3 Biggest Takeaways from 'The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing' by Al Ries and Jack Trout

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Just as there are laws of nature, like gravity and physics, there are also laws that govern marketing that never change and will always deliver pain to anyone who violates them.  

That’s the main point from "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” the classic bestseller first published in 1993 by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

The idea is that if you break any of these 22 laws don’t be surprised when sales plummet or your product launch fails to take off. In fact, you can bank on it.

But if you learn how to harness the force behind these laws, you’ll build the marketing momentum—and escape velocity—you need to grow sales and outmaneuver the competition.

So, here are my three biggest takeaways from the book. 

#1. The Law of Perception: “Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions."

“Marketing people are preoccupied with doing research and ‘getting the facts.’ They analyze the situation to make sure that truth is on their side. Then they sail confidently into the marketing arena, secure in the knowledge that they have the best product and that ultimately the best product will win. It’s an illusion. 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.”

At first, this quote made me squeamish. What do you mean there is no objective reality? If you build a crappy product, all you need is a marketing wizard to win the perception game to capture the heart of the customer?

Well ... the point of the book, with this idea of “immutable laws,” is that we must deal in the realm of “what is” and not “what ought to be.” After all, the law of gravity doesn’t care what we think it ought to be. It just exists. Step off a cliff, and the law will be in force whether we think it ought to be or not.  

So yes, actual product excellence ought to be the primary differentiator in the customer’s mind. But the reality is that perception of product excellence matters much more in influencing customer behavior.

That means we should do both—build the superior product and tell the superior story.

This way, we can ensure that customer perception matches reality. 

That’s our duty as marketers.

Otherwise, the inferior product with the best story for the customer will win.  

And that would ultimately be a loss for the customer.

#2. The Law of Focus: "The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind."

“This is the law of focus. You ‘burn’ your way into the mind by narrowing the focus to a single word or concept. It’s ultimate marketing sacrifice. Federal Express was able to put the word overnight into the minds of its prospects because it sacrificed its product line and focused on overnight package delivery only. … The most effective words are simple and benefit-oriented. No matter how complicated the product, no matter how complicated the needs of the market it’s always better to focus on one word or benefit rather than two or three or four.”

The authors then provide a few examples. Although they're from the early 90’s, you’ll notice that the "one-word” positioning for these companies have stood the test of time:

  • Mercedes—engineering
  • BMW—driving
  • Volvo—safety
  • Domino’s Pizza—delivery
  • Pepsi-Cola—youth
  • Nordstrom—service.

And this idea of one-word positioning dovetails with the Law of Exclusivity, which says: “Two companies cannot own the same word in the prospect’s mind.”

Here’s an example from the book: “Volvo owns safety. Many other automobile companies, including Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, have tried to run marketing campaigns based on safety. Yet no one except Volvo has succeeded in getting into the prospect’s mind with a safety message.”

Why is this case? I mean, if that word works for a competitor, why can’t we just piggyback off of it and ride some of the same momentum? At the very least, wouldn’t we be able to blunt the competitor’s advantage from that word?

The authors’ response: If you try to use a competitor’s already established word, it will backfire on you. “You can’t change people’s minds once they are made up. In fact, what you often do is reinforce your competitor’s position by making its concept more important."  

Now for the application … 

What’s the one word your brand can own in the mind of your customers?

#3. The Law of Success: "Success often leads to arrogance, and arrogance to failure."

“When people become successful, they tend to become less objective. They often substitute their own judgment for what the market wants. … What hurts is injecting your ego in the marketing process. Brilliant marketers have the ability to think like a prospect thinks. They put themselves in the shoes of their customers. They don’t impose their own view of the world on the situation. (Keep in mind that the world is all perception anyway, and the only thing that counts in marketing is the customer’s perception.)”

This law is a warning: Pride comes before the fall. 

So, how do we keep the ego from impairing our marketing vision?

Never lose that “first love” connection with the customer. Be empathetic. Put ourselves in the customer’s shoes.   Listen to their fears and aspirations—and then speak to those ideals. 

After all, the best teacher for how to sell to a specific market is the market itself—if we remain humble and teachable. 

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tell their story in a way that grabs attention, garners trust, and grows their business. 

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