What Audiobook I’m Currently Listening To: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (Audiobook Summary)

The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries
The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries

This is another book that I’ve heard Tim Ferriss recommending a few times on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast (actually, I think it was the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing which he referred to (same author) – I’ll do a summary of that in a later post). As luck would have it, my library had a copy of the audiobook available to loan (via Borrowbox). I thought it might be interesting to summarise the book’s branding advice, whilst also considering how that advice could be applied by the individual entrepreneur.

I’ve been wanting to learn a little more about marketing and branding after listening to Zero to One (I did a summary of Zero to One a couple weeks back). Although a co-founder of tech startups such as Paypal and Palantir, he makes the point that creating something novel is not enough without the ability to sell it. So although a team of Silicon Valley software engineers might be able to create an awesome new piece of software, that high level of creativity needs to be matched by the ability to distribute and sell that software to the world. Marketing should therefore not be viewed with disdain by those who create the product, but a skill of equivalent difficulty to the act of creating the product in the first place.

Here’s my takeaway quote on this point:

“Advertising matters because it works. It works on nerds and it works on you. You may think that you are an exception, that your preferences are authentic and advertising only works on other people. It’s easy to resist the most obvious sales pitches, so we entertain a false confidence in our own independence of mind. But advertising doesn’t exist to make you buy a product right away. It exists to embed subtle impression that will drive sales later. Anyone who can’t acknowledge its likely effect on himself is doubly deceived.”

PETER THIEL, ZERO TO ONE (2014)

Rethinking Marketing – Just About Driving Sales?

I hadn’t considered the purpose of branding and marketing in much depth prior to starting this book. If I was to consider the most recent five examples of marketing I’d experienced and consider their purpose, my response would probably have been “in order to drive sales”. On the contrary, Ries (fyi, I will refer to the two authors’ collectively as Ries throughout rather than “Ries and Ries”) points out that although conventional marketing is based on selling, it should be based on branding:

“Marketing is not selling. Marketing is building a brand in the mind of the prospect.”

Al Ries and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (1998)

Although we compartmentalise marketing as a discipline in and of itself which is often handled by in house or third party marketing professionals, Ries recommends taking it out of that box and viewing it instead as the primary function of the company itself. From this perspective, marketing should be considered part of the job description of every employee, regardless of their specialism or department.

I think this is good advice to take on board for creatives trying to reconcile their creativity with the inevitable need to generate income. Whether you’re a musician, designer or writer, the fear of both showing your work and “selling out” can prevent you from actually putting your work out there or at least promoting it. You could be making the coolest things in the world, but if you’re too embarrassed to promote them your skipping stone won’t hop. You should allocate just as much care to your branding and marketing as you do to your craft.

Let’s run through the 22 Laws.

Laws 1 & 2: The Laws of Expansion and Contraction

Once you’ve started your brand and it’s found its way off the ground, you should refrain from milking that success by applying the brand to more and more products or services. Doing so waters down the brand. Although adding further lines might increase sales in the short term, it will come at the expense of the perception of the brand in the mind of the prospect in the long term.

Simply put, a specialist will be viewed more favourably than a jack of all trades.

Starbucks is given as an example. Their retail stores sell coffee and this is the perception they hold in the mind of the customer. From my own perspective, I’d agree that this is a strong brand with little dilution in my mind. Although there is a food menu, it is small and fairly nondescript. They do dabble in extending their drinks selection, but this seems to be a seasonal matter rather than permanent efforts to drive more sales.

Even with their expansion onto supermarket shelves with their branded iced coffee and coffee beans, this does not dilute the association of the brand with coffee. However, I’d say that Starbucks’ growth and success produces a different sort of dilution by erasing the perception of Starbucks as an authentic Seattle-born independent coffee shop and replacing it with a perception of Starbucks as a global brand without any geographical tie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s inevitable that a certain segment of the market will view this success unfavourably and might go out of their way to find a more “authentic” coffee retailer as a result.

Big brands like Starbucks do tend to resort to product line expansion in their efforts to increase sales, but Ries argues that such expansion does not produce the desired result. It seems that success causes big brands to forget what got them into their dominant position to begin with: a targeted, focused offering.

