“22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk” by Al Ries and Jack Trout — Review
The soap bubble of
"22 Immutable Laws of Marketing"
A review by Alexander Repiev, Moscow, Russia
A delusion does not stop to be a delusion
simply because the majority share it.
THE LATE MARKETING wizard Theodore Levitt lamented: “The problem with the marketing concept is a persistent tendency toward rigidity. It gets dogmatized, interpreted into constantly narrower and inflexible prescriptions…. There is not, and cannot be, any rigid and lasting interpretation of what the marketing concept means in the specific ways a company should operate at any given time.”
One could not agree more. First, marketing situations are subject to a zillion of circumstances with the result that what works in one situation may not work in others — precisely what makes “a rigid dogmatization” in principle impossible in marketing. Second, any result in business is generally an outcome of joint efforts of many departments, so that it is often impossible to attribute anything solely to a marketing idea. For instance, better distribution and logistics may compensate for poor marketing decisions, and vice versa.
But some denizens of the marketing ivory tower could not disagree more. Like medieval alchemists, they are in perpetual quest for the non-existent “absolute” — some laws, paradigms, and schemes into which they could neatly squeeze all the marketing situations without exception. An “academic” paper “Principles of Marketing” identifies only three “principles” that have allegedly passed through the strictest of screenings. The most striking of them is “Sheer weight of marketing dollars increases the probability of new product success.” The reader can imagine the caliber of other “principles,” which have not passed such a rigorous selection.
The equivocal laurels of alchemists seem to have been an envy of two venerable authors of a series of marketing bestsellers, Al Ries and Jack Trout, for more than 25 years — so they claim! As a result of their Herculean exertions, the humanity has gotten a most valuable offering in the form of all of 22 "immutable" laws of marketing.
(True, some reviewers suggested Law # 23 — there is nothing immutable in marketing. But who cares!)
Exuberant academic reviewers have already christened the “22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” a Bible of marketing. The book is said to be enjoying fantastic sales.
The book is fantastic indeed. That is to say it is a remarkable piece of marketing fantasy. It reminded me of Bolshevik texts I had had to read during my Soviet student days: they also expounded fascinating theories that had had nothing to do with real life.
Well, if the authors wanted to add a further feather to their publishing cap, they could as well supply dozens of examples of practical positioning — that exercise would be welcomed by manufacturers of thousands of ho-hum products wondering how, the heck, they are gonna “position” their nuts and bolts. Or they could refute suggestions that marketing is love for the Client and remind the dissidents that marketing is primarily a rigid war with the competitors.
Instead, they made a further attempt at a rigid dogmatization.
Philosophy and methods of the book
As is customary with the authors, they do not support their statements with data and statistics. They just proclaim. Some of their dogmas are cloned from one book to another; others contradict dogmas they expound in their other writings. Also, the authors never delineate the domains of validity of their specific “wisdoms” by tacitly lumping together cosmetics, drinks, software, rolling mills; B2B and B2C, and what not.
True, the “laws” are rife with examples. But in the ocean of situations in marketing you can find examples of virtually whatever, including mutually exclusive ones. An unscrupulous author can hand pick cases that illustrate his statement, while overlooking a sea of those that do not. When citing examples, Messrs Ries & Trout do not bother to conduct a thorough analysis of all pros and cons, let alone the specifics of the situation at hand. They simply snatch from a stack of facts those that tally with their opinion at a given moment of time.
The authors have serious problems with logic nearly in any paragraph; most of their statements are far-fetched. Their favorite trick is to make a military-style statement without any proofs and substantiations, and then to make tactical inferences that are yet farther from real life.
As a foundation for their epoch-making code of marketing laws Ries & Trout use a dashing syllogism: “There are laws of nature, so why shouldn’t there be laws of marketing?” That incongruous piece of sophomoric reasoning and wishful thinking struck me wordless!
To be sure, there are immutable laws of nature, which allow unambiguous predictions of the behavior of physical and other objects. But that in no way whatsoever suggests that there must be rigorous laws in other fields of human endeavor, such as management, philosophy, medicine, embroidery, cabinet making, ship building, wheat growing, or… marketing!
There is not a single piece of marketing knowledge that would allow one to predict anything. Least of all there is anything immutable in marketing, except for one thing — the need to look at everything from the perspective of His Majesty the Client.
But our master craftsmen of marketing fairy tales could not care less about this all, and bravely set out to build on that huge logical gaffe the whole edifice of their “code of laws.” No wonder this edifice crumbles easily.
