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The Concept of Focus in Business


Anyone who’s been following me for a while knows how much I dislike those who proclaim themselves business and marketing experts without ever proving it with solid data.

Dan Kennedy (the worst of them), Al Ries, Seth Godin, Dan Lok… all false gurus who have a huge following because they’re great communicators, but they’ve never actually run a company, never published a balance sheet, and never provided proof that their wealth (assuming they’re truly wealthy) is from their business and marketing consultations.

What angers me most is that they’ve decided to teach entrepreneurship without ever having done it themselves.

They have plenty of testimonials, but they’re all from trainers and course sellers like themselves; none of these testimonials come from a famous or millionaire company that refutes their claims.

That was a general introduction to the gurus of nothing.

Given the topic of this blog post, today I want to focus specifically on Al Ries.

Let’s be clear: I criticize Al Ries professionally, not personally.

I met him in person at a marketing event in Italy; he was a wonderful, kind, and pleasant man.

Unfortunately, professionally I can’t say the same.

Speaking of corporate focus, I can tell you it’s a concept usually attributed to Al Ries simply because he wrote a book on it titled “Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It”

Focus by Al Ries book cover

I strongly advise against reading it because it’s one of the most useless and boring books I’ve ever read.

And it’s so big it’s not even good for balancing table legs.

A complete waste of innocent trees.

In this book, Al Ries got more or less all his predictions wrong about various companies, like the iPhone, Coca-Cola, Amazon, etc.

According to him, they should’ve all closed due to lack of corporate focus within a few years, and considering the book was published in late September 2005, I’d say good old Al isn’t much of a seer.

So, simply put, if your theory gets predictions wrong, it’s a lousy theory.

Al Ries doesn’t exist in academic marketing, the kind taught in universities based on concepts by Philip Kotler, someone who actually achieved something in his life (I was being sarcastic, Kotler is the father of marketing).

Al Ries is a gentleman who was quite serious in his heyday and who SUMMARIZED and SIMPLIFIED some brand positioning theories popular until the ’80s that no serious company uses, like the ones mentioned earlier which, according to him, would’ve closed by 2010.

What “Focusing” Means in Business

Let’s talk seriously about business focus now, and we’ll see why Al Ries’s theories are completely wrong.

The concept of “focus” is crucial for success in the business world, along with testimonials and a differentiating idea.

Being focused means directing all resources, energies, and attention towards a specific goal, avoiding distractions that can dilute efforts and slow progress.

Business focus refers to a company’s ability to concentrate its resources on a limited number of strategic objectives at a time.

In practice, it means focusing on a narrow range of products or services that the company can excel in.

When a company focuses on a limited number of goals or products, it can dedicate more time and resources to improving quality.

This leads to superior products and services that can better meet customer needs.

The more specialized and expert a brand and its products are in a particular area, the more they have the chance to emerge and succeed in the market.


Al Ries’s law of focus (“Own a word in the customer’s mind”) is completely wrong from start to finish and, as you can see, has nothing to do with the true meaning of business focus.

We know this because there is a science – cognitive psychology – that assures us that brand memorization is largely subcognitive and sub-functional.

That is, people do not remember brands by making conscious or sophisticated reasoning, let alone associating them with specific “words”.

Brands are remembered like anything else in the brain: in a distributed multisensory neural network built on brand assets and unconscious.

Not surprisingly, Ries always uses the same examples to justify this law, which are completely wrong, because none of us remember BMW for just one word like “drive”; we remember it for a cloud of unconscious associations.

A disaster.

Line Extension

Another foolish oversimplification is the one against line extensions.

Lines consistently and successfully extend.

Simply put, you need to know how to do it.

It takes decades of strategic expertise.

Basically, once you’ve focused on a product and service, put it on the market correctly, and it’s selling, move on to the next related product that can help your customers complete the first one.

Then move on to the third, and so on, offering a complete range of products.

Coca-Cola started selling Classic Coke, monopolized, then started selling Light and then Zero Sugar (I don’t remember the exact order, but it’s not important, you need to grasp the concept).

Apple began with the iPhone, then moved to the iPad, and then the Apple Watch.