Law 3: The Law of Publicity

When setting out to build a brand, it is important to differentiate between publicity and advertising. Publicity can perhaps be viewed as a gradual, organic by-product of positive actions you take, while advertising tends to be a faster, more targeted method of sending out bursts of promotion.

While advertising might be useful for targeted sales, it does not do much for building a brand and those increased sales will soon drop once the advertising budget dries up. Established brands need to advertise for brand-maintenance, but it will do little for getting a new brand off the mark.

Publicity on the other hand arises less directly, for example as a by-product of novel or innovative actions you carry out to promote the brand. The example given is Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. Rather than advertise, she travelled the world promoting her ideas about the environment. The by-product of the media attention she received in these endeavours was the growth of The Body Shop brand. Roddick’s environmental message and values were mirrored in the ethical materials and manufacturing emphasised by The Body Shop as its core differentiator from other cosmetics companies.

Consistent publicity can perhaps be viewed as a more subtle method of promotion which lingers in the mind for much longer than isolated advertising campaigns. Ries makes the following observation on the reason for the imbalance in the effectiveness of each method:

“What others say about your brand is more powerful than what you say about it yourself.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

But how do you generate publicity effectively? Ries argues that you need to be first in a new category. Rather surprisingly and counter-intuitively, it is not necessary to be the best if you get into the consumer’s mind first.

Based on this assessment, PR should be viewed as the superior method of brand promotion rather than advertising. It is perhaps the immediate gratification offered by the sudden increase in sales caused by a targeted advertising campaign that enables advertising to maintain its superior perception (perhaps in a similar manner to how day trading growth stocks might be more enticing than buying and holding index funds?).

Law 4: The Law of Advertising

Ries proposes that there comes a point at which your brand reaches such a size that publicity can no longer add any further value. At this point, brands need to resort to advertising as a method of brand maintenance to keep their competitors at bay.

I’m not sure that this Law is of relevance to any individual entrepreneur. In fact, I’m not sure how much I agree with Ries’ verdict here. Publicity seems to be an organic by-product of novelty or innovation where the brand is generating conversation in the general public – most likely as a result of innovative and exciting steps the brand has taken. If a conclusion is reached that publicity can no longer offer further growth to the brand, is this not a sign that the well of innovation has dried up and that the brand has peaked?

Unless a brand has an insurmountable consumer monopoly moat in a low-tech industry (Coca Cola, maybe?), surely a brand cannot rest on its laurels and just rely on advertising to keep its wares in the top spot.

Even market leaders like Apple would not last long if they were to no longer concern themselves with publicity and just rely on advertising campaigns. I think even Apple would soon find themselves overtaken by their competitors if they adopted this mindset.

Law 5: The Law of the Word

In a similar manner to Law 2, the law of the word requires you to focus your branding efforts around owning a unique word in the mind of the consumer. Pitfalls await those brands that achieve success around a focused word association who later resort to line extension in order to fuel growth. Branching out in this way dilutes the word association with negative results.

This Law puts me in mind of the requirement to find a targeted niche for your business. Starting a website or a YouTube channel on a very specific topic is likely to be much more likely to grow than one where you’re covering a broad a range of topics.

In the latter scenario, the audience will not be cohesive. Parts of your audience that enjoyed one topic may have no interest in the others you’re covering and bail out out of boredom. Audience retention is likely to be poor as a result.

On the other hand, if your content or products are focused, consistent and directed at a specific interest group, your business is far more likely to become associated with a certain word (perhaps not on the same level as Ries’ example of Mercedes Benz and the word “prestige”, but you get the idea).

“Ask not: what percentage of an existing market your brand can achieve. Ask: how large a market your brand can create by narrowing its focus and owning a word in the mind.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

Law 6: The Law of Credentials

A brand should exploit its credentials to assist in its promotion. The main examples given are to underline the brand’s authenticity (e.g. Coca Cola being “the real thing“) or where the brand is the leading brand (e.g. Asahi beer in Japan).

You can experience the impact of credentials in everyday life by taking restaurants as an example. When you are faced with making a decision on a restaurant amongst several on a street, you will be turned off by those that are empty. The subconscious assessment of a packed restaurant, a moderately full restaurant and an empty restaurant is that their fullness must be equivalent to how good they are – the number of diners being a reflection of their credentials.

