The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing Summary

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing - Al Ries and Jack Trout
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing Audiobook – Al Ries and Jack Trout

Following on from my summary of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, I picked up Al Ries and Jack Trout’s equivalent book on marketing. In this post, I’ll summarise each of the laws and provide my take on their usefulness for individual entrepreneurs today (given that the book was first published in 1994).

Law 1: The Law of Leadership

It is better to be the first into your category than it is to have the better product. By being first, you have the opportunity to implant your brand name into the mind of the customer. By obtaining this first association with a product category in the mind of the customer, this gives you a leg-up on any subsequent entrants into the same category.

The examples given (which are not particularly relatable as an individual) are Coca Cola (who introduced the first cola drink in 1886) and Xerox (who produced the first copier in 1949).

I agree with the idea that brands which are the first to make their name known in a particular category will be at an advantage over competitors. I definitely seem to have a scepticism around newcomers to product categories which I am familiar with. I expect that part of this scepticism stems from a subconscious comparison of the newcomer with the established brands which have already been in the game for a long time.

On the other hand, I would say that being first is more of an advantage off the block and one which must be coupled with momentum from the product itself if the brand is to remain in front of its competitors in the mind of the customer.

Take Myspace for example. Facebook arrived on the scene later, but which platform succeeded?

Tesla is another example. They weren’t the first to produce the electric car, yet according to Statista, their Model 3 was the world’s best selling electric car last year by some margin.

Law 2: The Law of the Category

If you have an idea for a new product but someone has already pioneered that category and established themselves in the mind of the customer, you should come up with a new category to be the first in.

The example of Charles Schwab is given. Rather than opening another brokerage firm to compete with the existing incumbents, Schwab opened the first discount brokerage firm. It therefore wasn’t a case of touting themselves as a better brokerage firm, but as a completely different type of brokerage firm.

By being the first in your chosen category, you have no competition. Ries and Trout make an interesting observation that, in an established category, consumers already have their brand allegiances and will defend those brands. They’re therefore not interested in if a newcomer is allegedly better than the brand they already know in their mind to be the originator.

“Everyone is interested in what’s new. Few people are interested in what’s better.”

Al Ries and Jack Trout – The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (1994)

This is another point I agree on (and it sort of follows on from the comments I made on Law 1). I don’t necessarily have brand allegiance, but there are probably one or two brands in every established category that I could pinpoint as having a sturdy authority for producing quality products in that category and where a newcomer would struggle to make it past their moat in my mind.

Law 3: The Law of the Mind

Law 3 further refines Law 2 by underlining that it’s not just about being the first in the marketplace. The key to success is being the first in the mind of the consumer.

Although you might have an awesome idea for a product, if you’re unable to execute the marketing of that product effectively and make your position as pioneer known, your competition can easily snatch that first place position from you.

The analogy of a 100 metre sprint can also be used here. While coming up with the new product and category first puts you at an advantage over your competitors (who did not even realise there was a race), they can easily overtake you if you’re not taking advantage of that hypothetical head start by promoting your product effectively and implanting your brand in the mind of the customer.

IBM is given here as an example. They were not the first to the marketplace with mainframe computers – that was Remington Rand with the UNIVAC. However, thanks to their marketing efforts, they were able to get into the mind of the customer first and won the computer battle.

The theme that is developing here is that the success of an entrepreneurial idea is primarily a battle of perceptions which takes place in the mind of the consumer. It’s not about being the first to think of a great idea or even the first to bring that idea to the marketplace. It also doesn’t matter if your product is superior if there are already incumbents with established brands. What matters is being perceived by the consumer as the pioneer in the category and keeping that momentum going.

Law 4: The Law of Perception

Law 4 further reiterates the warning to those who are considering adopting the role of “disruptor” and entering an existing market on the basis that their product is better than those currently on offer from the incumbents.

It does not matter if you deem your product to be objectively better than existing products in the marketplace if there is no objective reality. All that really matters is how the customer perceives your product. If you are jumping into an existing marketplace against experienced incumbents, you will struggle to make a dent in a firmly rooted affinity for a brand in the minds of prospects.

“There is no objective reality. There are no facts. There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

This observation also applies in connection with brands which are considering an extension to their lineup of products. If your brand has already made a name for itself in one category, it is dangerous to apply that same brand name on another product category. Even if some goodwill has been developed with the brand name in the original category, prospects may view the application of that brand name on a different product negatively.

A hypothetical is proposed – if the motorcycle manufacturer were to bring out a car, would it be successful? Even if that brand had a strong reputation for producing quality motorcycles, the conclusion is that a car produced by the same company would fail.

This chapter is the most fascinating of both The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing and the later The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding in my view. Ries and Trout go far deeper into the human condition than I would have expected of a book on marketing.

