22 Laws of Branding (Part 1)
Timeless principles everyone building a brand must consider.
Hey founders 👋
Building a brand is hard. Like, really hard. Much of the time it is misunderstood.
Too many, it’s more art than science. Almost as if outlandish success is driven by randomness (like buying a lottery ticket). But, instead of picking lottery numbers, you pick a name, logo, colours, etc.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like that.
The key to building a powerful brand is actually building it.
There are proven methodological approaches which significantly reduce the risk of failure and significantly increase the chance of success.
Years ago, I picked up a book that spelt out the core principles.
The book? The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.
Each law stipulated in the book is a timeless principle that everyone building a brand must consider. You could think of them like the ‘laws of physics for branding’.
Ignore them and die or wield them and fly.
How are they timeless? Because they’re based on core psychological principles that transcend generations and technology.
Does this book hold weight in the marketing world? You bet. The book was authored by Al Ries and Laura Ries (father and daughter duo).
Al Ries is in the Marketing Hall of Fame (yes, that's a thing).
He is known as “the father of positioning”… a marketing concept that blew up in the late 20th century and is widely used in the startup ecosystem today.
Laura Ries is a best-selling author and chairwoman of RIES, a marketing consultancy that's helped a 'who's who' list of companies position their brands for growth... including Unliver, Samsung, and Papa John's.
In a 2009 AdAge reader poll The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding took the no.3 spot.
But, characterising the book purely in that way would be a disservice.
Branding is often misunderstood as a surface-level mechanism for a company or product to interact with the world. Which, is a recipe for failure.
What The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding articulates so well is how a truly great branding strategy is not really a branding strategy in itself. It’s a go-to-market strategy.
This is fundamental.
A branding strategy can be executed in isolation from the rest of the business, totally out of sync with other functions and core initiatives that are needed to meaningfully move the needle.
This is how you end up in a situation where a lot of time and money goes into developing a brand, but no commercial growth comes off the back of it. Or, if it does it’s cannibalistic or incremental at best.
Conversely, a go-to-market strategy requires buy-in from practically everyone. The company is forced to unite in one decisive new direction.
Branding forms the connective tissue of this approach, working as the focal point for the other machinery of the business.
And, what’s so exciting about this is… it can lead to explosive growth.
The kind that makes the underdog become the dominant market leader. Or, a small independent business became a household name.
Sadly, Al Ries passed away recently — some 25 or so years after publishing The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.
This edition of Founders’ Hustle is a kind of homage to Al & Laura's work.
I’m breaking down the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding through a startup lens and providing a fresh case study with each.
This is Part 1 of 3.
Let’s jump in. 👇
🪗 The Law of Expansion
The law: The more a brand expands, the weaker it becomes.
What? The more a brand tries to do, the less people are able to identify what *specific* value they can get from it, what it stands for, and why they should care. It ceases to be a ‘go-to’ specialist for a particular thing, thus making it weaker for that use case.
By ‘do’ I mean everything — launching new products, moving into new markets, executing new initiatives.
👉 Example: Yahoo!
At the turn of the century, Yahoo! fell victim to this law. The brand was trying to be everything to everybody — a portal, search engine, email client, gaming hub, news destination, chat app, white pages, and a gazillion other things.
Today, it is not a market leader in any.
Additional factors played a role, of course, but it did not help that the brand Yahoo! had been expanded and weakened across so many products and categories.
Other companies from the 90s specialised in each of them, creating really strong brands for those use cases in the process.
🏋️ The Law of Contraction
The law: The more a brand contracts, the stronger it becomes.
What? This is the inverse of the previous law. The less a brand tries to do, the stronger it becomes for that given thing. Focus and specificity create brand strength. People understand what it represents and why they should care.
👉 Example: Google
Whilst Yahoo! was busy diluting its brand away into web1 obscurity, Google popped up with a brand that was taking on one thing and one thing only — search. This strategy paid off sooo well it became a verb. Google it. :)
Today, it’s a different story. But, back in 2000, the brand ‘Google’ was refreshingly focused on search.
📣 The Law of Publicity
The law: Brands are built with publicity, not advertising.
What? This law stipulates trying to build a brand via advertising is freakin’ hard. Like, 'don’t even bother' difficult. Especially if you are a startup.
It is of course possible to acquire customers through advertising, but that’s different. The real affinity for any given brand will emerge later — through the experience of the product and community around it — as opposed to forming in the initial ad, which the customer likely completely forgot about.
The way brands are built is through publicity. *Social proof is key*.
The word ‘publicity’ conjures up really old-school distribution mechanisms like books, newspapers, and magazines. But, in practice, it’s basically any kind of exposure in the public domain that isn’t advertising — social media, word of mouth, reviews, articles, podcasts, videos, etc.
Publicity can manifest organically or be artificially stimulated in a ton of ways. Often the latter. And, to the degree the line between advertising and publicity can get *a little blurry* at times. For example, consider influencer marketing.
👉 Example: Monzo
UK-challenger bank Monzo built a buzzy brand from scratch through social proof and PR. Their ex-CEO Tom Blomfield wrote about it:
About 3 months after the company was formed, we had a couple of dozen live prepaid cards linked to our backend systems and a very, very basic iOS app.