Amazon started with book e-commerce, then expanded to sell everything, then created Amazon Prime, and despite Al Ries’ prediction that it would close within a few years, they secured the exclusive rights to some European Champions League football matches for around 320 million euros over four years.

If the world were as easy as Al suggests and reducible to a few axioms, anyone could do marketing.

Thankfully, and aside from some colorful theories, entrepreneurs know it’s a difficult profession best left to professionals.

THE VOLKSWAGEN DISMANTLES AL RIES’ TEACHINGS

On June 6, 2024, Volkswagen, a company with a net profit of $15 billion, completely went against Al Ries’ principle by extending its product line and founding the Elli company to enter the industrial energy storage business.

News link: Elli enters the industrial energy storage business

How to Correctly Apply the Concept of Focus

I apologize for wasting so much time talking about business charlatans, but unfortunately, I know for sure that anyone entering this world starts by studying these characters.

That’s why I wanted to clear your head of all their nonsense.

Now, in this final part of the blog post, I’ll explain how to properly apply the concept of focus to your business, whatever it may be.

Don’t expect any earth-shattering revelations because, in reality, focus is an extremely basic concept based solely on common sense.

Start your business and concentrate all your physical and financial resources on creating just one product or service.

Put it up for sale, do some good marketing – there’s a free, comprehensive, and advanced marketing course on my blog – and start selling it.

Keep tweaking or improving the product or service until you have an acceptable number of consistent sales over time, excellent testimonials, and consistent word of mouth.

At that point, listen to your customers: what products/services could you create to complement the product or service you’re selling?


Here are some examples.

If you sell cell phones, here are some related products you could start selling:

  • Protective covers: To protect the phone from scratches, bumps, and accidental damage.
  • Screen protectors: To protect the screen from scratches and damage.
  • Power banks: To recharge the phone when you can’t access an electrical outlet.

If you sell cameras:

  • Carry bag: To transport the camera safely and conveniently.
  • Tripod: For stable shots and reduced blur in photos.
  • Additional memory cards: To increase photo and video storage capacity.

If you sell laptops:

  • Laptop bag: To transport the computer safely and protect it from bumps.
  • Wireless mouse: For better ergonomics and precision compared to the built-in touchpad.
  • Cooling stand: To keep the laptop at an optimal temperature during prolonged use.

You’ll need to treat all these related products exactly like the main product you’re selling, so they’ll also require a unique idea and everything we’ve seen on the free course page on how to start a business.

This means business focus and proper product line extension.

Don’t be misled by those who teach otherwise for unknown reasons.

The process I’ve described is exactly what the world’s largest and wealthiest companies have used – and still use.


The Fallacies of Brand Positioning


Brand positioning, along with company focus, is one of the most misunderstood business topics out there.

This blog post is one I particularly enjoyed writing because if you’ve been studying business and marketing for a while, you’ve probably noticed that something doesn’t quite add up when the pseudo-marketing gurus talk about brand positioning.

Yes, I’m a bit cynical, and I like to debunk evergreen myths when they’re wrong and baseless, with evidence in hand.

The confusion surrounding brand positioning stems from our perpetual quest for “easy”: Instead of seeking business insights from serious, successful entrepreneurs, maybe by listening to free videos on YouTube from Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and the like, we prefer to be misled by scammers who make a living selling courses full of completely wrong concepts with no real-world validation.

From my experience studying REAL entrepreneurs like the ones mentioned before, I’ve realized that much of what is commonly said about brand positioning is completely off.

But let’s start from the beginning.

Just like the concept of focus, brand positioning is often mistakenly attributed solely to Al Ries.

Of course, that’s not true: no one can invent something as fundamental as brand positioning.

Al Ries was simply (maybe) the first to talk about it, but companies and entrepreneurs were positioning their brands long before Ries discussed it.

Al ries with his book on brand positioning
Al Ries, one of the greatest gurus of nothingness, peddles his useless book on brand positioning.
Source: AlRies.com.

Now, before we delve deeper into the topic, let me explain brand positioning for those who are new to the world of marketing and business.

