22 Laws of Branding (Part 3)
The Law of Shape. The Law of Change. And more...
Hey founders 👋
Welcome to Part 3 of my mini-series covering The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.
Recap... these are timeless principles everyone building a brand must consider. You could think of them like the ‘laws of physics for branding’.
Ignore them and fall or wield them and fly.
How are they timeless? Because they’re based on core psychological principles that transcend generations and technology.
The laws were posited by Al Ries and Laura Ries (father and daughter duo) at the tail end of the 20th century.
Who? Al Ries is in the Marketing Hall of Fame (yes, that's a thing).
A progressive figure who challenged engrained advertising practices and proved his ideas worthy through the most tangible and indisputable measure of success — customer spend.
Books co-authored by him, including The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, have been voted the best books “of all time on marketing” in AdAge reader polls.
Laura Ries has helped a 'who's who' list of companies position their brands for growth... including Unliver, Samsung, and Papa John's.
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, with fresh case studies.
Let’s jump in! 👇
🧑🤝🧑 The Law of Siblings
The law: There is a time and place to launch a second brand.
What? Launching a second (sibling) brand is hard to pull off.
A separate completely standalone brand in a new category is the optimum way to do it.
Honda entered the luxury car market with the brand name “Acura”.
Not “Honda Lux” or “Honda Acura”… just “Acura”.
This was a significant factor in Acura’s success.
The brand was not diluted or confused by the position Honda occupies in the mind, plus all of the engrained beliefs attached to it.
In this instance it worked.
BUT… a multi-brand strategy like this is not for every company.
New brands can undermine the power of the first brand and cannibalise sales if they’re not designed or operated correctly.
These 6 principles are how to do it:
Focus on a common product area across all brands. e.g. FinTech, SalesTech, PropTech, etc.
Select a single attribute to segment with each new brand within that product area. e.g. price, speed, ease, quality
Set up rigid distinctions among brands. Prevent brands from converging in their single attribute position over time.
Create different, not similar brand names. Each brand should be completely unique. e.g. ‘Bing’ not ‘Microsoft Bing’ or ‘Bingsoft’
Launch a new sibling only when you can create a new category. This is how a sibling brand can plausibly become a category leader. The alternative is chasing an existing category leader as an ‘also-ran’ brand.
Keep control of the sibling family of brands at the highest level. Centralised control of all brands from the top. Why? Decentralising brand management leads to brand portfolio conflict and disjointedness. Brands start to converge by borrowing position-diluting features from others, eroding their distinction.
👉 Example: Dasani
Coca-Cola launched the bottled-water brand Dasani in 1999. It’s been a splashing success and became the no.1 selling bottled water brand in the US (despite tasting pretty gross!)
Had they rolled with something like “Coca-Cola H20” or “Coca-Cola Clear” instead, it would’ve likely crashed harder than a tap water tidal wave.
If that sounds crazy and “obviously something that could not possibly happen”, there was once Crystal Pepsi (a clear cola that looked like water) and Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water (yep, just plain old water).
Both brands are now defunct.
🔺 The Law of Shape
The law: A brand’s logotype should be used to fit the eyes. Both eyes.
What? A logotype is basically a logo with a word in it, both of which are in a particular brand style. Which, is often the case — visualise the McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell logos (hmmm, I must be hungry).
The Law of Shape dictates the most optimal shape for a logotype fits the shape of how the majority of humans see. i.e. from two eyes placed horizontally next to each other.
This means shapes that are wider than they are tall (right, below) are better visualised and more easily cognitively digested than shapes that are taller than they are wide (left, below).
Try flicking your eyes between these two Levi’s logos. The logo on the right demands slightly less physical eye-movement and concentration effort to absorb. 👇
👉 Example: The world’s most valuable brands
The majority of the world’s most valuable brands use logotypes that fit how we see — Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc.
Tesla does the opposite (of course!). To what degree this mitigates the value potential of the brand (or not) I do not know.
Maybe it enhances it, by helping it occupy a position in the mind as the outlier innovator within an industry set in ways.
Sometimes, being an exception to the rule can be a strategic advantage (more on that below).
🍭 The Law of Color
The law: A brand should use a color that is the opposite of its major competitors’.
What? The #1 choice a company should make when choosing a brand colour is to be different from the colours of its primary competitors.
Preferably, as far away on the colour spectrum as possible. So, if a key competitor is red, pick blue not orange.
This is more important than picking a colour that triggers a certain vibe, emotional response, or proposition relative to the product. Examples of this…
Purple to signal wealth
Blue to signal trust
Green to signal eco-friendly
All of that becomes somewhat redundant. Prospective buyers will struggle to see the uniqueness. This is what matters most.
If you want to signal ‘eco-friendly’ by using green as a brand colour but your primary competitor also uses green, that message gets lost.
Better to go with another colour and be distinct.
👉 Example: Snapchat
The most widely used social media and instant messaging apps had a very blue theme going on when Snapchat popped onto the scene.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype… all blue. Even MySpace was.
In the early 2010s a post-Facebook generation of teenagers popped up as fast as a push notification and clearly had an appetite for something fresh.
