Branding and brand identity.

Book review: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries

With the blizzard of information about marketing, particularly digital marketing, that comes at us daily, I find it’s easy to get caught up in the latest tactics for, say, Facebook ads, and forget that foundational work on brand identity needs to be done before any campaign begins. With that in mind, I’ve decided to revisit classic books on branding and advertising, and see how well they’ve stood the test of time. First up: Al Ries and Laura Ries’ The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

The central tenet that runs through the book is that brands should be laser-focused, with a company concentrating its resources on a single brand for a single market. They look askance at sub-brands or line extensions that dilute the power of the mother brand. The examples they list are, of course, dated today, but include Cadillac’s decision to try to market the small, relatively inexpensive Cimarron, which failed in the marketplace. The Ries’ argue that if you see opportunities in different markets, create sibling brands that have their own name and identity. The example here is Wrigley, with separate brands such as Juicy Fruit and Big Red.

Internet branding

The edition I purchased includes a shorter follow-up work, The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding. Here, it’s especially interesting to see how their views on branding online businesses has played out since that work was first published in 2002.

The authors make a good case for branding purely online businesses with an identifiable name that stands for something, as opposed to the initial impulse of many firms, when the web was new, of claiming category names. They hold up Pets.com and Mortgage.com as examples of companies that used common nouns, rather than proper nouns, as brand names. Of course, neither are around today (Pets.com redirects to PetSmart and Mortgage.com to Citibank), and the Ries’ point out that common or generic names represent categories to consumers, without the opportunity to build a singular identity in their minds.

The impact of Amazon

The Ries’ mantra of a brand having a singular focus faces a test with the case of Amazon. If the authors’ logic held in every case, then Amazon either wouldn’t have branched out beyond books, or would have branded different sites with different names, for isn’t a potential buyer of electronics different from the potential buyer of a Don DeLillo novel?

The fact that Amazon has been wildly successful selling everything under the sun on one site speaks to a couple of ways the web is different from brick and mortar businesses. Once Amazon clearly established itself as a place to get any book you could name in a seamless buying experience, that “halo effect” spilled over to other product categories. The fact that they are purely online, without physical stores, helps them in this regard as well. And Amazon, as a brand named with a proper noun, was able to forge an identity in consumers’ minds as opposed to “stuff.com” or “everything.com”.

Amazon’s site also tests the limits of user experience theory; it’s not a particularly clean interface, with links and features everywhere, but somehow it all works, and they’ve thought of every convenience a customer could want. In fact, we Prime customers know all too well how easy buying on Amazon is!

Overall, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding is still a worthy read today, and I think is required for anyone in charge of branding or brand identity for a firm.