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Augustine Fou

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing No Longer Apply

  |  February 4, 2010   |  25 Comments

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The habits of modern consumers and their expectations have so drastically changed the landscape into which marketing and advertising campaigns are launched that what held true in the "golden age of advertising" no longer holds true at this, the dawn of the "golden age of the individual."

In the classic "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing," Al Ries and Jack Trout expound on laws that are rooted in the ability to use storytelling to weave spellbinding brands and evoke emotion-filled loyalty. However, as the balance of power shifted away from advertisers to the people they used to target, the game has changed.

Increasingly, individuals prefer to do their own research rather than just take advertisers' word for it. Individuals need greater levels of detailed information than can be conveyed in a :30 spot, a one page ad, or a radio spot. More individuals are empowered with information that is likely to have been created by other individuals (e.g., product reviews, blog posts) instead of advertisers.

Today, we'll explore the first seven of the "22 Immutable Laws" and illustrate how most of them no longer apply or need to be drastically altered and adapted to the realities of the modern marketing landscape.

1. The Law of Leadership – It's better to be first than it is to be better.

False. Today, it's better to be better than it is to be first. There are many examples where fast followers successfully overtook the pioneer of a category.

Apple's iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, but it beat out the ones that came before it. Facebook wasn't the first social network, but it beat out substantial predecessors like MySpace and Friendster. Flickr wasn't the first online photo sharing site, but it beat out large incumbents like Snapfish, Ofoto, and Kodak Gallery.

RetailMeNot.com wasn't the first online coupon aggregator but a single "better" feature allowed it to easily overtake DealCatcher.com and never look back. That single feature was the ability for users to provide "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" feedback about whether a coupon code worked – solving the key problem that DealCatcher had, which was that it was littered with expired or invalid codes, making it time consuming for consumers to find actual valid codes. Today, better wins.

2. The Law of the Category – If you can't be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.

This is consistent with the age-old wisdom of "small fish in a big pond" versus "big fish in a small pond." And this law is related to the first law. But the main challenge is defining the new pond and getting the consumers who were in the old, bigger pond to come to your pond. So, instead of the marketing problem being the fact that no one knows you (the small fish in the big pond), it becomes the fact that no one knows your pond (in which you are the big, or perhaps the only, fish).

Which is the harder marketing problem? Can it be said that Southwest Airlines created a new "pond" called low cost airline? Or that JetBlue was a low cost luxury airline? But at what point does the pond collapse into just "airlines" because every consumer expects every airline to be low cost, high quality, on time, etc.?

3. The Law of the Mind – It's better to be first in the mind than first in the marketplace.

This law is consistent with modern consumers because success in marketing is about when, and if, they remember you; not when you put products and services into the marketplace. The main problem is that advertisers can easily misinterpret the law to mean you can buy your way into the prospects' minds by shouting louder, more frequently, and at more people (i.e., the proverbial "reach and frequency" that some continue to buy, pun intended).

I liken traditional "push" advertising as a thief breaking into your home at dinnertime and shouting at your family that they should buy his digital camera since it's the "best thing since whole wheat bread." Are you more likely to listen to his advice on digital cameras or "bring the hurt" and kick the intruder out of your house?

Today, people will become aware of you when a friend tells them about you. People will remember you if you consistently deliver great products and services. I've cited Drobo as a perfect example of a new, complex technical product that was launched with zero marketing dollars but which got into the minds of the only people they needed to care about it – professional photographers whose livelihoods depended on risk-free, easy-to-use backup for their precious digital photos.

4. The Law of Perception – Marketing is not a battle of products, but a battle of perceptions.

Well, too bad that perceptions are now formed by individual consumers with help from their circles of influencers, and not by advertisers' too-clever-for-themselves, too-over-the-top-sleazy-I-meant-sexy, or too-brand-essence-perfumey-that-it-makes-me-gag ads. Marketing can, and should, be a battle of the products. Better products win. The products that can leverage feedback from actual customers and incorporate relevant innovations faster will win.