“To cope with the terrifying reality of being alone in the universe, people project themselves on the outside world. They live in the arena of books, movies, television, newspapers, magazines. They belong to clubs, organisations, institutions. These outside representations of the world seem more real than the reality inside their own minds.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

By acknowledging that there is only subjective truth which we each craft in our own minds, a marketer’s ultimate aim should be to exploit this ability to mould the perceived reality in their efforts to sell you a blender. That blender may not be the best blender, but they’ll certainly lead you to believe that it is.

Law 5: The Law of Focus

Part of your marketing strategy should be to ultimately own a word in the mind of your prospective customers. The example of Fedex and overnight is given. I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with this example. If the term overnight is used in the context of postage, then perhaps Fedex would come to mind ahead of its competitors, but if I was asked to associate a brand with the term “overnight” as a standalone term without context, I would be more likely to associate the term with Airbnb as the term conjures up travel more than it does postage in my view. I’d account this discrepancy to the massive change in the marketplace that’s taken place since 1996 (and the fact that Airbnb did not exist when this book was published).

The word you are aiming to associate with your brand should be one that represents a unique quality to your particular product. For that reason, you should avoid trying to tie generic terms such as “quality” to your product. There is nothing distinguishing about this term, as every brand in every category will stand for it. It offers your customer no means of differentiation.

Ries and Trout make the observation that once you have tied your brand to a particular word, you need to maintain your product’s focus around that chosen word. The example of BMW is give. They adopt the slogan “the ultimate driving machine”, which complements its sports car lineup. However, when the company subsequently extends its product line into every other type of car, this focus becomes diluted and leads the consumer to question whether they are in fact sports car specialists or if they are just a jack of all trades.

Law 6: The Law of Exclusivity

It is not possible for two companies to own the same word in the mind of the prospect, so you should avoid going after a word which is already owned by a competitor in your category. When a word is already firmly associated with a competitor, no amount of advertising spend will be enough for a newcomer to take that word off the incumbent.

The example of Volvo and the term “safety” is given. Although other car manufacturers have run advertising campaigns to try and take this word, none have been successful in seizing the word from Volvo which has firmly rooted an association with this word in the mind of the customer.

Law 7: The Law of the Ladder

Ries and Trout make the observation that there is a “ladder” for each product category. The products that arrived on the market first and made their way into the mind of the customer first will occupy the first rung of the ladder. Subsequent rungs will belong to the competitors which followed.

Your marketing strategy should be based upon which rung of the “ladder” your product occupies. For example, those who pioneered a category will need a different marketing strategy to those who were third.

Ries and Trout argue that those who are second or third on the ladder can take advantage of their lower hierarchical position by drawing attention to it rather than pretending that they are the best (when the consumer will see right through the pretence). The example of the car rental company Avis is given, who launched a successful marketing campaign on the basis that they try harder than the top-rung occupier, Hertz.

The higher interest the category, the more rungs there will be capable of occupation on the ladder. Products used everyday (e.g. toothpaste) will have a lot of rungs capable of occupation while products bought infrequently (e.g. furniture) will have far fewer (unless they are items of particular personal pride (e.g. cars and watches)).

Ries and Trout observe that, generally, the largest number of rungs available on the ladder for the highest interest category will be seven. This is on the basis that most consumers will struggle to name more than seven brands in any particular category of product.

Law 8: The Law of Duality

Although new categories are often swamped with many rungs of competitors at the outset, every ladder ultimately ends in a two horse race. The example of McDonald’s and Burger King is given.

Although I can see this Law as being relevant in certain low-tech areas, I cannot see this law as being one that would be applicable in a lot of growth industries. The ability to remain one of the leaders in tech, for instance, depends upon continued innovation. If a newcomer is consistently able to bring innovative new products to the table while a leading horse treads water, that leading horse will soon be overtaken in the field of technology.

Law 9: The Law of the Opposite

Following on from Law 7, the observation here is that brands that do not occupy the top rung of the ladder can successfully market themselves by attacking the brand in the top spot. The example of Pepsi is given, who regularly market themselves as the more youthful alternative to Coca Cola.

Those on lower rungs of the ladder can also be successful by appealing to those who don’t want to be conformist consumers by purchasing the leading brand. Taking the adversarial position is observed to be far superior a tactic than simply trying to emulate the brand which occupies the top spot.

“A good number 2 can’t afford to be timid. When you give up focusing on number 1, you make yourself vulnerable, not only to the leader, but to the rest of the pack.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Burger King’s marketing efforts are cited by way of demonstration of the above quote. Its most successful years were those when it was attacking McDonald’s, not those when it was running with its own standalone marketing campaigns.

Law 10: The Law of Division

Over time, new categories end up dividing into more specific sub-categories.