Having persuaded themselves (but not the reader, I hope) (law 4) that there is no truth on earth, the authors make an interesting inference: "If truth is so illusive, why is there so much discussion in marketing about so-called facts, with so many marketing decisions based on factual comparisons?" – Bravissimo!
Oddly enough, our “pundits” cannot tell laws from trends, the general from the specific. Interestingly, their “immutable” formulations include absolutely NON-immutable words, such as “often,” “better than,” “probably,” etc.
By the end of the book, you get tired a bit from overt and tacit contradictions, of alogisms and syllogisms, and even of sheer stupidities.
The authors have also problems with language. So, they do not know the meaning of the words “immutable,” “opposite,” “duality.” They have a strange way with the term “category”: looks like to them a minor change in a product implies the creation of a novel product category. Most of their formulations are strikingly ambiguous.
They talk profusely about “firsts” in categories. How do they define the first place? By market share, profits, capitalization, or whatever? A company with the largest market share may be not the most profitable. And how do they work out that share? On a regional, national, international, or global scale? For instance, Coca-Cola either against Pepsi-Cola, or in the entire beverage category?
But most shocking is the fact that authors of so many marketing books do not understand the Client, specifically, the fact that today’s Client is indifferent, cynical, overproposed, sick of advertising, and armed with the Internet. They proudly state that they have developed “the physical model of the human mind” — just one step to a robot! That “modeled” Client must have "positioned" in his mind thousands of companies and product names. The authors are not interested in the possibility and desire of the real Client to be involved in that "positioning."
They do not understand that people have personal resources: time, attention, memory, interestedness, desire to strain oneself, etc. People have to spend those scarce resources on themselves, their families, work, and hobbies. Do they want to spend them on categories and trade names? Sometimes yes, when they are in a buying mood; but mostly not. Normally, they treat marketing communications, especially advertising, as information pollution.
What is the percentage of categories an average person knows of? Not very high. Many categories only occupy “two bytes” in his mind. The same concerns trademarks. I have performed experiments with student audiences asking them to draft within a couple of days a list of tradenames that would come to their young minds. The results ranged from 100 to 200. Even if we include passive awareness, the figure will be negligible against the millions of names in the market.
When asked about some “associations” (perceptions) with names even in especially “brandable” categories such as cars, consumer electronics, or cosmetics, respondents would come up only with a couple of comments, mostly incomprehensible. In cars, for instance, respondents could tell something about Rolls-Royce, Mercedes, Volvo, and Toyota, but questions about the differences between Suzuki or Isuzu, Mazda or Hyundai, Renault or Peugeot, etc., would normally perplex them.
The fact that we have no perceptions of many names and products is funny in the light of the authors' stunning home-spun revelations (law 4): “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.” and “Truth is nothing more or less than the perception of one expert – someone who is perceived to be an expert in the mind of somebody else.”
Ironically, this all also suggests that
There cannot be any immutable laws, and this very book is just a “perception of one expert.”
By the way, do the authors themselves exist? Or rather they are just our perceptions of them?
Let us now go over these glamorous 22 “immutables,” thinking from the perspective of the Client, or rather using marketing thinking.
Lo and behold!
1. The Law of Leadership
“It’s better to be first than it is to be better.”
(In business, it is better to make much money. All the rest are intermediate “products.”)
Let’s look at this “immutable law” in some detail — it seems to occupy a central place in the authors' philosophy.
Brace yourself for hard work — we will have to clear a mess of loose and incongruous statements of our venerable authors.
To begin with, what is “better”? "Better" in what respect? (By the way, you cannot be just "better," you can only be better than somebody.) What kind of “leadership” are the authors talking about?
What is “first”? How do authors keep score: by market share, profits, capitalization? How about NON-leaders? Off with their heads?
A myriad of questions of various nature at every step!
“Many people believe that the basic issue in marketing is convincing prospects that you have a better product or service. Not true.”
Dear gurus, but what do salespersons and selling advertising do, if not “convincing prospects that…”?
By the way, aggressive suppliers of disruptive technologies rip off much business from unwieldy grandees… exactly by supplying “a better product or service.” Furthermore, the prospect too wants to get “a better product.” Unfortunately, it is not always that he knows what is better, and so he wants to be convinced.
“If you have a small market share and you have to do battle with larger, better-financed competitors,..”
Millions of SMEs do no battle. They just supply mundane products and services to their neighborhoods. By the way, most firms have not the slightest idea of their market share.
“... then your marketing strategy was probably faulty in the first place. You violated the first law of marketing.”
