While The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout is undeniably a classic text and should be read by anyone in this industry, it should be read carefully, though, since many of its assumptions and recommendations are less valid (or entirely invalid) in the market today. So much for immutability!
Their first rule, the “Rule of Leadership,” states that it’s better to be first than it is to be better.
“How did the leader achieve its leadership? Not by introducing a better product or service. Invariably the leader in the category got to be the leader by being the first brand in the category.”
It just doesn’t work that way anymore. The speed at which the market moves now, combined with a massive amount of online information regarding product superiority, as well as a tremendous number of options in almost any category, has render their first rule almost completely obsolete.
How many businesses can you name that were the first in their category? First mp3 player? First online bookseller? First online shoe store? First department store? First digital camera? First smart phone? First tablet?
In each of those cases, the household name that comes to mind instantly wasn’t the first in the category, it was the underdog who out-innovated and out-designed the original.
In many ways, being first can actually put you at a disadvantage. You take all the painful lessons of the first one in a category, and while you’re nursing your wounds, a new player jumps in and surpasses you because you couldn’t recover fast enough.
There are a few cases where it makes sense. If being first allows you to tie up all the intellectual property, you’ve got a good shot. Or if you can keep innovating fast enough to perpetually stay in front of the underdogs nipping at your heels, you’re golden. Both of these scenarios are pretty rare, though.
While it’s still healthy to get out into a newish category with little competition, don’t count on it giving you any significant strategic advantage over time. What keeps you in business is how hard you push and how fast you can change. Once you get weak on those areas, you’re on your way out.