The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Explained

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing" by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the 22 immutable laws of marketing? Are you following these laws in your company? What could you be doing better?

The most successful companies are the ones with the highest-quality products and biggest marketing budgets, right? Wrong. It’s not quality and products that determine a company’s success, it’s marketing.

Keep reading to learn about The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Organized

The most successful companies are the ones with the highest-quality products and biggest marketing budgets, right? Wrong. While quality products and large cash reserves certainly help, they don’t determine a company’s success. In this 1993 book, marketing experts Al Ries and Jack Trout outline the 22 immutable laws that govern what works and what doesn’t in marketing. Ries and Trout spent more than 25 years studying the best-known (and many little-known) brands to discover which strategies lead to success and which lead to failure. Through their research, they discovered common principles that they’ve distilled into these 22 immutable laws. 

For added context, we’ve renumbered the laws and grouped them into six themes: 

  1. Convince consumers that you’re the only viable option: Position your product as the top choice within your market.
  2. Focus your message: Create a unique, targeted marketing message.
  3. Leverage your market position: Learn how markets generally behave and how to use that insight to inform your marketing strategy.
  4. Be consistent: Position your product as the best in its category and build your marketing around that product so customers know what to expect from your brand. 
  5. Be strategic about your overall marketing plan: Aside from the specifics of your marketing message, be strategic with your overarching tone and approach.
  6. Get on top and stay there: Beyond the marketing arm of your business, ensure that your organization remains healthy for lasting success.)

Convince Consumers That You’re the Only Viable Option

The first four immutable laws of marketing focus on how to be the top choice within your market. In every major product category, there’s one brand that immediately comes to consumers’ minds. For chocolate, it’s Hershey’s. For cellophane tape, it’s Scotch tape. The most successful brands are those that are considered the defaults in their categories. Use the following laws to make sure your product is consumers’ first choice.

Law #1: Be the First in Your Field

People remember firsts, and companies that are first to enter their markets are typically more successful than those that follow, even if the latecomers have better products. Furthermore, the first entrants in a particular market tend to remain the market leaders over time, even if late entrants have higher-quality products. 

Law #2: If You Can’t Be First, Create a New Category

If you have a great product but another company was already first in that market, create a new category in which you are first. You don’t have to entirely change your product—just find something that sets it apart. For example, when Charles Schwab opened a brokerage firm, instead of competing with existing firms, he made his the first discount brokerage firm. 

Law #3: Be the First Brand in Consumers’ Minds

Although Law #1 states that you need to be the first in the marketplace, Law #3 amends that principle: Above all, you need to be first in consumers’ minds—when consumers think of the product you sell, they should immediately think of your brand. Being first in the market merely gives you a head start to get into the public’s mind. 

Law #4: Perception Trumps Fact

In the battle for prospective customers’ minds, you must fight not only to be first in mind but also best in mind. Contrary to popular belief, your most potent weapon in marketing is not the quality of your product, but rather the public’s perception of your product. Simply put, perception is reality: No matter what research and performance tests reveal, your marketing will only be successful if consumers believe that your product is the best. Build your marketing plan around the way people form perceptions by using some of the immutable laws we’ll discuss later (such as laws #8 and #15). Marketing manipulates people’s perceptions and, thus, their realities.  

Focus Your Message

The marketing laws in the second category address the importance of focusing your marketing message. In order to get consumers to notice and remember your product, you need to broadcast a unique, focused message that sets you apart from your competitors. Marketing with a focused message for a specific audience gets the most traction. Use these laws to define your product in a way that’s concise and appealing to customers. 

Law #5: Pick One Word to Define Your Brand

To create a powerful, lasting perception in the mind of the public, you need to center your marketing plan around a single word. This word should sum up the primary message you want consumers to remember about your brand—whether it’s “reliability,” “affordable,” or “service.” A successful marketing strategy can create a universal association between your word and your product. For example, Mercedes built its success on the word “engineering” by boasting state-of-the-art features and innovations. When choosing a word, consider these tips: 

  • Make it simple. Even if your product or market is complex, a single, simple word is more effective than multiple words. Creating this narrow focus takes discipline. 
  • Be specific. Choose a word that sets you apart from your competitors. A word like “quality” is too vague to be tied to any one brand, because every company is going to claim to have a quality product. 
  • Use a loaded word. Effective words create a halo effect, meaning that they imply that your product also has other desirable characteristics. For example, if you market your cars as “reliable,” that word can also imply that the car is safe, long-lasting, and easy to maintain. 

Law #6: Don’t Use Another Brand’s Word

When you choose your word, make sure that none of your competitors is already using it. The goal is to create an undeniable association between the word and your brand, and you can’t achieve that if another firm is using the same word. Even if you have a lot of money to throw at the marketing campaign, you can’t co-opt a word that another company is already using. In fact, if you try, you could end up strengthening their message, because you’ll be emphasizing the importance of that word, which is already linked with that brand. 