“Like an amoeba dividing in a Petri dish, the marketing arena can be viewed as an ever-expanding sea of categories.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

The example of computers and cars are given as core categories which have subsequently branched off into a vast array of different sub-categories.

If we acknowledge that categories will inevitably expand into smaller sub-categories, it is important to avoid the temptation of breaching Law 5: The Law of Focus. As these sub-categories reveal themselves, as does the temptation to introduce new product lines to try to compete in them.

Ries and Trout cite the example of General Motors’ venture into the super-premium vehicle category with the Cadillac Allante in its efforts to compete with Mercedes. The release bombed, which Ries and Trout account to the consumer association of Cadillac with cars of a lower price than they were asking for the Allante. Even if the quality of the Allante was on par with or better than the equivalent Mercedes, customers would not pay that money for a product when others would not perceive that they had paid a super-luxury price.

I can definitely agree with the comment that customers will be reluctant to pay high prices for high-end category items produced by what is perceived to be a low-end brand. Anecdotally, I know that people are often shocked to hear the price of Nissan’s top of the line Nismo GTR (because it is a Nissan).

Law 11: The Law of Perspective

The effects of marketing on the minds of customers are a long-term phenomenon which take place over an extended period of time.

An example of something which can be seen to damage business in the long term are cut-price sales. If a product is regularly seen to be on sale, customers will no longer buy the product when it is full price. The long term effect of frequent sales is to devalue the product in the mind of the prospect as they will hold back from buying at full price in anticipation of the next sale.

I can certainly relate to this in relation to my clothes buying habits. Clothes stores tend to have sales at set times throughout the year like clockwork, so I will always time my clothes purchases around these dates. For that reason, it could be said that my perspective on the value of the clothes has been damaged due to the expectation of the sale in this industry. I expect this has a damaging effect competitors in the same category who are not so prone to holding sales.

“Aside from the fact that you can buy something for less, what does a sale say to a prospect? It says that your regular prices are too high. After the sale is over, customers tend to avoid a store with a sale reputation.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

The same warning is given for couponing. Once you start off on the path of holding sales or giving out couponing, the perception of the value of your products is damaged in the mind of the customer. Once this happens, the only way to get those customers back will be to hold more sales or give out more coupons.

Law 12: The Law of Line Extension

Following on from Law 10, this Law warns against applying the brand name which you have made successful in connection with one product to new product lines in different categories. The most likely outcome in doing this will be that your existing brand will not be accepted by consumers in the new category due to the association of the brand with the core category. The other outcome may be a tarnishing of the perception of the brand in its core category as a specialist in that area.

“There are as many ways to line-extend as there are galaxies in the universe and new ways get invented every day. In the long run and in the presence of serious competition, line extensions almost never work.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Although most companies do ultimately resort to line-extending in their efforts to increase sales and market-share, Ries and Trout observe that invariably it is the core product line that is always the category leader. The focus should therefore remain on the core product and its expansion rather than producing variants or completely different products under the same name.

Law 13: The Law of Sacrifice

This is the opposite of line extension – for a brand to be more successful, you should consider giving line extensions up rather than expanding outside of the core product line.

“Where is it written that the more you have to sell, the more you sell?”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

The thinking here is that by constantly expanding your product lines, any perception the consumer has of the brand as a specialist will be lost. By spreading yourself too thin with multiple product lines over multiple different categories, you also leave yourself vulnerable to challenges made by smaller specialists who are still able to focus and who now have the opportunity to take the specialist perception in the mind.

The mayonnaise market is given as an example. Although Kraft makes mayonnaise, it is only viewed as another product that the company makes. For Hellmans on the other hand, the perception is that mayonnaise is all they do. They therefore hold the reputation as the mayonnaise specialist and this is reflected in their market share.

An example of a well-executed line extension is Kraft’s venture in cream cheese where, in this case, they created a new brand: Philadelphia. By not relying on the jack of all trades Kraft brand name, the perception of specialism and expertise has been successfully cultivated with Philadelphia for cream cheese.

Interestingly, Ries and Trout give two other examples of businesses whose success is accountable to their specialism: Toys R Us and Blockbuster Video. In these cases, perhaps it was in spite of their otherwise well-focused business strategies that they each failed in the wake of online toy shopping and movie streaming platforms respectively.

The requirement to adopt a narrow focus also applies when choosing your target market for advertising campaigns. Even though you are pursuing a specific demographic, customers outside of that demographic can still be enticed. For instance, Pepsi was marketed as the youthful alternative to Coca Cola. Ries and Trout argue that this approach would not just be successful in attracting the target market, but the older market also.

Constantly changing your marketing strategy to try and produce better results should be avoided. This follows on from Ries and Trout’s recommendation to avoid fickle line extensions. If you have achieved success with a focused marketing strategy, surely expanding your target market is the obvious next step? Ries and Trout argue the contrary, stating that products which adopt a scattergun approach to their target demographic will do worse than those that target their customer.