We gave Eileen Burbidge, our first investor, one of the very earliest prototype cards and she was so excited about the payment push notifications that she immediately tweeted about it, which led to a Techcrunch article.
I don’t think we were really ready for the press - we quickly scrambled to get a waitlist up on the website and launched our blog a few days later.
In any case, we got so much interest following the Techcrunch article that we doubled down on PR as a strategy
Eileen seemed to know everyone in the UK press, and I worked really hard to meet journalists and explain what we were trying to build. More press followed over the next few months.
We were covered in the Guardian, The Memo, Bloomberg (complete with weird sci-fi photoshoot), Business Insider, Techcrunch again, plus a bunch more.
This was just the catalysing moment. They continued to build upon this PR momentum by building relationships with journalists, doing topical and newsworthy things to stay top-of-mind, and driving the impression of scarcity (i.e that their product was in way more demand than could be handled).
The really smart thing the Monzo team achieved was converting all of this press coverage into an evangelical community. The focal point of which became the brand.
💸 The Law of Advertising
The law: Once born, a brand needs advertising to stay healthy.
What? Publicity is good at building a brand, but not so great at maintaining it. When I say “maintaining”… this is the point at which the brand has reached an established status in its given market and wishes to stay there. Think Coca-Cola in the #1 spot.
Why? Once the novelty of a new brand/product wears off the press loses interest in positively covering it, people don’t talk about it with the same glow as they once did, and FOMO signalling social media goes quiet (except for disgruntled customer refund tweets).
At this point, what publicity does occur may not be enough to “maintain” the brand’s perceived value at sufficient scale, unless it is intrinsically baked into the product (e.g. YouTube).
So, what’s the opportunity window? Broadly speaking, publicity can be used as a mechanism to build a brand in two distinct phases:
- Launch. When launching a new, innovative product
- Growth. When growing a company with that product
These are both novel and interesting narratives that create conversation. They are also leading indicators of the future, which people want to be associated with. People want to know "how is this brand changing the world?"
Once the product has hit saturation point, the novelty of the product and brand wears off. In fact, the brand can become a target of bad press — the oppressor and not the underdog (just look at Facebook).
At this point, a company is faced with the challenge of maintaining its brand position with a huge and diverse customer base. Publicity is not enough to reach everyone needed, and, it’s unpredictable in consistency and tone. So, advertising is wielded to maintain a consistent share of voice.
👉 Example: Just Eat
Just Eat, an online food order and delivery service with a market cap of a few $billion, built its brand and initial customer base with deliciously old-school marketing tactics and a budget of “approximately zero".
A key part of that strategy was PR. Jesper Buch, Just Eat’s founder, utilised a few strategies to build brand awareness and affinity from the get-go. This included:
- Influencers. Hosting LAN parties with gamers (this was pre-social media).
- Media. Each time they launched in a new town, this was a newsworthy story with local media — newspapers and TV.
- Ambassadors. Handing out branded clothes to takeaway owners, who essentially endorsed Just Eat to customers by wearing t-shirts and hats emblazoned with their logo.
This worked, in the beginning. Today, it would not. It’s no longer a novelty to order food online — it’s a commodity. So, there’s just naturally less buzz around the brand and product.
When I Googled “Just Eat”, what came up were news articles covering their job cuts in France, a ‘scam kitchen’, and some guy who was charged £249 for a "sausage, bean and cheese melt". This is not tasty.
Consequently, Just Eat has to maintain its brand affinity via other means than PR. A big part of which is advertising — they spent £346 million on marketing in the first six months of 2022 alone!
💬 The Law of the Word
The law: A brand should ‘own a word’ in the mind of the customer.
What? What do you think of when I say “Google” — it’s probably “search”.
So, when you want to “search” for something, you go to Google. They’re molded together.
Psychologically, as humans, we like to categorise things. This helps us make decisions and prioritise what we need, quickly.
There is fundamentally a lot of depth to how someone feels about any given brand they have a ‘relationship’ with.
But, simplistically, people tend to pigeonhole brands into specific value propositions that may or may not be of use to them at any given moment.
Since ‘we think’ heavily through language, the specific value proposition materialises as a word in our minds. So, as a brand, it becomes critical to ‘own’ a word in the mind of the buyer. That is… be the default brand buyers think of with that word.
If there isn’t a word, this suggests the target customer is confused about the value proposition. And, if your brand isn’t the de-facto owner of that word, somebody else is eating your lunch.
Now, I should point out… it’s tough to ‘take’ a word from a brand. That is an uphill battle. You’re fighting against engrained beliefs and psychological patterns.
So, the most accessible way to own a word is to either create a new category — or — to narrow a brand’s focus into one that is underserved.
Al and Laura Ries gave the example of FedEx for this. In the early 1970s Federal Express was a struggling player in the delivery business. An underdog.
So, in a crowded and commoditised air cargo market, Federal Express narrowed its focus to overnight deliveries only.