Law #7: Choose a Highly Valued Attribute 

When choosing the word for your brand, first determine the attribute that customers value most in this product. For example, in the toothpaste market, the most important attribute is the ability to fight cavities. If another brand has already successfully claimed the top attribute, move on to the next-best, opposite attribute—for example, “whitening” or “fresh breath.” While “cavities” and “whitening” aren’t strict opposites, they appeal to different desires, one being medical and the other aesthetic. If you try to claim an attribute that’s similar to your competitor’s, you’ll merely end up in their shadow (more on this in Law #10). 

Leverage Your Market Position

The next category of immutable marketing laws explains how markets generally behave and how to use that insight to inform your marketing strategy. Every company wants to be a market leader, but few companies can be. Be aware of your position in the market, and use that to inform your message to consumers. These laws explain how to leverage your position for more effective marketing. 

Law #8: Use a Message That Reflects Your Market Position

If you’re not the market leader, know your position in the market and acknowledge it in your advertising. Every product category has a hierarchy of brands. Think of this as a ladder: The market leader is on the top rung, and each descending rung is occupied by the next-best-selling brand. If you’re on the second rung, be honest about it in your marketing. Consumers know where you are on the ladder, and they’ll only accept marketing messages that align with that truth—otherwise, they’ll disregard your entire message. 

Avis used this law effectively when it was trailing behind Hertz in the rental car market. When Avis first launched a campaign that called itself the “Finest in rent-a-cars,” it failed because the message didn’t resonate as true. By contrast, the company went from losing money to making money when it changed its marketing campaign to say, “Avis is only No. 2 in rent-a-cars. So why go with us? We try harder.” The company acknowledged its position and gave consumers a reason to choose it anyway. 

Law #9: Every Market Becomes a Two-Rung Ladder

When a product category is new, the ladder may have many rungs as new companies join the fray and compete for customers. But eventually, every market whittles down to just two top brands, while all their competitors fight for the crumbs. Depending on how quickly the market evolves, it may take years or decades to turn into a two-company race—and it’s critical to your business that you secure and maintain one of the top two spots in your market. 

Law #10: If You Can’t Be the Market Leader, Be the Opposite

To secure a second-place spot on your market ladder, turn the market leader’s strengths into weaknesses. Don’t try to out-do your competitor at what it does best—instead, embody the opposite. For example, you could be the affordable alternative to the luxury option. Consumers naturally tend to either be attracted to the most popular brand or repelled by it. Stake a claim on the market share that’s looking for something different by pointing out how your product is different and why that makes it better. For example, while Coca-Cola had an unparalleled claim as the old, established cola option, Pepsi positioned itself to be the fresh alternative for the younger generation. 

Be Consistent 

While focusing your message is important, so is focusing your product offerings. If you concentrate your effort on positioning your product as the best (or one of the best) in its category and building a marketing campaign around that product, consumers will know what to expect from your brand. By contrast, if you change your offerings or your strategy, your customers won’t know what to expect—and they’ll turn to a more familiar alternative. Use the following laws to maintain your consistency.  

Law #11: Use a Different Brand Name for Each Category

Over time, as the number of companies in a market shrinks, the category tends to divide into more specific categories—for example, what was once a single “computer” category eventually divided into mainframes, minicomputers, personal computers, laptops, and notebooks. If a market leader wants to enter one of these emerging categories, it needs a new brand name for that category. Customers have come to associate the existing brand name with a specific attribute (Law #5), so the company needs a different brand name to link to an appropriate word for the new category. 

Law #12: Consider the Long Term

Like many things in life, when it comes to marketing, the short-term effects of an action can be the opposite of the long-term effects. Smart marketers must resist being swayed by short-term benefits and diligently consider the long-term effects of their actions. For example, Miller High Life had seen its sales grow significantly each year until it introduced Miller Lite. Five years after launching Miller Lite, sales for Miller High Life had nearly tripled—but then sales steadily declined for the following 13 years, falling below where they’d been before launching the light beer.

Law #13: Don’t Extend Your Brand to Other Categories

When you have a successful product in one category, resist the temptation to launch additional products in other categories under the same brand name. This is called line extension, and while it seems like a logical way to extend the success you’ve already built, it actually confuses customers and weakens your brand strength. The credibility you build in one market doesn’t necessarily transfer to other product categories. If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up being nothing to anyone. For example, when 7-Up created new flavors and diet versions of the drink, its market share more than halved from 5.7 percent to 2.5 percent. 

Law #14: Sacrifice for Success

As many of these laws illustrate, it takes discipline and sacrifice to run a successful marketing campaign. Specifically, there are three areas where it’s essential to sacrifice certain products, messages, and ideas in order to maintain a narrow, targeted focus:

  1. Product line: As discussed in Law #13, more products and services do not equal more profits because they dilute customers’ association with your brand. Customers are more likely to come to you if they know they can unequivocally rely on you for one thing than if you offer a smattering of everything
  2. Target market: Marketers mistakenly assume that targeting a wider audience in their ad campaigns will expand their customer base. However, your marketing target is not your customer base. Focus leads to success. The most successful brands target a very specific demographic in their marketing—and that success leads to a much more diverse customer base. Targeted messages are more successful in general, which raises a brand’s profile in the market, leading to a larger customer base. 
  3. Constant change: Avoid constantly changing your marketing strategy in an attempt to follow the changing market. If you change often, you’ll lose focus and weaken the association you’ve created in the public’s mind. Instead, stick to the strategy that has been serving you well. 