You could apply this Law to your own project by telling prospects who you are and about your experience. For example, simply having an about me/the brand section on your website with a little backstory is a good move for generating limbic resonance and adds personality to your brand.

Law 7: The Law of Quality

Quality does not necessarily predict popularity/success. Ries cites Coca Cola as the example again, pointing our that although Coca Cola outsells Pepsi, in blind taste tests participants actually prefer the taste of Pepsi. Part of the taste of a product seems to be derived from the perception of its brand.

This brings to mind the efficacy of placebos (for instance, where people can behave as though they are intoxicated after consuming non-alcoholic beer if they are not told that the beer is non-alcoholic). If someone has a positive perception of a product, although they might objectively prefer a different product, the superior brand tilts the purchase decision in its favour.

You might experienced the same unconscious bias when asked to consider the perceived difference in quality between an expensive product and a cheap product in the same category (e.g. wine, cars, clothing). But would you actually prefer the wine which costs five times the price of its cheaper counterpart if you were given both to try in unmarked bottles?

“Where does the concept of quality reside? In the showroom? No, quality, or rather, the perception of quality, resides in the mind of the buyer.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

Quality is therefore only important to a degree. The perception of quality is far more important. This can be achieved through a better name, a focused product line and a higher price. Think Rolex, Gucci and Grey Goose. This is quite a reassuring Law to bear in mind if your concern is that you or your product might not be the best in its category.

Law 8: The Law of the Category

The most efficient method of branding is to create a new category rather than trying to compete with others in an already existing and saturated category. The example of Domino’s Pizza and pizza delivery is given.

As an individual, coming up with an entirely novel business category sounds a little intimidating. However, if you consider the alternative of jumping into an already saturated category where you stand to lose thousands of hours of effort without making a dent on the market share of the incumbents, it’s probably worth spending the time crafting an original idea before heading to the diving board.

When launching a brand in a novel category, you can also flag your position as pioneer in that category as part of the brand’s promotion.

Law 9: The Law of the Name

The name of your brand is a significant long term consideration. Once the brand is off the ground, one of the main differentiators between your brand and the brands of others will be the name.

Abiding by Law 2 is also important to the brand name. If you start extending the number of product lines under that name, the association of the name with a particular speciality can be lost. Hyundai is given as an example, with Ries listing the vast array of products the company manufactures which has the effect of watering down the association of the brand with any particular speciality.

I’m not sure if I agree on this example. Given that the majority of Hyundai’s non-vehicular output appears to be industrial products which most consumers won’t come into contact with, I would still associate the Hyundai brand with cars. On the other hand, if Hyundai started trying its hand at more consumer-visible products like Smartphones or watches this would begin to erase my association of the brand with cars.

Law 10: The Law of Extensions

Although there may be opportunities to introduce new product lines where consumer demand is growing, extending product lines where consumer demand is flat tends to have a detrimental impact on the core product line.

Coca Cola is again used as the example. With the introduction of Diet Coke, the expectation had been for an increase in overall sales. However, Ries states that the market share for Diet Coke was pretty much carved directly out of its Coca Cola sales rather than out of the sales of its competitors. It seemed that the new Diet Coke drinkers were just former regular Coke drinkers. The suggestion here was that the low sugar alternative should have been marketed under an entirely separate brand where a new portion of the market might have been obtained.

Interestingly, Ries also makes the point that the introduction of these “diet” and “light” product line extensions are detrimental to the core brand – the implication being that the core brand is unhealthy. It’s worth bearing this Law in mind where you’re thinking about adding new products under an existing brand you’ve started to prevent the new ones from cannibalising the old.

“Let sleeping brands lie. Before you launch your next line extension, ask yourself what customers of your current brand will think when they see the line extension.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

Law 11: The Law of Fellowship

Competition within your category should be welcomed as it has the effect of broadening the market and enables comparison between brands. However, this only applies to a certain extent. With too much competition, too much choice is generated and confusion ensues.

Having a healthy amount of competition within your category will attract more prospects than each incumbent could bring in on their own. In other words, play nicely and try to avoid the mindset of being the disruptor.