Something distinctive, personal, and loud. An antidote to the apps their parents and older siblings used.
This is an example of a prime opportunity to use a bold contrasting colour to the established competition. To stand out and be different.
For Snapchat, that colour was yellow.
🗾 The Law of Borders
The law: There are no barriers to global branding. A brand should know no borders.
What? Brands can go global.
BUT… not every brand can do it commercially viably.
There are three core factors that materially increase the chance a brand can expand successfully outside of its domestic market. They are:
Focus. The brand should stay within its category and not move beyond the original position it occupies in the mind. e.g if a brand sells a particular style of alcohol-free beer, stick with that. It shouldn’t expand into wine.
Perception. The brand should fit the perceptions of its country of origin — e.g. a wine brand from France. Or, given the rise of the Internet, fit the perceptions of its online community or influencer origins — e.g. a supplement from a bodybuilding influencer (that bit I posit!).
First. The brand should be the first to launch into a new international market with a differentiated combination of focus and perception. e.g. IKEA with fashion-affordable Swedish furniture.
This is not exhaustive. Depending upon the brand and product, there may also be other elements that cause brand resistance. Such as culture-fit and language-fit.
For example, an airline brand with the number “13” in its name would be a point of resistance in Western markets. And, a baby food brand with the number “4” in its name would be a point of resistance in China.
Both are generally perceived to be unlucky in their respective cultures.
👉 Example: Five Guys
The first Five Guys outside of North America opened in the UK in 2013. Ten years later, there are 160.
It’s been a delicious success partly because it met the three core factors:
🍔 The brand’s positioning is focused… fast-casual quality burgers.
🇺🇸 As an American brand, burgers are authoritatively aligned with the perceptions of its country of origin.
🗽 It was the first American brand to bring this concept properly to the UK, opening its first location on the 4th of July. ShakeShack launched in the UK just one day later!
🗻 The Law of Consistency
The law: A brand is not built overnight.
What? It takes time for a brand to occupy a position in the minds of its target customers. Particularly at a market saturation level, not merely with earlier adopters.
Reaching saturation point requires relentless consistency in positioning execution and patience. But, once reached, is a powerful moat.
Many of the world’s most valuable brands — like Nike, Apple, and McDonald’s — are decades old.
A slice of these — like Walt Disney and Coca-Cola — are more than a century old.
That’s not to suggest building a powerful brand takes decades. More so that the longer a brand is consistent in its positioning (and delivers on product-market fit), the more staying power it has.
Therefore once a brand has occupied a position in the mind post product-market fit, you should not attempt to adjust this. Ever.
Not only does this undermine the compounded perceptional value derived from being consistent with positioning, it is also extraordinarily hard to do.
Why? In addition to attempting to occupy a new position in the mind, the brand also has to uproot the old position. This rarely works out.
Whilst brands can be “bent slightly or given a new slant” in order to adapt to market changes (e.g. cultural shifts), their essential characteristics must remain the same over time.
👉 Example: WhatsApp
WhatsApp is a standout example of an instant messaging brand that has stayed remarkably consistent in its brand positioning — ‘text messaging, but better.’
This is reflected in the product itself, which has not suffered from the same degree of feature bloat that most other messenger apps have.
As a user it feels like a must-have vs. nice-to-have feature implementation policy. The latter scenario would change the intrinsic characteristics of the product and therefore the brand, resulting in an (intended or not) attempt to change its position in the mind.
Staying consistently focused on providing a basic but extremely accessible, intuitive, and reliable messenger service has delivered massive user growth since WhatsApp launched in 2009.
🌋 The Law of Change
The law: Brands can be changed, but only infrequently and only very carefully.
What? The last law said brands should “never be changed”. This law says they can. WTF? Here’s why…
There are always exceptions to every rule. And the law of change is the biggest exception to the laws of branding.
Here are some example exceptions to the rule:
The brand is weak. e.g. if a brand has not yet occupied a valuable position in the mind. In the mid-1980s Intel quickly transitioned from relative obscurity into a household name by pivoting from manufacturing D-RAM chips into seemingly magical microprocessors — “Intel inside”.
The brand is non-exsistent. e.g. if a brand has little awareness in a marketplace with customers that fuel growth (likely pre-product market fit).
The brand is moving down the food chain. e.g. an established brand can become cheaper, but not more expensive. Malboro lowered its cigarette prices and gained market share.
The brand is in a slow-moving field. e.g. a brand can change its position over a reeeeally long time (I’m talking decades). Audi started as an affordable brand in the 60s, not a luxury one — “vorsprung durch cheap”.
👉 Example: YouTube
YouTube started as a dating site waaaay back in 2005.
Users uploaded videos of themselves to connect with potential matches — introducing themselves along the lines of “I love laughing at lolcats, listening to Coldplay on my iPod, and watching Netflix DVDs” (probably).
That didn’t work out/felt cringe… so the founding team pivoted the service into a “Digital Video Repository” that became the core premise of what we know as YouTube today.
This was viable from a branding standpoint because YouTube was still an unknown brand, familiar only to the users of the dating product (which was tiny).