Be Strategic About Your Overall Marketing Plan 

Aside from the details of your marketing campaign—such as your word and your primary message to consumers—be strategic with your overarching tone and approach. Use these 3 immutable laws to consider the big picture of your marketing plan. 

Law #15: Turn Your Negatives Into Positives

When competing brands and consumers call out something negative about your product, acknowledge it and turn it into a positive. If you try to deny the negative—especially when it’s a widely acknowledged fact—you’ll lose credibility. The challenge is to find a way to show that the negative attribute implies other positive attributes. For example, Scope mouthwash claimed “good-tasting” as an attribute because it was common knowledge that its competitor, Listerine, had an awful taste. In response, Listerine embraced the negative with the tagline, “The taste you hate twice a day.” This implied that the product’s terrible taste must mean it’s a powerful germ killer, and it encouraged customers to use the product despite its taste because it was good for them. 

Law #16: Focus on Big, Bold Moves

In marketing, the only way to make headway against your competitors is to focus on finding opportunities to make a bold move that makes a big impression. Your competitor may have just one weak spot, and you should direct all of your energy toward exploiting it. Such opportunities may be few and far between, but when you find them, capitalize on them. This means that your company’s top managers need to be on the front lines, aware of what’s happening in the marketplace, and intricately involved in the marketing process so that they can be ready to seize opportunities when they arise.

Law #17: Plan for Unpredictability

Marketing plans are often based on some assumptions about the future, but there’s an inherent risk of these plans backfiring if competitors do something unexpected, such as introducing a disruptive innovation. No matter how closely you watch the market and how thoroughly you study market research, there’s no way to accurately predict the future unless you’re also writing your competitor’s plans. Instead, come up with a short-term plan—a shorter scope requires less forecasting and fewer chances of disruption from unpredictability—accompanied by a long-term direction to guide your future plans

  • Your short-term marketing plan is built around a word or concept that sets your brand apart from the competition. 
  • Your long-term marketing direction creates a program that builds upon that word or concept. 

Get on Top and Stay There

While the laws we’ve discussed so far will help you craft your overall marketing plan and message, these final laws address more general advice about how to approach your business. 

Law #18: Don’t Underestimate the Need for Funding

No matter how brilliant your idea is, you need money in order to successfully market it. Marketing is about getting your product or service into the minds of consumers, and you need money not only to reach them in the first place but also to stay in their minds. Marketing is a constant—and expensive—battle. Even household names like Procter & Gamble and General Motors spend billions each year to stay in consumers’ minds. 

Law #19: Embrace Failure

Failure is inevitable. To be successful in business means to expect and embrace failure. If you embrace failure:

  • You’ll be willing to make the bold risks that are necessary for big rewards. 
  • You’ll be able to learn from your mistakes and constantly improve. 

Law #20: Don’t Believe Hype

When the media creates a lot of hype about a company or a new product, it’s usually a poor predictor of success. When companies are doing well, they don’t need to manufacture excitement because it exists organically. By contrast, when companies are struggling—or when they’re taking a chance on an iffy new product—that’s typically when they start holding press conferences and reaching out to media outlets. If a competing brand is getting a lot of media hype, don’t base your decisions on the assumption that your competitor is on the rise. 

Law #21: Follow Trends, Not Fads

It’s critical to know the difference between fads and trends, because fads can hurt your business while trends can create long-term success: 

  • Fads are short-term. They hit like a wave, generate a lot of hype, saturate the market, and fade as quickly as they rose. 
  • Trends are long-term. They are subtle—almost unnoticed—and they can endure for years or decades. 

Beware of investing in fads. Although fads can be profitable, their short lifespan can cause more harm than good for the company. By the time an organization has set up the staff, manufacturing, and distribution necessary, the fad is over. If you’re already selling a product that becomes a fad, the best thing to do is to dampen the fad by limiting the supply, which will sustain demand for the product. Ideally, you want to dampen the fad so much that it converts into a trend. 

Law #22: Don’t Let Your Success Sink You

Be wary that that success doesn’t cause your downfall: 

  1. Success tends to inflate executives’ egos, causing them to make decisions that hurt the company. 
  2. Success causes companies to grow, which creates more demands on executives’ time. Although a large company has more resources to invest into robust marketing, that advantage is offset by the time CEOs must spend more time sitting in corporate meetings, meeting ancillary obligations, and doing everything else required to run a large company. As a result, they tend to delegate marketing decisions, but the success of the company and its marketing strategy relies on the involvement of top executives. 
  3. As CEOs become more distant from the front lines, their subordinates are less likely to tell them hard truths. As a result, CEOs are often out-of-touch with issues and challenges that should influence their decision-making.
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Explained

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  • Why the quality of your product matters less than customers' perceptions of it
  • Why trying to appeal to everyone will sink your sales
  • How Marlboro sold more cigarettes to women by marketing to cowboys

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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