Law #5: The Law of Focus

(This entry is part of a series I am writing on The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.)

This is one of my favorite chapters.  The Law of Focus says that "the most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect's mind."  This law challenges us to boil our marketing message down to just one idea.  If you can teach your market segment to associate your product with a single idea, perhaps even a single word, you can be a market leader.

Count Your Words

When entrepreneurs ask me for advice, I usually ask them to explain their product in 25 words or less.  Hardly anybody can do it.  The software developer is in love with his product and is unaware of the fact that nobody else is.  Ask him to talk about his product and he will give you twenty minutes of rambling love poetry starting with a feature set and ending with a description of some arcane aspect of the product's underlying architecture.  The customer has lost interest after the first ten seconds.  The wire between your marketing efforts and your customer's mind is an extremely low bandwidth connection.  Less is more.

During the dotcom bubble, as we all wasted three years of our lives chasing venture capitalists around like groupies, they taught us one useful concept:  The elevator pitch.  This is a major step in the right direction.  The idea is that you have to explain your product and its benefits in the amount of time you spend in an elevator.  In other words, you've got well under a minute.  No time for product love poetry.

But the Law of Focus would claim that an elevator ride is far too long. 

The Law of Focus would insist that a 25 word description is about 24 words too many. 

The Law of Focus demands that we explain our product in one word.  Ries and Trout say, "No matter how complicated the product, no matter how complicated the needs of the market, it's always better to focus on one word or benefit than two or three or four."


  • What shipping company comes to mind when you hear the word "overnight"?  (Federal Express)
  • Which ketchup comes to mind when you hear the word "slow"?  (Heinz)
  • What insurance company comes to mind when you hear the word "hands"?  (AllState)

Each of these companies has used a single idea or word as the basis for its primary message.

For another example, take a look at two of the major wireless phone providers in the United States today.  Each of them has carefully chosen just one concept as their message:

  • For Sprint, the concept is Clarity.  Ten times a week we hear their spokesman clearing up some goofy misunderstanding caused by the unclear calls of one of their competitors.
  • For Verizon Wireless, the concept is is Coverage.  Twenty times a week we hear their spokesman saying, "Can you hear me now?  Good!"

These two companies each have plenty of other benefits they could be talking about.  They could tell us about their great selection of phones.  They could brag about their pricing.  They could talk about safety issues.  Instead, they have each focused their marketing message around just one idea.

As the chapter says, "The essence of marketing is narrowing the focus.  You become stronger when you reduce the scope of your operations."

Crafting Your Message

It's okay to have more information handy.  Datasheets and whitepapers are great.  Once people get interested, they will probably want all the detail you can provide.  But for first impressions, you should tell the world only one thing about your product.  You can use 2-3 words as long as you are not trying to sneak in extra ideas.  Usually, you need only one word.  But which word to pick?

  • Pick a reasonably common word out of the dictionary.  It should be a word that everybody understands.  Don't invent a new word that nobody has ever heard.

  • Don't try to associate your product with a word in the customer's mind if that word is already associated with your competitor.

  • Don't pick the word "cheap" or any of its synonyms.  Very few businesses can thrive while making low price their primary message.  Wal-Mart is one of those businesses.  Your small ISV is not.

  • Don't pick the word "quality" unless you can prove that you care about quality a lot more than everybody else.  As Ries and Trout say, "everybody stands for quality.  As a result, nobody does."

Sheepish Confession

Among the many violators of Law #5 is SourceGear itself.  Shameful as it seems, we built the marketing message for Vault around three ideas, not one:

  • Reliability
  • Internet-readiness
  • Seamless transition from SourceSafe

We've been very consistent about using the same three talking points in all of our advertising materials and presentations.  We sometimes vary the way we explain them, but we always work with these same three points. 

This campaign has worked out very well for us, but Law #5 says we would be even more effective if we replaced our three-point message with a one-point message.  In the future, we will probably move in that direction.