Evil book: 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing

Wow. I hate this book and I suddenly think I understand years of suffering as an interactive designer.

Tim Ferriss (of Four Day Work Week fame) and Kevin Rose (Digg) discussed their top five must-read books. One of the books was The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding(*). I like both of these guys so I’m inclined to follow their lead on must-read books (and I tend to take must-read recos very seriously), so I bought it in minutes.

Today I started reading it on Kindle. It was, among other things I’ll get to later, one of the first times I’ve missed a physical book. Not for the pleasure of reading on paper, or the ability to take notes, but because I couldn’t tear it to shreds or throw it across the room without damaging worthwhile books. It’s one of the most reductive, simple-minded things I’ve ever read. It also explains much of the pain many of us in the industry felt during the first wave of dot-com presences.

Law #1 covers what’s maddening about it. The law states, immutably mind you, that: “It’s better to be first than it is to be better.” In the early years of the web, this kind of thinking predominated and resulted in a lot of wasted money. “First to market” was an obsession, “we can make it good later but we MUST capture the market!” The book’s author Al Reis, has a painfully unsophisticated mode of proving his point: everyone remembers Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly across the Atlantic, but nobody remembers Bert Hinkler, the guy who did it the second time and in less time using less fuel. Hinkler did it better, but Lindbergh did it first and, because name recognition is all that counts, we can conclude that being first is all that matters.

The book was originally written in 1994, but I don’t think we’ve sufficiently purged ourselves of its thinking — there are all sorts of tropes about “owning” something, having a differentiator, recognizing that quality counts for little in the marketplace if you’re first, have a category that’s yours, and people recognize you. Perhaps Ferriss recommended it, because he’s so strong on building a personal brand rather than a product.

But the problem with all of this thinking, is that it fails to recognize that consumers are no longer passive. They are active critics of products, they are researchers and reviewers of the market, and they have way too much information and intelligence to overlook things like a product which is better but which came out later. The two best examples are the iPod and Google. Both of these products came very late to the market: Google got into the game in the 5th year of search engines, and grew for quite a long time purely on its superior search results; MP3 players were in the market for 3 years before Apple released the iPod, but the iPod thrived for a variety of reasons (tight integration of hardware and software, faster synching, a decent critical mass of music in its store, a simple if disempowering interface, flawless performance). Hell, even Blu-Ray won out! How often do we hear customers, in some way, refer to the 1.0 syndrome?

The other laws in this book follow in much the same vein: “if you can’t be first in a category, then set up a new category you can be first in” (novelty trumps quality); “it is better to be first in the mind, than it is to be first in the marketplace” (not bad, except first in the mind is a function of name recognition, not of quality, so this is still derivative of the first law and assumes that people aren’t thinking about products); “marketing is not a battle of products, but a battle of perceptions” (with some fairly explicit advice to avoid talking about products and their features and focus on the winnable space associated with them); “the most powerful concept in marketing is owning a single word in the prospect’s mind” (reductive, people are capable of complex thought and they seek them elsewhere).

One could argue that all the points have some validity and that the reductive nature of the rhetoric is intended more to push people out of their comfort zone, but it’s the “immutable” part that’s so frustrating. More than ever, marketers need to be flexible in their thinking, adaptive in their approaches to customers. They need an elastic mind that is responsive to changing behaviors and an imagination that can engage in conversations. They don’t need immutable laws.

Now that that’s off my chest, I wish I could do more than click a button to delete the book. But, I can take comfort in the warning sign that reminds me of the permanence of my action.

(*) The link does not go to the 22 Laws book, but instead to Anna Karenina. I cannot support, even remotely, this book. Blech, ptooey.

One Comment

  • […] The writer/editor, Bryan Bergeron, teaches a course on technology and the future of healthcare at Harvard Medical School. Each year, a session of the class simulates the creation of a business to give students a brief sense of the hours, adrenaline rush, complexity, and many dimensions of a tech start-up. This year, he did something new. He had his class break into two teams and gave each of them a Lego Mindstorm NXT kit and an hour (another link here). The assignment was to “design, build, and program a robot that could traverse 32″ and then stop just before the obstacle.” (This is a classic, and continually revisitable, robotics program – a combination of “hello world” and a sorting algorithm. There are a million ways to have a robot measure/detect/sense/calculate the distance it has traveled with various tradeoffs around accuracy, amount of code, use of resources, speed, etc.) The winner would be whichever person’s robot got closest to the goal. (In the case of a tie they would look at business plans. This course didn’t teach the immutable law of marketing that quality and performance just don’t matter, apparently.) […]

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