Law 12: The Law of the Generic

Never give your brand a generic name. Although there are examples of hugely successful companies with generic names (e.g. General Electric), Ries expects that this success has been achieved in spite of the bad names.

“Generic names disappear into the ether. Only brand names register in the mind.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

Law 13: The Law of the Company

The simplest and most effective method of branding is to use the company name for the brand name (e.g. Coca Cola).

Where the company is not the brand, you should keep the company name distinct from the brand name. In these circumstances, the customer is not interested in the company name. The example of Procter and Gamble is used. They are the company, but their products are kept distinct with their own branding. Procter and Gamble may be mentioned on those products, but usually only by way of a small mention on the rear label.

Some companies may try to adopt both approaches, placing their company name in equivalent size to the brand name (e.g. Microsoft Excel and Gillette Mach 3). This is not ideal as it generates needless complication in the branding. In Excel’s case, Ries points out that the word “Microsoft” here is redundant as no other company makes Excel. In the Mach 3 example, the Mach 3 brand is the main focus with the Gillette branding used in a secondary manner. This is okay, as the Gillette branding lends goodwill but is small enough to allow the product branding to take the limelight.

Law 14: The Law of Sub-brands

“Sub-branding destroys what branding builds.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

As this quote suggests, sub-branding is one to avoid. Sub-branding involves pushing a core brand into new directions. For example, where a budget hotel group decides to build a new luxury hotel division (e.g. Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza) or where an up market clothing brand tries to enter the more affordable section of the market (e.g. Donna Karen and DKNY).

In both of these examples, diversification was detrimental to the core brand. Travellers don’t want to spend top dollar on a hotel with a budget hotel’s name and high end fashion buyers will begin to question the high price tags on the core label clothes if similar designs can be obtained for a third the price in that same brand’s budget sub-brand.

Law 15: The Law of Siblings

Ries suggests that at a certain point (I expect once the core brand reaches a plateau in its performance), a second or “sibling” brand can be launched. Sibling brands should be within the same product category, but with a minor variation so as to broaden the catchment of the core brand.

Examples of the attributes which can be varied include price, age and flavours. However, overlap between brands should be avoided to prevent sibling rivalry – particularly when it comes to the brand names.

A good example given is Wrigley’s selection of brands – have a look at the extensive list here on Wikipedia. Wrigley’s sibling brands are sufficiently unique so as to avoid confusion in the mind of the customer.

Note that even for sibling brands, the Laws should still be adhered to e.g. a sibling brand should only be launched when you are creating a new category. Launching siblings just to block the growth of rival companies is not considered to be a recipe for long term success.

Law 16: The Law of Shape

Now we’re onto logo design. When designing a logo for a brand, you should think carefully about the shape, the font type and whether it is wise to try to rely on an emblem alone.

Ries argues that the ideal shape for a logo to provide maximum impact is horizontal: roughly two and one fourth units wide and one unit high. An example of a brand which does not adhere to this (which Ries suggests suffers as a result) is the Arby’s cowboy hat logo. There is little explanation of why the Arby’s logo in particular is less effective other than it being a little too tall/portrait-orientated. If you’re really thinking about it, you do have to scan your eyes up and down the logo to take in the cowboy hat shape, but I think had I not read this I would have just accepted the cowboy hat shape in the periphery of my vision when directly reading the word “Arby’s”.

The next element of this Law is straight forward enough: a logo must be legible. I agree that it’s easy to get carried away with stylised fonts when you’re designing a logo in Photoshop, but simplicity and legibility are key.

“If the typeface is virtually illegible, the logo type has little or no meaning in the consumer’s mind. Not because of the typeface used, but because the prospect can’t read the words.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

Ries argues that the Trademark or visual symbol of a brand’s logo is overrated. The example of Nike’s swoosh symbol is given – it should be remembered that it is not the symbol that has any meaning, but the Nike name which gives meaning to the symbol.

