“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club is for you.
The idea here is simple: Every month, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al & Laura Ries.
If you want a short but fantastic primer on how to use branding to successfully launch or grow a product, service, or business, you want to read this book, which offers both high-level strategic suggestions (brainstorming a category you can dominate, for instance) as well as tactical tips (like coming up with an effective name) for building better brands.
And if you’re not sure whether your business is big or established enough to benefit from “branding,” which often is associated with mega-million-dollar “brand awareness” campaigns conducted by large corporations with no expectations of trackable returns, read this book, and you’ll quickly realize that any commercial activity can benefit from good branding.
In fact, it goes further than that. If we compare launching a business, product, or service—whether a solopreneur’s “side hustle” or founder’s venture-backed moonshot—to launching a rocket, the branding determines how strong the gravity well is. With great branding, the ship can quickly soar into the stratosphere with minimal effort, but with terrible branding, the same journey requires a tremendous amount of thrust.
In other words, when done skilfully, branding is a force multiplier that enhances the effectiveness of all other forms of marketing, including direct marketing (which tends to get the most attention).
As the authors put it:
“Today most products and services are bought, not sold. And branding greatly facilitates this process. Branding ‘pre-sells’ the product or service to the user. Branding is simply a more efficient way to sell things.
. . .
“For most people a brand is nothing more than a guarantee of quality and a system for saving time. A way of making sure that the products you buy are decent without having to spend an inordinate amount of time comparing one product with another.”
Although I’ve read a number of books on branding, I’m recommending this one because it has most informed many of the better branding decisions I’ve made in creating my books and building my businesses. It’s also a book that’s worth reviewing regularly as your needs and circumstances expand and evolve, especially as mistakes and missteps become more expensive and excruciating.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
My 5 Key Takeaways from The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding
“Successful branding programs are based on the concept of singularity. The objective is to create in the mind of the prospect the perception that there is no other product on the market quite like your product.”
Many strong brands offer more than just high-quality products. They’re also unique in other major and meaningful ways—a source of information that people can’t find elsewhere, a place to buy things they can’t find elsewhere or at prices they can’t find elsewhere, or a place to meet people they can’t meet elsewhere.
Take Legion, for instance, which not only sells outstanding supplements that outshine competing products, but that also provides services that most sports nutrition companies don’t like custom meal plans and one-on-one coaching as well as nearly two thousand evidence-based and fact-checked articles and podcasts on just about every aspect of diet, training, and supplementation that you can imagine.
As a result of this business approach, we have . . . legions (har har har) . . . of highly loyal customers who are responsible for producing some eye-poppingly good business metrics—measures that would likely be impossible with a more one-dimensional, product-focused branding strategy.
“The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope.”
Many consumers don’t just want to buy from brands that offer unique products and experiences—they also want to buy from brands that specialize in just one thing. They want to buy their soap, socks, and supplements from companies that primarily produce just soap, socks, and supplements.
This is partly because we assume that a jack of all trades is a master of none—that a brand that offers too many different products couldn’t possibly be better at each of those things than individual brands that pour all of their resources into just one of them.
This principle has been one of the driving forces behind successful brands in nearly every category you can imagine, from small, family-owned businesses to multinational conglomerates, from products ranging from socks (Smartwool) to speakers (Sonos) to low-cost furniture (Ikea) to electric cars (Tesla) to cottage cheese (Good Culture).
This concept cuts both ways, though, and is almost certainly one of the reasons that Amazon’s sports nutrition brands Enraged Nutrition, Flexatarian, P2N Peak Performance Nutrition, and OWN PWR all went nowhere and were abandoned.
As a consumer, we can buy that Amazon can make batteries, backpacks, and cables as good as any major brand and then simply sell them for less (in fact, we assume that Amazon’s knock-offs are likely the same products made in the same factories), but it’s hard to swallow that Amazon made the effort to truly understand the science of sports nutrition and bring something special to the market. Instead, we assume that Amazon’s product people simply saw an opportunity to seize on a trend and see if they could make something stick. And that doesn’t work in sports nutrition, where the average consumer is far more discerning and sophisticated than in other categories.
Additionally, a brand’s “one thing” should be distinguishable by a single word—the shorter the better—that they strive to own the minds of their ideal customers. When one of those people thinks of that word, the brand best positioned for long-term success is the one that immediately pops into their mind.
In the case of Legion, I’ve been working since the beginning to own the phrase “all-natural sports supplements” because I felt that was more approachable than the lofty “sports supplements” perch currently occupied by a company (likely Optimum Nutrition) with hundreds of millions in revenue.