Just think of that — if your share is small, you are wrong! From the very beginning at that. To comply with this "law," the next day after the establishment of your company you must become the leader of the pack.
A striking discovery! It transpires that all the organizations in a category, except for one (first), follow a faulty marketing strategy. Thank God, millions of SMEs are unaware of being violators of some funny ivory-tower laws. They simply try to be good to their Clients and to make a living, by “convincing prospects that they have a better product or service.” But that, in the authors’ opinion, is a cardinal sin.
To recap, the above suggests that (1) you should not convince prospects; (2) you should not improve products; (3) all minus one (first) in a category pursue faulty marketing strategies.
“The basic issue in marketing is creating a category you can be first in.”
It's nuts! Millions of firms fare well without creating a category, many category creators go belly up.
“It’s much easier to get into the mind first than to try to convince someone you have a better product than the one that did get there first.”
What specifically is supposed to be gotten into the mind? If it is just a name, experience shows that without selling points, i.e., without “convincing” the Client that a given product is better, this “getting” is useless.
“You can demonstrate the law of leadership by asking yourself two questions:
What’s the name of the first person to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo? Charles Lindbergh, right?
What’s the name of the second person to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo? Not so easy to answer, is it?”
A further piece of funny reasoning! This quiz “demonstrates” nothing. (I wonder by the way what percentage of people on earth have ever heard about some guy called Charles Lindbergh? And even about Americo Vispucci... even in Americas?) You may well know the name of the discoverer of America, and a dozen of other non-marketing “firsts.” But can this idea be mechanistically translated into categories?
The authors thus tacitly suggest that the Client knows all the “firsts” in a sea of categories. Will Messrs Ries & Trout at last walk out of their comfortable ivory tower into the street and ask hundreds of people whether they know the firsts in categories. Or maybe every shopper should be given a list of firsts in hundreds of categories?
Can anyone tell us on the spot — who was the “first” in operating systems for PCs? Many know of MS DOS, which was bought by Microsoft from a small firm Seattle Computer Products, by the way. The very first OS was the obscure CP/M. Who knows of it? And who cares?
Suppose then that Clients do know the first in a specific category. So, what of that? Does it guarantee that the first will be the best-selling product?
About the “seconds” – there are hundreds of “seconds,” “thirds” and “umpteenth” who do fantastic business. For instance, the concepts of the Apple computer, the laser printer, the mouse, and what not, were proposed by Xerox. But who made more money on those inventions? Even in copiers Xerox is no leader anymore.
It would do our facile authors no harm to read “Fast Second: How Smart Companies Bypass Radical Innovation to Enter and Dominate New Markets” by Constantinos C. Markides and Paul A. Geroski.
Perhaps, they will learn for the first time in 25 years about extremely successful “fast seconds”, such as IBM with mainframes; GE with tomography; Canon with photocameras; Black & Decker with kitchen combines; Sharp with faxes, etc., etc., etc.
But "fast seconds" too are nothing close to an “immutability” or a dogma — there are no things like that in marketing, except perhaps only in the minds of pseudo-marketers. There are examples of winning firsts, and examples of winning “fast seconds.” Any case in marketing is unique.
A further “wisdom”:
“If you’re introducing the first brand in a new category, you should always try to select a name that can work generically.”
Ironically, Ries without Trout in his other masterpiece “22 Immutable Laws of Branding” says exactly the opposite:
12. The Law of The Generic: “One of the fastest routes to failure is giving a brand a generic name.”
Guys, will you please settle this minor “immutable” thing round the corner. If, of course, you respect the readership. And if you do not want to make fools of yourselves.
Concerning “generics,” when I worked for Xerox, this was a hard call for me. It took me much effort to clarify the situation to the uncaring public. I thought up the slogan “We taught the world to copy,” published articles “‘Xeroxes’ from Xerox,” got interviewed on TV, etc. Messrs Rice and Trout, do you twig why Google got so worried to find people saying “to google” when using any search engine on the Internet?
This “law” is a striking fallacy!
As to the remaining “immutabilities,” I will only give a concise overview of them, so that not to test your patience, dear readers.
2. The Law of the Category
If you can’t be first in a category, change the nature of the category or set up a new category you can be first in.
This “law” is a boring variation on the first “law” with “the Atlantic Ocean solo” and all. It is especially “valuable” for millions of SMEs — they of course can change or set up a category at the snap of their fingers.
The authors could browse Yellow Pages only to find, much to their academic surprise, dozens or even hundreds of flourishing building contractors, forwarders, hospitals, banks, law firms, etc., etc., etc., in nearly any city.
