole lot of sense. When we think about any product category, it could be something as simple as soft drinks or fast food. As a consumer, if we're asked to name how many we can think of in that category, it's usually no more than seven names, and, in our minds, we put them in a little ladder. Often, people will say Coca-Cola for soft drinks first, even if that's not their favorite because it's number one, McDonald's for fast food. Then it goes down from there, but the cool thing is that rung number one typically has 40% of the market share, so that would be like a McDonald's or a Coke, and then rungs two and three go down from there. After rungs two and three, you're lucky if you get 5% market shares. If you look at the fast-food industry, those lower rungs, they're not burgers. They're something else. They would be chicken. They would be tacos, and then, the other book, "Marketing Warfare," they talked about the fact that, depending on where you are on those rungs, you want to have a different strategy. So, if you're number one, you're on the defense. You're like a National Football League defensive player.

MC: So, we have the battle for your mind, and we have this marketing warfare, and you painted a very vivid picture for us as to what's going on out in the landscape. These came out in the '80s, as you mentioned, and what were some of the first signs though that the Trout and Ries concepts might become a little outdated?

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SJ: When I first saw some years ago, actually it was 2000, Al Ries said that he thought that Amazon was wrong to expand beyond books and CDs. According to his philosophy and also his partner, Mr. Trout, Amazon should stick to their knitting, and they were known for books and CDs, so they said, "Volvo stands for safety. Dell is a personal computer. Even Microsoft is software. Now, Amazon's going to stand for books and charcoal grills? This makes no sense to me."

Clearly, they were as wrong as they could be about that, and I think Jeff Bezos was actually very smart to say, "Wow, I'm number one in books. The day that I started selling CDs, which nobody really buys anymore, but at the time it was big, I became number one in CDs, so why shouldn't I be selling everybody everything to this huge number of customers that I have?" Then Ries' daughter actually wrote a column when Amazon purchased Zappos, and she said that she thought that was dumb, but that has turned out to be a great success because Zappos has been able to keep its own branding. The two of them share distribution channels, which has been hugely successful for both of them, so those are a couple of things. I think Mr. Trout was a little quieter on this, but the Rieses really stepped in as I said.

MC: Let's move to another category here, and this is often cited as a case study in some of the courses that we have here in the IMC program, and that's Dollar Shave Club. Now, how did Dollar Shave Club disrupt the way men's razors were sold for generations?

SJ: They were so smart to take on Gillette, and, according to Trout and Ries, that would be suicidal for a small upstart like that to take on number one. But what Dollar Shave Club did was use digital channels, inexpensive digital channels, and they created these funny commercials that became viral. So they got all kinds of free publicity for Dollar Shave Club. One of the funny quotes is, in one of the commercials, the head of Dollar Shave Club says, "Roger Federer is the spokesperson for Gillette," and he jokes that he gets 19 of every $20 you spend with Gillette, whereas, with Dollar Shave Club, you can get a razor for a dollar. He was very, very clever with that.

MC: How are big brands then reacting to these disruptors in maybe defensive ways? What are a couple of examples of how these big brands are fighting back?

SJ: Another one a few years ago, on the Super Bowl, there was a commercial that became very controversial from Budweiser. Considered number one in American beers, they had this lashing out at microbreweries, "Oh, that's fake and that's kind of wimpy, and you need to drink Budweiser." Meanwhile, their parent company, which people soon realized, if they didn't know it already, was buying up all kinds of microbreweries, so that was not a swift move on the part of Budweiser because they should stick with... In my opinion, if they're number one, and if they're going by Trout and Ries, they would have stuck with the beautiful Clydesdales and the heartwarming ads, but, no, they took on these little upstart microbreweries and dignified them, which is very un-Trout and Ries.

The Uber model has really made things easier for a lot of consumers, and I'm the Baby Boomer. I'm not a kid, but all my friends are using Uber, too. In fact, some of them were using it before I was, so it's not just for younger people. Still, then, when we think about disruptions, what's going to happen now to all the Uber drivers in the foreseeable future we're going to have driverless cars, so the disruptor is going to be disrupted again, which is fascinating.

Airbnb and the other home-sharing services are really disrupting the hotel business where people are buying properties just to list on Airbnb. I knew somebody when I was teaching abroad that was staying in a beautiful apartment, and I said, "How did you get this great apartment?" and they said, "We knew this person from Airbnb, and when she gets a good tenant like us for a month, she moves out and goes lives with her daughter. She gets all this money." A lot of people can be a hotel these days. I don't want to get too far into this, but disrupting the grocery business, the Blue Aprons, and other companies that are giving you exactly what you need to cook dinner. For people that... who get sick of doing takeout's, they want something fresher, so that's another disruptor. I mean, we got a million of them, right, Matthew?

MC: We often talk in PR and journalism that anyone can be a journalist, and a point that you just made there that really stuck with me is, now, anyone can be a journalist, anyone can be a driver, anyone can be a hotel or hotelier. It's really interesting times that we're in.

SJ: While we're talking about education, talk about disruption and education, and our very program that you and I teach in is a disruptor because people are so excited by the opportunity to study online and to... At my school at Ferris State, we're even going to have two virtual reality classes in the college of business next semester, which should be absolutely fascinating. Everybody gets their own avatar, and they go to class in a virtual world. Very cool.

MC: Beyond the convenience of that, though, it's bringing those diverse perspectives from all around the country to the table. It really brings about some rich discussions from people that are doing things at major brands all around the country, all around the world, for that matter. So let's talk about digital disruption. Do digital disruptors tend to stay with a niche promotional methods like social media and video, or do they expand more into more traditional mass media as they grow?

SJ: If you look at Dollar Shave Club, they started out with what would you say, a kind of guerrilla marketing. Trying to go viral and get word of mouth going, but, later on, they started to actually do TV ads where they show some poor soul trying to buy razor blades at a store where they had to find somebody to open the case, and it was just a pain in the neck as opposed to going out to your mailbox and there are your blades. Yes, they do, as they get more money, tend to go more mass, and then that helps them grow even faster, yes.

MC: We can all be disruptors. We just need that big idea. We have time for just one more question, Susan, and I want to bring this back to the consumer. Disruption, in your opinion, does it benefit the consumers? I mean, we've really talked about brands that have grown from nothing into multimillion-dollar or even billion-dollar brands when you talk Zappos and others. Is it a benefit to consumers, or is this disruption more of a negative for them?

SJ: I think, overall, it is a benefit because it's largely about convenience. The convenience of having things delivered to your home, the convenience of having something come to you from a company like Blue Apron where you don't have to go out to the grocery store and buy things you're not going to use. The convenience of being able to call an Uber in a place where there are not a whole lot of cabs, whatever it might be. It's a convenience, and also sometimes it's the lower price, which I think consumers love, and then, from the retail standpoint, the retailers have to take another look at themselves and not be so just, "Here's the product. You come and get it," but give people a real reason to come in. I think consumers will love that.

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