The Law of Leadership: The First Brand Is the Default

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 first two immutable laws of marketing? Why is it so important to enter a market first?

The first two of The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing are the Law of Leadership and the Law of Category. The Law of Leadership says that the first entry in a market will be more successful than its followers. Similarly, the Law of Category says that if you’re too late to be the first on the market, then you should create a new category of an existing product.

Keep reading to learn more about the first two laws of marketing.

Convince Consumers That You’re the Only Viable Option

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 Law of Leadership and the Law of Category to make sure your product is consumers’ first choice. 

The Law of Leadership

Do you know who piloted the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean? Charles Lindbergh. Do you know who flew the second flight across the Atlantic? If not, you’re not alone. People remember firsts—whether it’s the first person to walk on the moon or the first company to offer a new product. For this reason, 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. In fact, the rankings of the top-selling companies in an industry tend to match the order in which they launched their products—the innovator has the highest sales, the second entrant is behind them, and so on. 

Humans are wired to prefer things that are familiar. When a new product hits the shelves and consumers eagerly adopt it, they become familiar with and attached to that particular product. In other words, the first brand available typically becomes the default for that product. The most successful brands actually become synonymous with the product itself—for example, people often refer to tissues as Kleenex, even though Kleenex is the name of a specific brand of tissues (case in point, Kleenex was the first brand of facial tissues). The same goes for Xerox, Jell-O, Q-tips, Velcro, and Band-Aid. 

Despite this law and case after case of proof, companies are often tempted to wait to enter a market until another firm has tested the market and proven that it’s viable. However, this approach puts later entrants in a difficult position: By the time latecomers enter the market, they face the formidable task of trying to wrest consumers away from the brand they’ve become comfortable with. Even if these companies used the extra time to develop higher-quality products, consumers typically prefer the devil they know over the one they don’t. At the end of the day, successful marketing doesn’t depend on the actual quality of a product, but rather consumers’ perception of the product (more on this in Law #4).

The Law of 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, if someone else is already selling the first electric razor, make your product the first electric razor for curly hair. When Charles Schwab opened a brokerage firm, instead of competing with existing firms, he made his the first discount brokerage firm. 

Once you’ve established a new category, promote the product instead of your brand. Convince people with curly hair that they need a razor made specifically for them—one that can solve their specific problems. Then, when you’ve convinced consumers that they need this product, they’ll naturally buy it from you because you’re the first (or possibly the only) one selling it.

The Law of Leadership: The First Brand Is the Default

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Here's what you'll find in our full The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing summary:

  • 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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