Another funny piece: Ries with Trout preach — forget about the brand, think in terms of categories. But Ries without Trout has produced his own set of branding dogmas “22 Immutable Laws of Branding.”
A further fallacy.
3. The Law of the Mind
It is better to be first in the mind than first in the marketplace.
Is it really? Manufacturers of rarely bought products may be "first in the marketplace" but on nobody's mind at all. This is readily tested. In whose mind, by the way? Does the market have one big “mind”?
What is “in the mind” of millions of Clients concerning hundreds of categories — tea, coffee, cereals, bread, milk, and other staple foods? Or concerning radiators, plumbing, coffins, and so on? The Rolls-Royce car, for instance, has always been the first in the mind as a luxury car, but a couple of times it was on the verge of collapse.
4. The Law of Perception
Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions.
The authors seem to be fond of subjective idealism maintaining that there is neither objective reality, nor better products. Well, I’d love to take a look at our two dogmatists dining on their perceptions of food, donning on their perceptions of dress, etc.
But what produces a perception of a product, if any? An analysis of the product and the distillation of information about it gleaned from different sources.
An average person's mind harbors perceptions only of a negligible proportion of products available in the marketplace. This can be easily found out.
What would the authors recommend to a prospect wanting to get a product about which he has no prior perceptions? How is he supposed to get about that?
5. The Law of Focus
The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind.
Really? The fallacy of this “immutable law” is one of the easiest to be tested. Go out and ask people in the street what “words” are owned by thousands of trademarks. How many sensible answers do you think you are going to get?
If a product does “own” a word, will it necessarily sell better than the competition?
There is neither space, nor desire to sort out other gaffes of this piece.
6. The Law of Exclusivity
Two companies cannot own the same word in the prospect’s mind.
Really? For instance, batteries and electric lamps “own the same word” — longevity!
And if companies are located in different cities or nations?
A continuation of Fallacy # 5.
7. The Law of the Ladder
The strategy to use depends on which rung you occupy on the ladder.
The authors allege that for each category in the mind there is a ladder of products, each rung being occupied by the name of a brand. — Each rung?
If the Client does not even know most of categories, let alone "firsts" in them, what are the chances for him to know seven (so the authors maintain) guys on that ladder?
By the way, the authors claim that each rung on the ladder has twice the market share of the rung below it. Can they prove that?
If for a moment we agree with this “Law,” the authors give no indications as to what this strategy should look like for the nth rung.
8. The Law of Duality
In the long run, every market becomes a two-horse race.
Every market? You are kidding, guys! Admittedly, in extremely rare occasions, for instance in popular software and aircraft building, this may be the case, but in most categories this is not so. Even with the examples in the text. Take Nike, for instance. It “races” against Addidas, Puma, Reebok and many others.
9. The Law of the Opposite
If you’re shooting for second place, your strategy is determined by the leader.
To reiterate, in many categories companies and Clients do not know the leader. Also, a leader within a range of 100 miles may be different from a leader within 1,000 miles, etc.
And all that funny talk about the strong leader! — if the leader is strong, #2 can occupy his place (in the formulation the authors talk about shooting for the second place, not first). Well, and if the leader is weak, what is a "shooter" supposed to do?
What is the "opposite"? Among the many irrelevant examples there is not a single one of anything “opposite.”
10. The Law of Division
Over time, a category will divide and become two or more categories.
A fantastic observation! Who is the book meant for: dummies or professionals?
11. The Law of Perspective
Marketing effects take place over an extended period of time.
Some marketing effects take place overnight; others, may take years. It depends. Also, it depends on national mentality. The Japanese are wont of saying that they think ten years ahead; Europeans think ten days ahead; and Americans think ten minutes ahead.
See also Law # 21.
12. The Law of Line Extension
There’s an irresistible pressure to extend the equity of the brand.
Admittedly, there is, but what is “immutable” here?
The authors are dogmatic fighters against line extensions in the face of a sea of examples of successful extensions around. Specifically, it would be interesting to hear their comments on Apple’s fantastic line extension — iPod.
13. The Law of Sacrifice
You have to give something up in order to get something.
Not always by far. And what has marketing to do with this by the way?
A fallacy and a banality.
14. The Law of Attributes
For every attribute, there is an opposite, effective attribute.
A variation on Law # 9 “The Law of the Opposite.”
Nonsense. Suppose I use the attribute “good.” Will the opposite, i.e., “bad,” be more effective?