“If you try to follow the twists and turns of the market, you are bound to wind up off the road. The best way to maintain a consistent position is not to change it in the first place.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Law 14: The Law of Attributes

Avoid copying the attributes of your competitors. Much in the same way that you should seek out your own unique word to implant in the mind of the customer (Law 5), you should also adopt your own unique attribute or simply adopt the opposite attribute to your competitor.

Gillette’s high tech razor blades are given as the example of the existing attribute and the subsequent launch of the disposable razor in France was the rival which adopted the opposite attribute. The success of this adversary led Gillette to launch its own Good News disposable razor and the disposable category now dominates the razor blade business.

Law 15: The Law of Candor

Being honest about flaws in your product, brand or position can be effective marketing strategies. Ries and Trout make the following observation as to why this is effective:

“Every negative statement you make about yourself is instantly accepted as truth. Positive statements, on the other hand, are looked at as dubious at best – especially in an advertisement.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Avis (the car rental company) took advantage of this by acknowledging their number two position and centring their marketing campaign around trying harder than Hertz. Smuckers adopted a similar approach in its marketing which made fun of its own name.

In an environment of brands blowing their own trumpets most of the time, there is something refreshing about a marketing campaign based around self-deprecation and a brand which doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Listerine brilliantly invoked the law of candor: the taste you hate, twice a day. Not only did the company admit that the product tasted bad, they admitted that people actually hated it. Now, that’s honesty.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Law 16: The Law of Singularity

A single, focused marketing strategy is superior to a scattergun approach. Although it may appear that marketing success is the cumulative result of many smaller steps, Ries and Trout argue that it is the single bold strokes which produce the most effect – the line of least expectation.

“Most often, there is only one place where a competitor is vulnerable and that place should be the focus of the entire invading force.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Law 17: The Law of Unpredictability

Reliance should not be placed too heavily on projections of what may happen in the future. Tracking trends can be of some use in assessing changing consumer activity (for instance, the trend toward health foods), but again it is not possible to predict which of these trends will turn into long term changes and which are passing fads.

The suggestion for coping with an unpredictable world is to build in a lot of flexibility into your brand. You will be at an advantage if you are able to adapt to quickly take advantage of developing trends if your competitors are slow off the mark or fail to adjust their course altogether.

Law 18: The Law of Success

Success can be a detrimental thing if it is allowed to produce arrogance and complacency. The key is not to allow the emotional high of success to cloud or drive your judgement. An objective, calm disposition should be maintained even after you see your efforts begin to pay off.

“Brilliant marketers have the ability to think like a prospect thinks. They put themselves into the shoes of the customers. They don’t impose their own view on the situation.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Law 19: The Law of Failure

Identifying mistakes and taking action to remedy them as soon as possible is far more conducive to future success than ignoring the error and digging the hole deeper.

Although your ego may take a hit, it is much better to admit when a plan has not worked and cut your losses rather than jumping after a falling knife.

Law 20: The Law of Hype

Companies that are doing well don’t need media hype. Companies that pursue the hype should be viewed with caution.

Ries and Trout make the observation that the products that receive the most media hype tend to fail right around the time that the media’s attention wanes. The products that succeed in the long term tend to be those which don’t receive press coverage until after they’ve succeeded. Until that point, they grind away in the background.

“Real revolutions arrive unannounced in the middle of the night and kind of sneak up on you.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Law 21: The Law of Exoneration

Fads should be differentiated from trends. As you would expect, fads receive a lot of media hype and burn bright, while slow burning trends tend to receive very little attention. Fads soon burn out, while trends continue to grow over a long timeframe.

“A fad is a wave in the ocean and a trend is the tide.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

Companies that make significant investment into fads are in for a rude awakening when their market dries up as quickly as it arrived. Several examples are given in the toy category. The suggestion is that rather than fanning the flames of a fad, you should try to dampen the fad so as to extend its life and perhaps convert the fad into a trend.

Rather than saturating the market with a range of different line-extended products, restricting the supply may be more effective in maintaining the customer’s continued interest in the product. Scarcity increases desirability.

Law 22: The Law of Resources

“Even the best idea won’t go very far without the money to get it off the ground.”

AL RIES AND JACK TROUT – THE 22 IMMUTABLE LAWS OF MARKETING (1994)

The warning given here is that coming up with the revolutionary idea is only step one. The next step is finding someone to actually fund the venture and promote it. Public relations agencies charge high monthly fees to promote your product, so you will struggle to get your new product into the mind of the customer without significant financial backing.

What do you make of Ries and Trout’s 22 laws? Do you think these are still relevant today? Drop a comment with your take.

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