If you already know what we’re talking about and don’t want to see all of Al Ries’s misguided teachings collapse like when we talked about focus, feel free to skip this part.


Definition of Brand Positioning


Brand positioning refers to where a brand (and its products) stand in consumers’ minds.

What does this mean?

It means how consumers see a brand as the top choice in a certain category.

Let me give you a quick example.

Think of a sugary fizzy drink: for most people reading this blog post, Coca-Cola probably comes to mind because it’s the most famous in the fizzy drinks category.

So, we can say that Coca-Cola is the leader in the sugary fizzy drinks category (or soda, if you prefer).

Psychologically, when people buy something, they tend to go for companies or entrepreneurs they see as industry leaders or have already satisfied them before.

You and I do this unconsciously when we buy something.

Changing people’s preferences, once they’re deeply rooted, is nearly impossible.

If you prefer Pepsi to Coca-Cola, no Coca-Cola marketing will change your mind.

For you to switch to Coca-Cola, Pepsi would have to mess up badly in marketing.

That’s brand positioning.


Now, from these definitions, many “self-proclaimed marketing experts” have come up with wild theories that don’t match reality just to create buzz about their courses.

As a result of the widespread misleading teachings of Al Ries, I have several readers whose main concern is:

“How can I create a new category that becomes the top business in people’s minds?”

I’m about to show you how dangerous, pointless, and foolish all of this is.

When Al Ries suggests creating a new market category where you’ll be the leader, he always forgets to mention a crucial point.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he just forgot rather than deliberately omitting it (although omitting it thousands of times raises some doubts about his real business expertise).

The point is this: creating a new category in people’s minds and founding a company that becomes the leader… isn’t exactly financially viable for everyone (imagine the sweating emoji here).

Creating a new market category and getting consumers to recognize it (because without consumer approval, the new category won’t last longer than a dieter at a buffet) requires a lot of money.

Millions and millions of dollars to market this new category and educate consumers about the innovation and convince them of the value of the new product or service.

And no, I’m not talking about a silly YouTube video shot in someone’s office.

I’m talking about TV advertising campaigns that cost millions of dollars.

And marketing is just one part of the investments needed to create a new category.

Creating a new category is only for big companies and billion-dollar brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and a few others.

And indeed, they created the categories they lead, but we’re talking about several decades ago when some market sectors were still virgin.

Today, everything has already been invented, and trying to change consumers’ habits is the worst move a small business.

Examples of Companies that Failed to Create a New Market Category

I don’t want to crush any hopes, but if you’ve ever thought about creating a new market category, hold back and don’t throw away your money.

Others have tried it before, and they all failed miserably, including companies that had someone believing in their project and funding them with tens of millions of dollars.

Don’t believe me?

Take a look at these examples:

  • Webvan: This company, active during the dot-com bubble, aimed to revolutionize online grocery shopping by offering same-day home delivery. However, despite a significant initial investment, Webvan quickly burned through its capital due to overly rapid expansion and costly infrastructure, leading to its bankruptcy in 2001.
  • Segway: Launched with high expectations, the Segway was supposed to revolutionize urban mobility. Despite its innovation, the Segway failed to become a mainstream mode of transportation mainly due to its high cost and regulatory limitations in many urban environments.
  • Better Place: This startup aimed to create a network of battery swap stations for electric vehicles, hoping to address the issue of EV range anxiety. Despite the promising idea, Better Place faced huge financial difficulties due to high infrastructure costs and slow market adoption, leading to its liquidation.

All failed, following the teachings of Al Ries.

I’m not saying it’s Al Ries’ fault because these companies probably didn’t even know who he was.

I just find it rather strange that Al Ries never referred to these failed companies in his books or courses, even though they did exactly what he preached…

The “Juicero” and the Failure of the New Category of Orange Juices

The inability to create a new category often stems from the fact that, since practically everything has already been invented, new categories tend to change people’s habits.

How many times have entrepreneurs who’ve had a business idea thought, “Wow! This idea will revolutionize the market!”

Well, if you think like that, it means sadly your idea probably won’t have a future.

The market is cynical and hates change.

You and I hate change.

