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Marketing Academy.

Al Ries' 22 Laws of Marketing are NOT Science

One of the biggest problems in scientific dissemination is that, often, people don't know what "scientific" means. On the one hand, the purists of the hard sciences believe that only mathematics, chemistry, physics and related fields are considered "Science", given that they allow hypotheses to be isolated and tested exactly. And this cannot be done with “soft” disciplines such as human ones (such as marketing). On the other hand, many talk about science, confusing it with personal anecdotes, occurrences that have occurred several times. This is why homeopathy, tarot cards, the paleo diet, reading coffee grounds, astrology exist. Personal anecdotes and coincidences.

Without getting into academic disagreements, we can accept that soft sciences such as human sciences and marketing are considered scientific as long as they are capable of developing universal rulesthat arise from observations in different contexts and sectors and which are then verified in reviews and meta-reviews. That is, by other researchers and in other contexts.

If, for example, many independent studies confirm that placing sugar and salt near the checkout in supermarkets leads to more sales, all things being equal, we have an empirical law of marketing. It's science.

And science is the basis of the work of the agency Deep Marketing.

In this sense, the famous 22 Immortal Laws" by Al Ries, so adored by many trainers of the discipline (who often have never done marketing before teaching it...) are a disaster. Science is distant. Very very distant.

It is no coincidence that, applying these laws, the iPhone should have been a flop (prediction error by Al Ries himself), and also the Urus SUV (error by an Italian fan). We both know how things really happened. Such unsuccessful predictions, alone, should cast doubt on the validity of some theories!

The lack of science

Let's see some examples of the limits of Al Ries' dissemination and of this book of his in particular, which for some is a Bible to be taken uncritically. Better not.

Is being first better?

The author claims that it is “better to be first in the market than to be the best. In professional marketing, this concept is very well known and studied and is called “first mover advantage”. The problem is that Ries and Trout's simplification unfortunately clashes with decades of market evidence. Which makes the pioneer's advantage something rare, and definitely not the norm.

Google has in fact ousted Altavista (first to enter the market), and new players that are better than the previous ones continually steal the place from the old ones. The advantage of the first arrivals sometimes exists, but it is not stainless. And, above all, being first implies risking much more than others and spending much more than others. Because the market must be created, and the market may not exist. It's never certain how customers will respond in a new category. Or if they really exist.

SMEs definitely should not follow this advice, they cannot afford this level of risk of failure!

A fallacious reasoning

Often in the book (and also for the advantages of the pioneers) Ries and Trout naively make a very serious logical error: the survivorship bias. If, for example, 1000 companies apply their laws and only 10 are successful, the authors forget the 990 and take only the 10 successful ones. Declaiming that, just as these have been successful in applying their laws, so can all of them do.

Unfortunately the science is more complicated than that. It is not enough to select only what is convenient for us. To derive laws it is necessary to always take the entire sample into account. Literally, Ries should have shown us that, over decades of analyzed data, his laws apply in most cases. Unfortunately, the entire book does the opposite: it selects only the cases that confirm its theses.

If this seems like a common method, you're right. The typical "guru" in marketing he does the same: out of thousands of students, he always talks only about the very few who have been successful thanks to him. It's a shame that the others have failed or are "floating". with difficulty, applying the exact same rules.

Dropped ice cream
Applying Al Ries's incorrect laws can destroy the best plan

First in mind

Better to be first in the mind than in the market”, another famous rule of Trout and Ries.

Here we go again. Like any bad science, this idea only works because it is vague and everyone fills it in as they want. Exactly like the horoscope: it is so generic that it applies to everyone. And, above all, this formula contradicts the law "better to be first in the market". Another problem that is often noted in Al Ries' writings: an incredible confusion and contradiction, not understood by the author himself.

We don't understand: is it better to be first in the market or in the mind? Why do they first tell me that we have to be pioneers and then that all things considered it doesn't matter because in the end it's only people's perception that makes the difference?

Incidentally, the (true) law of Double Jeopardy in marketing tells us that there is often an incredible conformity between market shares and "memory shares". So Al Ries, by distinguishing these two variables (market and memory), introduces a useless vague discrimination, falsified by science, and which increases the rate of opinion-making.