👤 The Law of Singularity
The law: The most important aspect of a brand is its single-mindedness.
What? A brand should be ruthlessly single-minded.
That is… focus on owning a single concept inside the mind of the prospect.
A single concept is what the mind of the prospect defaults to when they need a problem solved. For Google that concept is “find what I want online.”
This focus should be to the degree there is absolutely no ambiguity. Which, is a key ingredient in creating the conditions for a brand name to be used as a noun in place of a common word — “I’m gonna Google it”.
Other concept examples:
Takeout delivered to me 👉 DoorDash
Wealth-signalling electric car 👉 Tesla
Easily schedule a meeting 👉 Calendly
Addressing multiple concepts dilutes a brand’s single-mindedness and therefore its distinctiveness. The position it occupies in the mind erodes.
Customers will be less likely to associate the brand with one single concept, reducing intent to purchase. And, opening a gap for a new competitor brand to fill.
👉 Example: HelloFresh
HelloFresh holds a single concept in the mind. Well, it does to me — ‘give me everything I need to cook a freshly prepared dinner’.
This clearly differentiates it from other conceptual options like ordering takeout, microwaving a ready meal, going to the supermarket, or similar recipe-in-a-box services delivered to your home.
If they were to start offering takeout delivery, HelloFresh branded-ready meals in supermarkets, or freshly-prepared frozen meals, they would lose the single concept they own in the mind.
💀 The Law of Mortality
The law: No brand will live forever. Euthanasia is often the best solution.
What? Sometimes, a brand just needs to die.
This moment occurs when a brand’s position in the mind has become obsolete as a commercial opportunity due to a shift in technology, culture, or another market dynamic. Think Kodak when digital replaced physical film.
Due to the Law of Consistency, it’s nearly impossible to escape from this inevitable fate. Buyers have engrained psychological beliefs about what a brand stands for, which are difficult to unravel and pivot in a new direction.
It’s more economical to kill the brand and launch a new one.
But, that’s a tough decision to make. Instead, many companies (including Kodak) try to keep obsolete brands alive because they believe they still have value.
This is a fallacy. A brand that is well-known but does not occupy a valuable position in the mind will see its market share diminish.
The opposite is true. A brand that is not well-known but does occupy a valuable position in the mind will see its market share increase.
👉 Example: Blockbuster
Since the demise of Blockbuster, there’s been sporadic chitter-chatter romanticising how relaunching the brand as a streaming service could be a viable commercial opportunity.
Given how well-known the Blockbuster brand is, and all other factors being viable, on the face of it this seems like a logical suggestion.
BUT… the Law of Mortality stipulates such a venture would likely fail.
Whilst Blockbuster is a powerful nostalgic trigger for those who grew up visiting their stores (ahhh, that distinct smell), it's obsolete up against the likes of Netflix.
The position Blockbuster occupies in the mind is that of a video rental store, not a streaming platform.
This creates perceptions that the brand:
Can’t provide value as a streaming service
Will satisfy a nostalgic need (which it won’t deliver on)
Undoing that would be expensive. And likely fruitless.
It would be more cost-effective to create a new brand than repurpose Blockbuster.
That’s all 22 Immutable Laws of Branding covered! 😅
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE CONTEXT…
Previously I characterised the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding as the “laws of physics for branding”.
As a rule of thumb that’s true.
BUT…unlike the actual laws of physics sometimes the laws of branding can actually be broken successfully.
This is something Al and Laura Ries pointed out. There are always exceptions to the rule. Brands can sometimes thrive, not just survive from breaking a law.
This topic is deserving of its own standalone deep-dive, which I shall bookmark to do later.
But, to give you a flavour of one reason I posit…
In certain situations breaking a law can help a brand occupy a position in the mind. By intuitively enriching it.
But, it’s rare. The conditions have to be just right. And, it’s difficult to pull off.
To stack the odds in your favour, a strategic approach is needed.
Principally, by assessing the market context, category attributes, and consumer behaviours to identify an opportunity.
This can uncover a distinctive law-breaking move that will aid your brand in occupying a position in the mind.
One example I suggested above is Tesla. Intentionally or not, their logotype breaks The Law of Shape by being much taller than it is wide.
When you breakdown the conditions it’s logical why breaking The Law of the Shape on this occasion worked:
Market context. A saturated car manufacturer market. Competitors are ‘from the combustion-era’ and use logotypes that generally conform to The Law of the Shape.
⚡An opposite logotype shape subconsciously communicates Tesla is from a radically new era. The electric era.
Category attributes. Breaking through as an electric car-powered manufacturer required more than excellent battery technology. It required excellent design. The sensation you are ‘buying a car of tomorrow, today’.
🤩 The logotype shape and its overall design subconsciously communicates ‘this is the way things are in the future’ confidently. It looks and feels futuristic. Different.
Consumer behaviours. Tech-wealth early adopters that value ‘disruption’.
😈 The against-the-grain logotype shape subconsciously communicates rule-breaking.
All of the above can be potently appreciated by comparing Tesla’s logotype right next to Ford’s. 👇
That’s it for today! I’ll be back in your inbox soon.
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