The 22 Laws of Branding That Can’t be Broken

I recently finished reading The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries and, since I found it to be particularly valuable, thought I would share with you the main points from the book.

Even though the book was published in 1998 (just as the Internet was starting to take off), the laws still apply today (they are, as the authors say, “immutable”). Whether your business is 30 years old or still in the development stage, chances are, there’s something you can learn from Ries and Ries and apply to your business.

So you ready? Here are the 22 (immutable) laws of branding: 

1. The Law of Expansion: “The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope.”

Many brands assume that in order to grow, they need to expand. But according to Ries and Ries, the more a brand expands, the less powerful it becomes. In the short term, brands might be successful when they expand, “but in the long term, the model expansion undermines the brand name in the mind of the consumer.”

Instead, “customers wants brands that are narrow in scope and are distinguishable by a single word, the shorter the better.”

2. The Law of Contraction: “A brand becomes stronger when you narrow its focus.”

If you have to get surgery on your knee, who would you rather have operate on you? A surgeon who is specialized in only knee surgery or a general surgeon who does knee surgery…and many other things? My guess is, it would be the former.

Your brand is no different. Ries and Ries give the example of Subway, which, amongst a sea of generalized delis, chose to just focus on one thing: submarine sandwiches. And in doing so, they succeeded in becoming a leading fast-food restaurant chain.

3. The Law of Publicity: “The birth of a brand is achieved with publicity, not advertising.”

As Ries and Ries mention, advertising is not the way to make a name for your brand—publicity is.

And the best way to generate that publicity is by being first in your brand’s category (like Band-Aid was for adhesive bandages or Heineken was for imported beer). When you’re first in a category, it’s much easier to generate a buzz around your brand.

4. The Law of Advertising: “Once born, a brand needs advertising to stay healthy.”

While advertising won’t help a brand get off on its feet, it is needed once it’s up and running. A brand has to eventually shift from publicity to advertising in order to maintain its share in the marketplace. But Ries and Ries state that leaders should see advertising as more of a defensive tactic than an offensive tactic or “as insurance that will protect them against losses caused by competitive attacks.”

As for what to advertise on, don’t claim that your brand is the best. Instead, just focus on becoming the leader of your category (by becoming the first in your category). Once that happens, people will automatically assume you’re the best because you’re the market leader.

5. The Law of the Word: “A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.”

When FedEx started out, it was competing with another brand, called Emery Air Freight. So in order to gain a hold in the marketplace, FedEx narrowed its focus to just overnight shipping. It created a new category and came to own the word “overnight.”

It has since expanded globally, which means that it’s no longer able to ship everything overnight. This has weakened the brand image—and the company itself.

Every brand should aim to become known for a single word. Even better if it’s able to own the word of its category. Kleenex is one example: it owns the word “tissue.” How many times have you heard someone use the word “Kleenex” and “tissue” interchangeably? Just like Jell-O owns “gelatin dessert.” Q-tip owns “cotton swab” (I didn’t even know the term “cotton swab” until now, since I’m so used to just saying “Q-tip”). And Band-Aid owns “adhesive bandage.”

As Ries and Ries mention, the only way that brands can succeed in owning a category word is by becoming first in their category.

6. The Law of Credentials: “The crucial ingredient in the success of any brand is its claim to authenticity.”

According to the law of credentials, brands must have a “claim to authenticity.” And the best way to establish that claim is by creating a new category in which your brand can become the leader.

As Ries and Ries state, Polaroid created a new category for instant photography…and became the leader of that category. But when it tried to beat Kodak in conventional photographic film, it failed miserably. After all, why would anyone buy conventional film from an instant photography brand?

Whatever it is, find a category that your brand can dominate…and in doing so, your brand will be able to establish its claim to authenticity.

7. The Law of Quality: “Quality is important, but brands are not built by quality alone.”

There’s no denying that quality is important. But quality is not what determines a brand’s success. As Ries and Ries demonstrate, there is absolutely no correlation between sales and quality—often the highest quality product is lower ranking in sales.

Quality, or the notion of quality, is determined by the mind of the buyer. So, “if you want to build a powerful brand, you have to build a powerful perception of quality in the mind.” Key word here: perception.

And in order to do this, you have to narrow your focus and become a category leader. Once your brand dominates a category, it’s generally automatically perceived as being higher quality.

You also have to price your product or service higher. People generally assume that a higher price tag means higher quality. As the authors say, “high price is a benefit to the customers. It allows the affluent customer to obtain psychic satisfaction from the public purchase and consumption of the high-end brand.”

Of course if you set a higher price, then you have to find a way to justify it. Bose has succeeded in charging a much higher price for their products by their claim to produce “better sound through research.” Extensive research is one thing that sets them apart and allows them to charge a higher price for their products.

8. The Law of the Category: “A leading brand should promote the category, not the brand.”

If your brand is competing against many other brands, it can be tempting to promote your brand, rather than the category. After all, you might think, how else can you stand out from the crowd?