The world hates change.

And I can prove it with a somewhat famous example: the “Juicero” juicer.

Maybe some of you remember it.

The Juicero juicer
The Juicero juicer.
Source: The Guardian.

This company tried to introduce a new approach to consuming fruit juice by offering an expensive machine along with prepackaged fruit juice pouches.

Despite receiving substantial financial backing (around $120 million from independent investors), Juicero failed to convince consumers to embrace its business model, which was actually very complex and expensive.

But the failure was pretty much expected.


Juicero tried to convince the world population that buying a $400 machine squeezing recycled pouches with juice inside – pouches that had to be purchased on a subscription basis – was a smarter, cheaper, and more practical solution than squeezing oranges and lemons on the good old-fashioned juicer.

Maybe the inventors of this gadget were students of Al Ries.

But the final blow that sealed the end of this plastic and iron nonsense was dealt by those party poopers at Bloomberg, who showed in a video that the juice could be extracted simply by squeezing the pouches by hand without using this complicated and bulky machine.

To learn more, read the blog post titled Silicon Valley’s $400 Juicer May Be Feeling the Squeeze – Bloomberg.com.”

As a result, Juicero ceased operations in 2017 mainly due to lack of consumer interest and general criticism of the product’s value compared to its cost.

And goodbye to the new category of orange juice in recycled pouches.

It’s funny how people strive to always create futuristic and incomprehensible objects when the best sellers on Amazon are ordinary products like cotton women’s bikinis, bed sheets set, ant killer liquids…


No One Knows Anything About Brand Positioning


Now that (hopefully) I’ve dismantled the category theorem, let’s explore some truths about brand positioning in general.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the favorite targets of Al Ries and his daughter Laura’s unfounded theories is Coca-Cola.

During a marketing course I unfortunately attended in Italy – since nobody in America was listening to their misguided theories anymore, they tried their luck in Italy – Al Ries argued that Coca-Cola was, with Coca-Cola Zero, making the same mistake it had already made in 1986 with the introduction of New Coke.


Al Ries and Laura Ries at a marketing event in Italy
Al Ries and Laura Ries in the marketing event invitation in Italy. I’ve obscured the name of the Italian trainer to avoid legal issues, but the Italians who attended are well acquainted with him (unfortunately).

Because in people’s minds there is only space for one or at most two products per category, Coca-Cola – as Al and his daughter Laura decreed – should have focused on producing only one product (namely classic Coca-Cola).

I’m sorry I can’t publish the scene when he said this nonsense on stage, but you can find it in his book “Focus”.

Therefore, according to Al Ries, Coca-Cola Zero is considered a business mistake that affects people’s perception of the Coca-Cola brand, and Coca-Cola should stop producing it because it could lead to a loss of total sales volume for the company, as it loses focus from the main product.

Okay, so Al Ries should explain to us why Coca-Cola Zero and Diet Coke, sub-products of the main Coca-Cola product, are among the top 50 products sold IN THE WORLD in the soft drinks category.

Judging by Amazon’s Best Sellers, it doesn’t seem to me that Coca-Cola Zero is harmful to Coca-Cola brand sales; on the contrary, quite the opposite.


New Coke, in 1986, was indeed a colossal marketing mistake, as Coca-Cola completely altered the taste of the beverage to counter the emerging Pepsi and, understandably, consumers reacted very negatively.

But that marketing mistake has nothing to do with product line extension which, as I have already extensively demonstrated when we talked about corporate focus, is absolutely not a mistake; rather, it’s a common practice among all successful brands.

Comparing the strategic mistake of New Coke with product line extension shows a lack of understanding of marketing.

I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.

Folks, what happens inside companies like Coca-Cola, Apple, Amazon, McDonald’s, etc. – companies that have a net income of billions of dollars – is not something we should worry about.

It might be interesting information, but it needs to be studied with the same rigor as reading a book about Greek mythology: we don’t know if what we’re reading is true or not.

Multinational brands exist in a world separate from ours and the information we have is based solely on speculation.

Let’s be serious: nobody really knows how Coca-Cola’s or Apple’s marketing actually works.