Ries makes a similar observation in respect of Shell (the oil and gas company), who often rely on their shell symbol alone without use of the actual brand name. If the consumer has already associated the name with the symbol, then this is fine as the two are inextricably linked. However, Ries has the following interesting take on relying on symbology alone:

“As people grow up and new prospects come into the marketplace, how will they learn that the yellow symbol means Shell?”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

This is an interesting point, although it seems that once a brand reaches a certain size, its logo becomes so ubiquitous that this Law does not seem to apply – Apple being the example. Apple either places its Apple emblem on its products or none at all (see the Apple Watch), yet the recognition of the brand is immediate and universal.

For those of us who aren’t quite at Apple’s level yet, designing a simple, legible and text-based logo to help a new brand take root in the mind of your desired audience/customer seems like sensible advice to follow.

Law 17: The Law of Colour

Choosing a consistent colour theme for your brand is an important factor to help prospects differentiate your brand from competitors. Examples of effective colour use which immediately produce brand association in the mind are Coca Cola (red), Caterpillar (yellow) and Tiffany (blue).

Brands that are not effective in defining their colour scheme lose out on this opportunity to take their place in the customer’s mind. The example of Pepsi is given, which for a long time combined both the colour red (which was already associated with Coca Cola) and its opposite, blue. Perhaps in recognition of this, it subsequently emphasised the use of the colour blue in its branding so as to take the opposing position.

Law 18: The Law of Orders

Where a brand is intending to grow its sales, it should not resort to expanding its product line. Successful brands should continue to maintain their focus and instead expand their geographic horizons. Doing so opens the door to new prospects that can be attracted by the brand’s exotic/international provenance. Think Swiss watches, German beer and French wine.

Ries also makes the following interesting observation: it does not actually matter where the brand is conceived, designed or produced. It is just the name and its associated connotations which establish how the customer will perceive the brand.

Let’s take Häagen-Dazs as an example. It sounds like it would have originated in Germany, yet Häagen-Dazs was established in New York.

Law 19: The Law of Consistency

I think this Law is the one which will resonate the most with individual entrepreneurs. It can definitely feel futile at times to continue plugging away on a project without any audience or customers to show for your efforts. It feels like a truism to say that success does not happen overnight. It’s probably more accurate to say that success might happen in exchange for thousands of hours of focused effort and that it definitely won’t happen if you shelve the project.

Ries underlines that most brands take years to get into the mind of the prospect. However, once this has been achieved, they should not become complacent and lose focus on their core category if that particular market begins to wane.

Brands that get distracted in times of market fluctuation which resort to following fads will likely perform poorly against the competitors for that fad and ultimately harm the core brand which had been successful for them in the first place.

“Markets may change, but brands should stay the same.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

Law 20: The Law of Change

Ries concedes that brands can be changed, but this decision should not be taken lightly. For a brand which is weak or non-existent in the mind of the customer, change can be carried out fairly easily. However, for well-established brands, change can be close to impossible because the association of a brand with a certain product is so firmly entrenched in the mind already.

In such circumstances, it would make far more sense to just start a new brand rather than, say, trying to roll out a luxury restaurant under the name of an established fast food restaurant.

Law 21: The Law of Mortality

There comes a time when a brand will eventually die a natural death. Significant resources should not be expended trying revive such brands when those resources could be channeled into the creation of a new brand.

This Law brings to mind brands such as Skype (in the wake of newcomer Zoom), Myspace (after its domination by Facebook) and film camera companies such as Kodak and Polaroid (in the wake of digital/phone cameras).

Perhaps it is still sensible to keep the brands alive while they remain passively profitable, but for the reasons Ries identified above it would appear to be a fruitless task trying to reinvent Polaroid as, say, a DSLR camera company like Canon or Nikon.

Law 22: The Law of Singularity

This seems to be a reiteration of Law 19, but Law 22 again cites the importance of keeping brands tied to a specific category and avoiding the temptation to stick a successful brand name on everything just to take advantage of the name. Doing so weakens the brand’s goodwill in the mind.

“What’s a brand? A singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of the prospect. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.”

AL RIES AND LAURA RIES, THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF BRANDING (1998)

The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding was published over 20 years ago now, but I still think that a lot of the observations the authors make are relevant today for large companies and individual entrepreneurs looking to avoid branding mistakes.

Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this summary and if you still think the 22 Laws are relevant today.

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