Again mostly Coca-Cola and other trite names are discussed. If you are in a small business you’d better have a beer.
15. The Law of Candor
When you admit a negative, the prospect will give you a positive.
Well, a couple of examples may support this statement. But this is a far cry from “immutability.”
16. The Law of Singularity
In each situation only one move will produce substantial results.
Really? Instead of proofs the authors offer a hodge-podge of irrelevant anecdotes with Hannibal, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, В.Н. Liddell Hart, and, of course, the Cola wars.
17. The Law of Unpredictability
Unless you write your competitors’ plans, you can’t predict the future.
Nobody can. And not only in marketing. And even if you do write plans for thousands of your competitors. And even you write them for yourself. Perhaps, astrologers and marketing subjective idealists can predict the future?
18. The Law of Success
Success often leads to arrogance, and arrogance to failure.
Success may or may not lead to arrogance. Ironically, this “law” applies splendidly to our authors. Their initial publishing success went into their heads and lead to arrogance and… to books like this.
The body of this “law” is a heap of incongruous cases.
19. The Law of Failure
Failure is to be expected and accepted.
Thanx abunchies, dear sages, for this “wisdom.” You must have more like this up your sleeve.
20. The Law of Hype
The situation is often the opposite of the way it appears in the press.
Things may work out either way: exactly like or opposite of the way it appears in the press. There are many examples of hype that did much good to a name. There are a lot of cases where press did much harm, a prime example being “subliminal advertising.” The furor was created by the irresponsible press.
An irrelevant banality.
21. The Law of Acceleration
Successful programs are not built on fads, they’re built on trends.
A variation on Law # 11.
Successful programs may be built on whatever. Pretty much depends on a category, a concrete market situation, a current fashion, etc.
I subscribe to the words of Dan Herman, one of the many critics of this dogma: “Ries obviously haven’t heard about Harry Potter… There are brands which take off very fast. Some of them, not all of them, really do behave like meteors and are very successful for a short period of time.”
22. The Law of Resources
Without adequate funding, an idea won’t get off the ground.
A variation on Law # 13.
Our dogmatic gurus are dead sure that a mediocre idea with a million dollars is better than a brilliant idea without bucks. Well, nothing is free in this world; but nobody practices business without some marketing spends. But what kind of spends? A fool works with mega-bucks, a sage works with mega-brains… and some bucks.
A German copywriter Walter Schönert was right: “You can multiply a zero idea by a million dollars — you still get a zero. And if an idea is adequate, even modest expenditures may lead to a success.”
A fallacy and a banality.
One reviewer on Amazon.com from Arlington, VA, called the book “insulting to the reader.” Yes, it is shockingly insulting!!! And it is a disgrace for the marketing profession.
If this text were written by a student, it would be pooh-poohed. However… most of Amazon.com reviewers gave the book five stars. Why? Have you ever heard of the so-called Blatant Nonsense Effect, which is explained as follows: a reader comes across a blatant stupidity written by a venerable author. He faces the dilemma: to accept that nonsense as an article of faith, having suppressed his inacceptance; or to reject it. Normally they accept — it is simpler that way.
The book engenders a host of poignant thoughts about the irresponsibility of marketing authors; about the soap-bubble phenomenon of marketing “gurus;” about the naiveté of readerships; and about many other things. Also, the book is a litmus paper of the qualification and integrity of the book’s 17 academic reviewers — they pronounced this collection of fallacies, banalities, exceptions, wrong prophecies, and downright stupidities the “best marketing book.”
Coupled with the constellation of dead schemes in academic marketing, such reasoning ruins marketing education and practice alike.
Something is rotten in the kingdom of marketing!
P.S. The book has started an “immutabilis” pandemic. There have already appeared several dozen books of “Immutable Laws” on Branding, Marketing Categories, Corporate Reputation, Internet Discourse, Blogging, Corporate Job Interviews, Risk Management, Universal Supply Chain Connectivity, Screenwriting, Web Marketing, B-to-B Direct Marketing, Digital Marketing, Internet Branding, Growing Business Marketing, Business, Advertising Directories, and you name it. There are even “12 Immutable Laws of Humor.” What I haven’t seen yet is “N Immutable Laws of Marketing Lunacy.” It awaits its author.
Other English-language articles by A. Repiev
A glimpse of Russia's advertising and marketing
Kotler and kotleroids
The Augean stables of academic marketing
Lunatics have taken over the asylum
Pseudomarketing: scholasticism and bureaucracy
"Physics envy" – physics abysmally misconstrued!