Book Review: “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing – Violate Them At Your Own Risk!” by Al Ries and Jack Trout

It’s easy to criticise this book and yet there are still a few interesting hypotheses here.

Ries and Trout say much the same things over and over in all their books, speeches, and videos.  So each book then needs a new angle and here they take the slant of presenting their views as natural (i.e. scientific) laws.  They admirably write “There are laws of nature, so why shouldn’t there be laws of marketing ?  You can build a great-looking airplane but it isn’t going to get off the ground unless it adheres to the laws of physics, especially the law of gravity…So it follows that you can build a brilliant marketing program only to have one of the immutable laws knock you flat if you don’t know what they are.”

Unfortunately Ries and Trout’s understanding of what is a scientific law is pretty patchy, so many of the ‘laws’ they present are more correctly called speculative propositions.  Even the best of the 22 ‘immutable laws’ are vague, none are quantified, nowhere are the conditions described where the laws hold and where they do not, and not a single ‘law’ is based on systematic collection of evidence (just anecdotes).  A number are just repeats of each other, while some are tautological statements.  In spite of all these weaknesses there is an underlying theoretical proposition that is interesting and worth some discussion and research.

The first, and presumably most important of the 22 ‘laws’ is the “law of leadership – it’s better to be first [into a market] than it is to be best.  This idea of pioneering advantage has been well researched in the academic literature, with the recent definitive articles showing that the advantage is over-rated (Golder, 1993; Tellis, 1996).  Very many brand leaders were not the first into their category, but then Ries and Trout contradict themselves anyway with their third law (the law of the mind) – “it’s better to be first in the mind than to be first in the marketplace”.  And this is really what the book (like all their others) is about – i.e. that marketing is a battle to gain some mindshare.  They argue that this is easier if you are the first to be associated with a category benefit and if you retain this leadership (‘laws’ 1,2,3,4).  Hence they argue for focus on being known for one thing (‘laws’ 5, 6, 13 and 14) so they argue against brand extension (‘law’ 12).  Clearly the ‘law’ isn’t absolute, as they used it as basis for previously criticizing Microsoft while praising focused competitors like Lotus and Harvard Graphics (and we all know where these brands are now).

They also argue that categories split, becoming more specialist over time, and that it is useful to use this fragmentation (‘law’ 10).  It’s for this reason that Al (and daughter Laura) Ries incorrectly predicted the flop of the iPhone (they argued that categories splinter while the iPhone combines categories).  Clearly the world isn’t as simple as they make out, but still it’s an interesting proposition that deserves some research.

Most of their other so-called laws are just quaint platitudes, patronising their readers and padding out this short book with lame advice like “things are unpredictable” (‘law’ 17), “success can lead to arrogance” (‘law’ 18), “it’s good to learn from your failures” (‘law’ 19) “things are often different than how they appear in the press” (‘law’ 20) “it’s better to build on a trend than a fad” (‘law’ 21) and “without adequate funding an idea won’t get off the ground” (‘law’ 22).

Professor Byron Sharp

September 2008

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing – Violate Them At Your Own Risk!” by Al Ries and Jack Trout

  1. Interesting review. A rather harsh critique on a book that does explain some very basic ideas to thew newby business start up!

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