The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing is one of the most influential business books ever written and remains a staple of any marketer’s bookshelf. Al Ries and Jack Trout did an incredible job distilling decades worth of insider marketing industry wisdom down into a few hundred digestible pages. But how does this invaluable resource hold up now that the internet has fundamentally changed the way that marketing operates and people digest media and use products? This blog series will look at the 22 Immutable Laws, one at a time, to determine what has stood the test of time, and where the new rules of marketing have overturned the old laws.
Part 1: The Law Of Leadership
“It’s better to be first than it is to be better”.
The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing starts off with one of the oldest and most obvious rules in business: the first person to enter a market category has a huge advantage. Reis and Trout mention plenty of examples that clearly support this law of “first in market, first in mind”: Coke (cola), Harvard (U.S. universities), Heineken (imported beer), and so on. These brands were able to dominate their markets not only because they had the advantage of being the first, but – maybe even more so – because they will always hold the recognition of having created the market itself. The digital age hasn’t changed the fact that there are distinct market categories or the drive for companies to be the first to dominate them, but has it changed the once-overwhelming advantage of being first?
The easiest way to go about assessing the relevance of any “immutable law” is to look for glaring counterexamples, and one big one comes to mind: search engines. In 1993, there were a number of small, primitive search engines, directories, and other predecessors of what we now know as a modern search engine, but it wasn’t until after the 1994 launch of Yahoo! that the concept took hold in the mainstream. For a few years, Yahoo! (followed by Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves, among others) enjoyed being first in market and first in mind when people thought about looking something up online.
And we all know how that turned out. I’ll spare you the commentary, but we saw a very similar latecomer takeover of MySpace by Facebook: MySpace now serves mostly as a repository for cringe-worthy records of everyone’s terrible decisions made between 2005 and 2008. Ask Jeeves and Alta Vista will likely only be recognized by people born after 1990 for their references in Parks & Rec reruns. Yahoo’s decline might have been due at least in part to a string of business decisions that in hindsight seem, to put it lightly, embarrassing.
But by most accounts, Google and Facebook just offered a better product. If that’s true, it would seem to go against Reis and Trout’s assertion in The Law Of Leadership. They preach that latecomers to the market offering a better product will still fail because “marketing is a battle of perception” and people will ultimately “perceive the first product into mind as superior”.
But there’s something that can be said of search engines and social media platforms that cannot be said for most of the companies mentioned in The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing: they’re free. Search engines and social media platforms cost the consumer $0.00 to use. This is important because one of the biggest hurdles for a latecomer looking at overtaking the market leader is convincing customers to switch brands. Switching is risky for people who already use a product and feel like it works for them, but that risk is hugely mitigated when the cost of switching is measured in seconds instead of dollars.
So we might be able to say that for free (or more accurately, ad-driven) products, The Law Of Leadership isn’t as important as it is for products with other revenue models. But even in the digital age, most products on the market are not free and the first law in this series still stands mostly true.
In fact, you could make the argument that the ubiquity of technology might even make The Law Of Leadership more relevant in some cases. When you’re the first product launched in your category, you not only are tasked with introducing the world to that category but also with figuring out how to satisfy a need that’s never been filled before. For markets like cars and cola and printers, you have to design the best product you can and just hope that the way you designed it is what people will like. For almost any web-connected software products, however, the first company in the market now has the incredible advantage of being able to collect a torrent of invaluable user interaction data that – with the correct analysis – can paint a picture of what aspects of the product users love and what improvements need to be made; i.e., what the market really wants. If a company is smart and nimble enough, they could enter their new market with a terrible product, make the necessary improvements, and relaunch with an unbeatable 2.0 version before another competitor even enters the ring.
In all, The Law of Leadership seems to hold up pretty well in the modern era, albeit not necessarily for all the same reasons that it once did. If you’re a latecomer entering a free or ad-supported product market, you might have a better chance of overtaking the top-dog than people in other industries. Be aware though, your competition in first place probably already knows far more about the market needs than you do.
#1: The Law Of Leadership