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Al Ries on how to build a brand

Al Ries - The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

In our extensive review of Al Ries The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, we’ve been throwing famous and successful brands at the book and finding that Ries’ core principles really don’t hold up too well.

But what about the rest of the book? The core principle underlies only seven “immutable” laws. Are there more core principles at work?

Actually not. If the seven core principles of the book are the “strategic” aspects of branding, the remaining 15 laws cover practical issues of building and maintaining a brand based on the one brand = one thing principle.

These more practical laws are worth examining in more detail. In fact, you can throw out the seven core principles and still have a very valuable practical book on branding.

While Ries is fond of piling his laws into one big cacaphonous hogspile, his “practical” laws of branding fall into two broad categories: “How to Build a Brand” and “How to Maintain a Brand.”

And today, we see just how valuable his laws on building a brand are.

How to Build a Brand
In Ries’ formulation, building a brand has two components: a purely mechanical component and a conceptual one. The bulk of the book focuses on the conceptual development of a brand, but before you run out and dump tens of thousands of dollars into a branding shop’s wallet, it would do well to take Ries’ iconoclasm very seriously.

The Mechanics
Brands are more than concepts. They are a name, a logo, a package design, and a set of colors and typefaces. It is not unheard of for a major brand owner to contribute two million dollars or more to the assets of companies like Walter Landor to get the name and design just right. But, in a rare show of pure common sense, Ries will have none of this.

In his Law of the Name, the only salient quality of the name is its difference from the names of competing brands. In his Law of Color, the only salient quality of a brand’s colors is whether they’re different from the colors used by competing brands. In the core concepts of the book, Ries takes a medieval nominalist position – a brand is one thing is one word – but here he’s positively post-structuralist. Brands mean something only because they’re different and distinguishable from other brands — a concept we’ll call the Law of Difference (so there are now two overarching concepts in the book: The Law of the One and the Law of Difference).

This Law of Difference essentially unifies Ries’ entire discussion of brand-building. The goal, both mechanically and conceptually, is to build a brand that is distinct and different from competing brands.

If your competitor’s logo is red, yours should be not-red. If your competitors name is Google, yours should be not-Google (like Bing). (If you go to that link, you will see that this is exactly what Microsoft is striving to do — be as not-Google as possible).

Understand that concept and you’ve fully grasped most of the practical aspects of building a brand that Ries covers.

The Law of the Generic tells you not to choose a generic word for your brand, like “Swiss Army Knife,’ for this guarantees you’re on the road to ruin. (Though, of course, “Swiss Army Knife” totally debunks this immutable law, since it’s a wildly successful brand with a trove of successful line extensions.)

There’s a certain amount of common sense here in light of the Law of Difference; generic names, because they name the product, are not sufficiently powerful to distinguish them from competitors. The Law of the Company tells you to choose your company name as the brand only if you make one product, not if you make several products like, say, Gucci. (You see, we’re being smart-asses here and using examples that disprove Ries’ laws, but they’re still good points to ponder).

At some point, you need to hire a design firm to make logo. Ries’ Law of Shape essentially argues that the worst you can do is overinvest in the design, for outside of legibility and the requirement to be horizontal, the logo design doesn’t really matter. Only the concept matters (spoken like a true writer).

To drive this concept point home, Ries in his Law of Quality pretty much dismisses the product itself in building the brand. Quality is important, but brands are built on concepts and quality is just one more concept. It’s not built into the product, it’s engineered into the brand (again, spoken like a true writer).

So the heart of building a brand is associating the brand with a concept and this returns us right back to the Law of Singularity and the one brand-one thing-one word principle. The Law of the Word is the alpha and the omega of brand building: “a brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.” And ideally, at the very beginning a brand owner should strive to own a word not already owned (see our Blue Oceans Principle), in the way that Stolichnaya set out to own the word “premium Vodka.” From a conceptual point of view, all of Ries’ discussion of brand-building constellates around this core idea of owning a word in the consumer’s mind by establishing a conceptual difference from all other competing brands.

To own a word in the consumer’s mind, the company has to genuinely represent that word in the consumer’s mind rather than just simply claim it. This is the essence of Ries’ Law of Credentials. Credentials, more or less, legitimate a brand’s association with a word, a quality, or a category. And the credential that carries the most weight in a consumer’s mind –- in fact, the only credential of any value according to Ries –- is to be the brand leader in the category.

This explains Ries’ earnest and even peculiar emphasis on publicity in building a brand – in fact, he’s written another bestselling book declaring advertising to be dead (remember our one Immutable Law of Bestsellers?) Ries’ Law of Publicity uncompromisingly holds that a brand is built on publicity alone – advertising only has relevance in maintaining a brand. But there is a logic at work here, since in order to succeed a brand must own a word in the consumer’s mind and that the only effective way to do that is by building credentials. The only believable way to build credentials is to have other people confer them on you, hence the critical role of publicity. And the critical rule of publicity, according to Ries, is that new products aren’t news, new categories of products are. This should not give brand managers carte blanche to decimate their advertising budgets (and not a moment too soon with the Super Bowl coming up), but the critical role of publicity in building credentials should not be underemphasized.

Breaking The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding one brand at a time, part 1
Part 2: Jello, or The Blue Oceans Corollary
Part 3: Aunt Jemima, or The Love and Marriage Corollary
Part 4: Campbells, or The Brand Value Corollary
Part 5: Jacuzzi, or The Model Corollary
Part 6: Formica, or The Intel Inside Corollary
Part 7: Tiffany’s, or The Retail Corollary
Part 8: Vaseline, or The Reinforcement Corollary
Part 9: Fruit of the Loom: The Opportunity Principle of Branding
Part 10: Tylenol, or The Brand Leadership Principle
Part 11: Maytag, or The Principle of the Word
Part 12: Gucci, or The New and Improved Principle of the Word
Part 13: Rubbermaid, or The Blue Oceans Principle of Branding
Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle
Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence
Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand
Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand
Part 18: The Final Word

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  1. [...] Part 11: Maytag, or The Principle of the Word Part 12: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 13: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 14: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 15: The Final [...]

  2. [...] Part 11: Maytag, or The Principle of the Word Part 12: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 13: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 14: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 15: The Final [...]

  3. [...] Part 11: Maytag, or The Principle of the Word Part 12: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 13: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 14: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 15: The Final [...]

  4. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  5. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  6. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  7. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  8. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  9. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  10. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]

  11. [...] Part 14: Yamaha, or The Cultural Principle Part 15: Ivory, or The Principle of Transcendence Part 16: Al Ries on how to build a brand Part 17: Al Ries on how to maintain a brand Part 18: The Final [...]


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