But the law of the category says that, even when competition enters the picture, it’s best to promote the category of the brand, rather than the brand itself: “instead of fighting competitive brands, a leader should fight competitive categories.”

Why? Competitive brands can spark interest in your category, which can expand your market and actually end up creating more business for your brand.

According to Ries and Ries, Polaroid’s biggest mistake was pushing Kodak out of the instant photography market. If Kodak had entered the market, it would have increased interest in instant photography and ultimately created more business for Polaroid.

9. The Law of the Name: “In the long run a brand is nothing more than a name.”

The name of your brand is what differentiates it from competitors. So (if you haven’t chosen it yet), give some serious thought to the name that you choose for your brand, as this will play a huge role in its long-term success.

Your brand name should be catchy and easy to pronounce. And of course, it should represent your brand personality and image.

10. The Law of Extensions: “The easiest way to destroy a brand is to put its name on everything.”

Once a brand finds success in its category, the leader generally tries to expand its range of products and services. This is a big mistake. Line extensions may generate more revenue short-term, but long-term, they destroy brands. And unfortunately, many leaders don’t realize this until it’s too late. Since it’s not something that happens overnight, a leader generally blames something else, instead of the line extension, for the brand’s downfall.

Beer is yet another classic example here. Many beer brands create a regular beer and a light beer. But as Ries and Ries state, these are two separate markets, and it’s best to have two different brands to appeal to those markets, rather than just one.

Line extensions weaken and dilute the brand; brands become generalists, rather than specialists.

Many line extensions also send the message that the regular products aren’t good enough. For instance, if your brand creates a low-fat product, then that tells the consumer that the regular product isn’t healthy.

As Ries and Ries claim, before creating a line extension, a leader should first ask themselves what the customers of their current brand will think when they see the line extension. If you really want to expand, then create a second, separate brand. Otherwise, continue to be a specialist and build your current brand.

11. The Law of Fellowship: “In order to build the category, a brand should welcome other brands.”

Customers want choice. They want something to compare your brand with. Otherwise, they get suspicious.

But too much choice lowers consumption. As Ries and Ries say, two major brands per category are ideal (Think: Coke and Pepsi for cola…Listerine and Scope for mouthwash…Bose and Beats for noise-cancelling headphones…).

Realistically, 50% is the highest amount of market share that any brand can expect to have. To achieve more than this, a leader will need to create multiple brands.

12. The Law of the Generic: “One of the fastest routes to failure is giving a brand a generic name.”

When a brand has a generic name, it’s difficult for it to differentiate itself from competition. Ries and Ries give the example of how, at your local GNC store, there are dozens of brand names that all start with “Nature,” like Nature’s Answer, Nature’s Gate, Nature’s Plus, Nature’s Herb…the list goes on. How can anyone tell the difference between these brands when they all sound the same?

In order to find a name for your brand, you can take a regular word and “use it out of context to connote the primary attribute of your brand.” Blockbuster Video, Staples and Budget Car Rental are a few examples of brands that did this well. But if Budget had been named Low-Cost Car Rental or Blockbuster had been Video Entertainment Rental, chances are, they wouldn’t have been half as successful as they were. The leaders of these brands chose simple but memorable names, which helped them find success.

13. The Law of the Company: “Brands are brands. Companies are companies. There is a difference.”

When you think of brands like Old Spice, Oral-B and Olay, what do you think of? Did you even know that Proctor & Gamble was the company that produced these products? I didn’t (until I looked it up just now).

That’s because the leaders of Proctor & Gamble know the law of the company: that “brand names should almost always take precedence over company names.” If you look at any of their products, you’ll notice that the brand name is the one that stands out, while their company name is in small letters at the bottom somewhere. They know that people buy and care about brands, not companies.

When naming your brand, you want people to be able to use just your brand name (and not your company name) and have it be understood. As the authors mention, Microsoft Word is one example of a company that did not do this well. The problem is that “Word” is too generic of a word to use by itself, so people have to say the company name in order for the brand name to be understood. Instead of just saying “Word,” they have to say “Microsoft Word.”

Ideally, people should be able to drop your company name and just use your brand name.

14. The Law of Subbrands: “What branding builds, subbranding can destroy.”

Like the law of extensions, the law of subbrands states that subbranding can destroy a brand. Years ago, Holiday Inn created a subbrand: a more expensive, upscale version of Holiday Inn, called the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza.

Can you guess the outcome? People wondered why a Holiday Inn was so expensive. The brand leaders eventually cut out the “Holiday Inn” part, creating a more separate brand identity—and had more success. 

15. The Law of Siblings: “There is a time and a place to launch a second brand.” 

While Ries and Ries generally advise against brand expansion, they admit that, if done correctly and under the right circumstances, it can be very effective.