Do you really think these companies show you everything?

Do you think Apple’s marketing secrets or strategies can be found with a simple Google search on MrMarketing’s blog? (It doesn’t exist; I was just kidding.)


For nearly a century, Coca-Cola has led us to believe in the existence of the secret formula locked in a vault at its headquarters in Atlanta.

Does it really exist?

Does it not?

Maybe there’s a blank sheet of paper kept in the vault with just one sentence written on it: “Fooled you.”

Who knows.

But the purpose of spreading this story is this: to create curiosity.

And Coca-Cola has done it very well.

We believe in this, in what they want us to believe, they manipulate our minds and now we think we know everything about their strategic marketing decisions.

This always makes me smile.


Many marketing experts and economists enjoy discussing the actions and marketing strategies of big companies, but in reality, they can only speak in terms of theories.

They can only talk about what they observe (and what everyone else can observe).

It’s indeed interesting to read about big companies, certainly, just as it’s engaging to listen to Warren Buffett talk about investments.

However, we all know we can’t invest like Warren Buffett.

These individuals operate at a higher level.

I often come across Amazon ebooks written by completely unknown self-publishers (with no blogs or YouTube channels) criticizing Apple’s marketing, claiming it would be better to do this or that, because blah blah blah.

The same mysterious marketing trainer, in the photo before with Al Ries and his daughter Laura, always claims during his courses that Coca-Cola understands nothing about marketing.

I don’t know if you got that right: this individual, whose only activity is selling courses on how to get rich, claims that the marketing department of a historic, long-standing billion-dollar company, renowned worldwide, understands nothing about marketing.

It’s like reading Muggles giving magic advice to Dumbledore or Lord Voldemort.


The Concept of “Top of Mind” Is Truly Useful for Us Entrepreneurs?


I just mentioned the concept of “Top of Mind,” but if we want to have a complete view of brand positioning, we need to consider this aspect too.

In each of his books, Al Ries always finds some space to share his classic example:

“In people’s minds, in every category, there’s only space for the leader – the first place – and the co-leader – the second place. Let’s take the cola category, for example: there’s only space for Coca-Cola, the main brand, and Pepsi, the second brand. Brands beyond the second place struggle to gain recognition.”

So, according to Al Ries, Coca-Cola holds the largest market share, Pepsi a smaller but still significant share, and the rest is divided among other cola brands.

But is this true or false?

The right answer, as always, is: who cares?

Anyway, for the record, the answer is false.

Monster Energy is commonly regarded as the third cola after Coca-Cola and Pepsi, but take a look at Monster CEO Rodney Sacks’ monstrous California mansion:

Rodney Sacks' California mansion
Source: VirtualGlobeTrotting.com.

Or check out his real-time net worth on Forbes.

Not bad for someone who supposedly only holds an insignificant market share.

All this talk of categories and “top of mind” is absolutely nonsensical.

First off, not all categories have a leader.

Who’s the leader in the “autoresponder” category?

Some, like me, would say AWeber, while others might say ActiveCampaign, and still others might say MailChimp.

Who’s the leader in PCs?

HP?

Why not Lenovo?

Or Acer?


Secondly, it’s not true that there are only two spots per category.

Ever heard of POPPI Sparkling Prebiotic Soda?

Well, it’s the number one in the world for sales volume on Amazon.com in the Soft Drink category, surpassing even Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

The concept of “top of mind” categories, “category leaders,” or “co-leaders” is intriguing but entirely useless for small entrepreneurs like us.

People don’t think in categories; it’s time you understand that.

People want a fizzy drink and don’t think about the cola category.

They go to the supermarket and buy Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Monster, depending on their taste.

How many of you have ever said or heard:

“I need a drink; let’s see what the supermarket offers in the cola category?”

Come on, let’s be honest; this idea of categories is senseless if you’re a small business owner or starting a business.

You’ll think about becoming a leader in your category when you have a budget of several million dollars to invest and create a global monopoly.

Right now, you need to focus on founding your business, creating a valid differentiating idea, listening to your customers, and taking good care of them.

Everything else, for now, is entirely pointless.

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