It worked. Quickly, the brand came to own the word “overnight” in the mind of its target customer base. When someone wanted an overnight delivery, they’d FedEx it.
The genius part of this move?
In addition to carving out a market-leading slice of the overnight delivery market, it took business *away* from the longer-than-overnight delivery market.
Why? Overnight delivery became associated with prestige, importance, and status. If you’re shipping a package to a client that you want to impress, you’re going to FedEx it.
Sometimes, categories that brands own as a word in the mind can be absolutely gigantic. BUT, it’s rare…
👉 Example: Google
Today, Google has a monopoly on the search category (in Western markets). So, they get to own the extremely lucrative word “search” in the consumer’s mind. But, it’s pretty rare to own the word for such a broad category like that.
This wasn’t always the case. Wind back just over two decades and it was a different story. Brands like Yahoo!, Altavista, Excite, Ask, Lycos, and Google were battling it out for consumer attention.
None of them owned the word “search”. It was nuanced. They owned words within the search category itself. This is the norm for most markets.
Lycos and Ask had their “dog” and “butler” vibes. For Google, they probably owned the word “relevant” — which, as it turns out, is the most important factor of a search engine. Go figure.
It’s important to note that ‘owning a word’ usually means zooming in on something specific that isn’t huge at the start, but could be.
In the book, Al and Laura Ries points out:
By far the most successful brands are those that kept a narrow focus and then expanded the category as oppose to those brands that tried to expand their names into other categories.
In the case of big G, after webpages came more types of searches... image, video, news, map, shopping, etc.
And, the ever-increasing relevancy of their search results just made people want to search and use the Internet more. This made website owners produce more content to be discovered. And, so on.
The key takeaway here is:
Ask not what percentage of an existing market your brand can achieve, ask how large a market your brand *can create* by narrowing its focus and owning a word in the mind.
The Law of Credentials
The law: The crucial ingredient in the success of any brand is its claim to authenticity.
What? Brands make claims about their products all the time — fastest, easiest, cheapest. Everyone does this to compete.
But, buyers are suspicious. They’re left thinking “that’s what they all say!”
Why should they believe your product gets the job done 2x faster? Or, that it’ll save you 44% versus other options. Even if it does. Where’s the proof?
The value of these claims is directly proportional to the credibility of the brand making them. As the credibility of the brand increases, so does the believability of the claim benefits.
When a brand has the highest levels of credibility in its domain, the claim benefits can actually be worse than the competition, under-emphasized, or untrue. It’ll still win customers. This is the power of perceived credibility.
So, the most important claim you need to establish and build upon is credibility. This is the key to unlocking the claim value of everything else.
The master claim.
Buyers crave subject matter authenticity and social proof from trusted peers and aspirational personalities. This is to reassure themselves they’re making the right purchasing choice. To fit in. Think Coca-Cola (again) — “it’s the real thing.”
Al and Laura Ries says to “never forget” the significance of this. That is, consistently building and positioning your brand as *the* credible leader above all others.
“Don’t get duped into simply selling the benefits” — this is a race to the bottom in messaging, margin, and money.
Credibility sells at a premium.
👉 Example: Barber King
I was thinking about using Tesla as the example here — part of their claim to credibility is you’re buying from the “real-life Iron Man” that is Elon Musk.
But, that feels totally unactionable. The personality, the technology, the money — it can’t be replicated.
So, I’m going to go polar opposite with a local brand (to me) you have never heard of, selling a commoditised non-tech product in a competitive market, with a ‘mom and pop’ level of marketing budget.
That brand is Barber King — an independent barber shop on Orpington high street (a very provisional place — think ‘Main Street UK’) selling dapper haircuts for £15 a pop.👇
The shop is relatively smart to look at from the street, but so are many other barbers.
It has a catchy name, but so do other barbers.
They have stylish photos of dapper haircuts you can get, but so do other barbers.
In fact… there are no claim benefits made which tell me their barbers are any more talented than other barbers in the area.
So, why, when I regularly walk passed this place, do people sometimes literally stop walking to take notice?
Why do some people say “wow!?”
And, instantly start talking about it to the person next to them?
I’ll give you a clue. This sign. 👇
You will *never* guess what is on it.
It’s the owner of Barber King, Senol — donned in a branded t-shirt — in a thumbs-up photo with Ronaldo.
Yes, freakin’ Ronaldo. This is the photo. 👇
This is the only claim I notice — Ronaldo is a “client.”
Which, as it turns out, is basically true. Senol did cut Ronaldo’s hair (at least once) off-site somewhere.
Significantly, it’s the only claim they *need* to make.
On ‘Main Street UK’ this is credibility overload! It validates all other product benefits, whether they’re explicitly stated or not.
Knowing that ‘Ronaldo is a client’ is instantly disarming from a purchasing standpoint. It makes the buyer less price sensitive, more confident about the quality of the service, and reassured they’re buying into a product that’s socially validated and aspirational.
The buyer starts to ‘create’ their own product benefits in their head — “be like Ronaldo” — without the business needing to implicitly state it.
Barber King is the credibility king.
That's it for Part 1! Here's Part 2 of the 22 Laws of Branding.
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