The biggest danger here is that if advertising manages to convince customers of something that isn't true and they find out, they will not only not buy the product, but they will also tell 10 of their friends and rant about it online so it's archived permanently for future potential customers to see. So, the battle of lasting perceptions is only won by winning the battle of products, and doing so consistently.

5. The Law of Focus – The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect's mind.

Again, true. But only in the scenario where the ownership of the word is earned through consistent brand stewardship, backed up by awesome products or services. And the word is usually not the word advertisers choose it to be, but rather what the consumer thinks it is.

Each individual consumer may have his or her own word for it. To one, Starbucks may be great coffee. To another, it may be home away from home (really, how many consumers actually call it their "third place"?) Even the most beloved brands may mean different things to different people.

To some, Apple may be great design; to another, easy-to-use. The point is that individuals have their own word and it usually isn't the advertiser's word, like "think different." Ownership of this "word" can usually not be bought and there usually aren't branding shortcuts to implant such in the consumers' minds. It has to be earned like the way Zappos did, by doing and not just saying. Any other shortcut or trick by advertisers won't last.

6. The Law of Exclusivity – Two companies cannot own the same word in the prospect's mind.

While it's true that McDonald's owns "fast," Duracell owns "long lasting," and Volvo owns "safety," and the respective advertising assaults by Burger King, Energizer, and Mercedes on these already-owned words all failed, there are examples to show that new owners can come along and beat out the seemingly unbeatable incumbent.

For the word "search engine" in the mid-'90s, Yahoo was the king of the hill. But along came Google and now it owns "search engine." Why? Because it was actually better. When Google came along, its search algorithm actually yielded better results than Yahoo's yellow-pages-directory approach.

Does anyone think Bing will own "search engine" next? Not likely. When Bing first came out, an exact phrase search (in quotes) yielded more results than the same search without quotes; which is wrong. Many tried it, and then never used it again. Sometimes, the brand becomes so powerful by actually being useful that it even becomes a verb in popular vernacular – like "I'll Google it" or "let me FedEx it."

7. The Law of the Ladder – The strategy to use depends on which rung you occupy on the ladder.

In rental cars, the rungs are Hertz, Avis, and National. In long-distance it was AT&T, MCI, and Sprint. In brown carbonated beverages it's Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper.

In many ways, this law is a restatement of the previous laws. If you aren't first in a category, think about starting up another category. What word can you own in a prospect's mind if one is already owned by the company on the top rung? If Hertz is already on the top rung of a prospect's "mind ladder" and Avis claims to be the "finest in rent-a-cars," there is dissonance. If Adelphi University compares itself to Harvard, but it isn't even on a prospect's ladder, they lose credibility and their claim is perceived to be false.

In a sense, the moral of this law is to be sure to compare yourself to fish in the same pond and better yet to similar fish in the same pond; at least the claims are plausible and prospects have something they can compare it to. But then how do you differentiate and start to own other words that aren't already owned by similar competitors?


In the next installment, we'll examine "Immutable Laws" 8 through 15, and continue our cognitive cross-examination of how, and whether, each law is still applicable in this digital golden age of the consumer.

Related Reading: "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing No Longer Apply, Part 2"

"The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing No Longer Apply, Part 3"

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Dr. Augustine Fou is the senior digital strategy advisor to CMOs, marketing executives, and global brands. Dr. Fou has over 15 years of Internet strategy consulting experience and is an expert in social media marketing strategy, data/analytics, and consumer insights, with specific knowledge in the consumer packaged goods, financial services/credit cards, food/beverage, retail/apparel, and pharmaceutical/healthcare sectors.

He is a frequent panelist, moderator, and keynote speaker at industry conferences. Dr. Fou is also an Adjunct Professor at NYU in the School for Continuing and Professional Studies and at Rutgers University at the Center for Management Development, where he teaches executive courses on digital strategy and integrated marketing.

Dr. Fou completed his PhD at MIT at the age of 23. He started his career with McKinsey & Company and previously served as SVP, digital strategy lead, McCann/MRM Worldwide and group chief digital officer of Omnicom's Healthcare Consultancy Group (HCG). He writes a blog "Rants, Raves about Digital Marketing" and can be found on Twitter at @acfou.

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