The strategy is working, too. Legion is now the leading (by revenue) line of all-natural sports supplements in the world (because the biggest players all use artificial ingredients), and if Legion’s current growth trends continue, it won’t be long before a considerable percentage of 40-something, college-educated, above-average-income weightlifters (Legion’s ideal customers) will consider Legion synonymous with “all-natural sports supplements.”
Which brings me to my next takeaway . . .
“Leadership is the most direct way to establish the credentials of a brand. . . . When you don’t have the leading brand, your best strategy is to create a new category in which you can claim leadership.”
As far as brand credibility is concerned, nothing succeeds like success. And the ultimate expression of success is category leadership.
Credibly claiming (and proving, if necessary) that your brand is the leader of your category—the most popular and bestselling—is far more effective than trying to explain why your products are better than your competitors’. Everyone tries to convince consumers why they’re better, and so such claims are met with skepticism. “That’s what they all say.”
Category leadership, however, says “we’re better” without having to use the words by tapping into the power of authority and social proof. When most people see a brand on top in a category, they automatically assume it must be better than the rest. “It must be on top for a reason.” Thus, the authors believe, brand leaders should always promote their leadership above all because it’s the single most important motivating factor in consumer behavior.
And so, the authors contend that when building a brand, you must find a category that you can become a leader in, even if you have to create a new category and promote it alongside your brand.
How do you create a new category? You narrow your focus. Instead of entering the “beer” market, you enter the “organic American IPA market.” Instead of selling “protein chips,” you sell “chicken-derived protein chips” (yep, they exist). Instead of competing in the “sports nutrition” market, Legion is in the “all-natural sports supplements” space.
“But what works is not expanding the brand, but expanding the market.”
Once a company is doing seven figures in annual revenue, the easiest way to keep growing is creating new products that its existing customers (and other people like them) will also buy.
There are right and wrong ways of launching new products, though, and a major mistake many companies make is stamping their name on other products in other categories. By doing this, they can enjoy a short-term increase in sales, but they’ll also blur the image of the brand in the eyes of consumers. If it gets too fuzzy, they’ll lose their position of leadership in the minds of the many, and once that happens, sales can plummet and refuse to reverse.
The key, then, is to keep the brand focused on its core category and work to grow the size of that niche by promoting its general desirability and, counterintuitively, inviting competitors who can help defray the enormous advertising expense of growing a category. When you’re the leader of a category, effective competition will shrink your market share but more than make up for it by growing the size of the market much faster than you could alone.
What’s more, when you’ve firmly established your brand as the category leader, unless you accidentally scuttle your ship, it’ll be almost impossible for a competitor to unseat you no matter how much money they spend. The best your competition can hope for is the #2 spot.
This is one of the reasons I’m excited when other fitness influencers and celebrities publish books—especially inaugural ones. I sell far more books than any other fitness author in the world and promote this fact widely, and so I want the category (genre) to grow as fast as possible. I’m doing everything I can to make that happen—writing new books, promoting my existing books more widely, working to grow my following, etc.—but the category will expand much faster if more people like me are doing the same things.
By the same token, I can’t wait for large health and consumer brands to start launching all-natural sports supplement lines. The category is poised to explode over the next decade, and if my team and I stay on our mettle, we’ll be in for one hell of a ride.
“The most important branding decision you will ever make is what to name your product or service. Because in the long run a brand is nothing more than a name.”
I’ve always been very sensitive to the names of my brands and products because it matters far more than most people think. According to the authors, all other factors being equal, the brand with the better name will come out on top.
The power of a brand name lies in the meaning of the word in the mind, not the logotype, trademark, or visual symbol. For most brands, those aspects have little or nothing to do with creating meaning in the mind of consumers.
Naming is an art and science unto itself (I recommend reading Hello, My Name Is Awesome if you want to delve into the details), but the authors do offer a few tips:
- One of the fastest routes to failure is giving a brand a generic name. What you should generally do is take a regular word and use it out of context to connote the primary attribute of your brand.
- Unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise, the best branding strategy should be to use the company name as the brand name.
- Starting with the generic name for the category and condensing it is a good way to kill two birds with one stone. You create a proper name that’s also short and easy to spell. CNET.com, for example, took the generic term “computer network” and shortened it to CNET, creating a short, proper name that’s also easy to spell.
- When you have to choose between several brand names that seem equally good, the smartest name to pick is usually the one that also has a good nickname. People feel closer to a brand when they are able to use the brand’s nickname instead of its full name.