Al Ries' law of focus (“possess a word in the customer's mind”) is wrong from start to finish. We know this because there is a science – cognitive psychology – which assures us that brand memorization is largely subcognitive and sub-functional. That is, people do not remember brands by making conscious or sophisticated reasoning, much less do they associate them with specific "words". Brands are remembered like everything else in the brain: in a multisensory distributed neural network built on brand assets and the unconscious.

It is no coincidence that Ries always uses the same examples to justify this law, which among other things do not work in places other than the USA (none of us remember BMW for a single word "drive" / "guide", the remembers through a cloud of unconscious associations).

Be different from everyone and exclusive

The error on the Focus invalidates many other laws of the couple of authors, such as that of "exclusivity", according to which each brand should be totally different from the others and have specific words not shared with other brands.

Alas, we are faced with a catastrophic mistake. This idea clashes with every single concept of professional marketing, neuromarketing, cognitive psychology, market research. It's so wrong and senseless that you wonder how anyone can still believe it.

The human brain works exactly opposite to how the exclusivity law describes it. In fact, different companies continually have similar representations in the customer's mind. In true and good marketing, differentiation must be done across the entire course of brand assets, it is not enough to "find the word" or be polar opposites of competitors. Among other things, by applying this law we risk breaking one of the (true) laws of marketing, that of prototype.

A disaster.

Leaders and competitors?

We have no proof that markets are always reduced to a leader and a main competitor, as Ries suggests. This idea is similar to a drop of homeopathic remedy. We often notice a dramatically different dynamic in the real world. In fact, the most efficient markets seem to have a structure that boasts various leadersfocused on turnover, a few brands in the middle, and many small brands obsessed with margins and penetration.

Do not extend!

Another senseless trivialization is the one against line extensions. A great way to lose a lot of money. The lines do extend, continuously, and successfully. Simply, you have to know how to do it. It takes decades of strategy expertise.

If the world were as easy as Ries suggests and can be traced back to a few axioms, anyone would do marketing. Thank goodness and aside from some colorful theories, entrepreneurs know that it is a difficult job for professionals.

Time travel

“You can't predict the future.” This Ries rule would be enough to place the book on the joke shelf.

The author, after having listed a lot of laws that predict the future on the basis of a marketing action carried out by companies, claims that the future is not predictable. How is it possible that he did not notice such a logical conflict and that it completely invalidates his work?

And it's false: a certain amount of stable correlation is the basis of science. The difference between good and bad science is precisely that the former has predictive ability, at least at the level of stable and strong correlations.

Marketing is not "hard science", but its laws can predict the future

The merits

It would be unfair not to close this study with the merits of Ries and Trout. Merits, unfortunately, not understood by the trainers who teach them. Al Ries' book deserves a place in marketing, if only because:

  • He clarified that the discipline is both economic and human. It has to do with the human mind and its structure. It is not a trivial consideration. The book fought against a prevailing economic reductionism. It's a shame he responded with a different reductionism. And it's a shame that it hasn't made a dent in the love for turnover-before-people-and-competitive-advantage of many Al Ries fans. He had excellent intuitions, he failed to bring them to the ground.

  • He insists on the concepts of "candor" and "love of failure. Frankly, this would be enough to make him read it. It's a shame that the honesty requested by Al Ries and not hiding one's failures, but rather embracing the falsification of one's ideas and criticism, are taboo in the communities that spread his word.

  • Al Ries reminds us that success and arrogance come together, so we have to be very careful. Very true.

  • With an incredible intellectual acumen that clashes greatly with some of the argumentative weaknesses of the rest of the book and the use of facts and anecdotes, Trout and Ries note that, often,in marketing the majority of the effects come from a single "tough" and lucky move. Real. This is predicted by the laws of Complexity and Chaos and has to do with the positive feedback dynamics of reality. The problem is that we know after which move worked, not before. So this law, however brilliant, is perfectly useless, if not to raise awareness among businesses. Which is impossible because in the real world we are bombarded with data and information and can hardly isolate things as they happen. Let's only see "with hindsight".


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