Wrigley is one example of a company that has dominated the chewing gum market by creating many different brands, like Extra (the sugar-free gum), Freedent (the stick-free gum), Big Red (the cinnamon-flavored gum), Doublemint (the peppermint-flavored gum)… to name a few.

But in order to be as successful as Wrigley, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind. Here’s what Ries and Ries recommend:

  1. Make each “sibling” unique with its own identity. Avoid giving all brands a “family look;” instead, each brand should be as distinct as possible.
  2. Focus on a common product area (one that allows for expansion).
  3. Select a single feature to differentiate the brands (like price, age, flavors and calories); this helps to keep brands distinct from one another and avoid overlap.
  4. Create different (not similar) brand names.
  5. When you create a new sibling, you should also create a new category.
  6. Maintain control of the sibling family at the highest level (otherwise, a sibling rivalry will develop and all brands will end up copying one another).

16. The Law of Shape: “A brand’s logotype should be designed to fit the eyes. Both eyes.”

As the authors define it, a logotype is “a combination of a trademark, which is a visual symbol of the brand, and the name of the brand set in distinctive type.”

Since our eyes are placed side by side, a brand’s logotype should be horizontal. And remember that the meaning of a brand lies in its name (the symbol is secondary), so make sure that this is an apparent and visible part of your brand’s logotype.

17. The Law of Color: “A brand should use a color that is opposite of major competitor’s.”

Different colors mean different things. So ideally, your brand will use colors that represent what it’s all about or the mood that you want your customers to have when interacting with your brand.

But it’s most important to choose colors that contrast with those used by your competitors. So if your ideal colors are already taken, then choose something else. This will allow you to create a distinct brand identity and help to differentiate your brand from competitors.

Note that sometimes having two brand colors can work, but it’s generally best to stick to just one color.

18. The Law of Borders: “There are no barriers to global branding. A brand should know no borders.”

Every country is known for something different. France is known for its wine and cuisine; Germany is known for its vehicles; Belgium is known for its beer; Italy is known for its high-quality clothing…and as the authors claim, “when a brand is in sync with its own country’s perceptions, that brand has the possibility of becoming a global brand.”

In order for your brand to succeed globally, it needs to be first in its category AND your product must fit the global perceptions of where it comes from.

19. The Law of Consistency: “A brand is not built overnight. Success is measured in decades, not years.”

Many brands mistakenly believe that in order to grow, they need to change. But doing so dilutes the brand identity. As Ries and Ries state, “markets may change, but brands should stay the same…Limitation combined with consistency (over decades, not years) is what builds a brand.”

Think about In-N-Out Burger, one of the most popular fast food chains in the U.S. (or at least the west coast, where it’s primarily located). The menu has barely changed since the restaurant was founded in 1948. And geographically, it continues to remain solely in the American Southwest and Pacific coast. The brand’s simplicity and consistency are two of the main reasons why it continues to be so successful today. That, plus the fact that their burgers are downright delicious (and fresh), of course.

20. The Law of Change: “Brands can be changed, but only infrequently and only very carefully.”

There are certain instances in which a brand can change. But only three:

  1. If your brand is “weak or nonexistent in the mind” of the consumer
  2. If you want to lower the price of your product (but doing the opposite—increasing the price—is almost impossible)
  3. If your brand is in a slow-moving industry (like banking or insurance) and the change is going to take place over such a long period of time that people won’t even notice (Note that this won’t work in fast-moving industries like electronics or tech)

Otherwise, consistency is the name of the game.

21. The Law of Mortality: “No brand will live forever. Euthanasia is often the best solution.”

As hard as it may be, at a certain point, you will probably have to put your brand to rest and move on. Don’t waste your money trying to keep alive a brand that’s dying or no longer relevant.

22. The Law of Singularity: “The most important aspect of a brand is its single-mindedness.”

As Ries and Ries define it, a brand is a “singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of the prospect.”

That’s really all there is to it.

Bottom Line 

As you’ve probably noticed, there is a lot of overlap between many of these laws. Personally, I found the book to be very useful—but a bit redundant at times.

If you’re going to get anything out of this book (or blog post), then it’s this:

  • Go niche or go home. Be a specialist, not a generalist. And remember that to grow your business, you don’t need to expand the range of your products and services (and you probably shouldn’t). Maintain a singular focus and you will maintain your brand identity.
  • Create a new category for your brand, and in doing so, you will automatically become the leader and “the best” of that category.
  • Once you’ve created your brand (and are first in the category) make it your aim to own a word in the mind of consumer.
  • Promote your brand category, not the brand. And embrace competition; it will stimulate interest in your brand’s category and ultimately, it will help drive business growth.
  • If you are going to create a “sibling” brand, then find a way to differentiate it as much as possible from your current brand.
  • The only thing that matters is what the consumer thinks about your brand and how they perceive it to be.

Simple, right?

Now, I’m dying to hear…Has your brand broken any of these laws? Share in the comments below.