The words "category creation" on a blue background
Category Creation
Anthony Kennada

A marketing-first and very practical guide to category creation activities. Not so suited to more broad strategic discussions around category creation, but that's what the book "Play Bigger" is for. Peters out a bit towards the end, but ultimately enormously useful.

'Category creation is a business strategy that focuses on positioning and evangelizing a brand new problem observed in the marketplace, in addition to the solution for that very problem.' (Page 7)

Here are some examples of companies that have created new categories:

  • Ridesharing: Uber
  • Photocopiers: Xerox
  • Cloud computing: Salesforce

Signs you may be in a new category:

  • There are few or no competitors/directly analogous companies
  • There's low/no search volume for what you're doing
  • Marginalized group(s) of buyers
  • Small, early cohort of believers
  • Larger group of others who haven't yet seen the light

For marketing, the challenge is starting and growing a conversation that simply doesn't exist yet.

Category is creation is not "disruption." Disruption is the better mousetrap problem; make it smaller, cheaper, faster to compete with and topple the category leader.

Not every category creator is the winner. Sometimes, once a category is created by one company, a "fast follower" swoops in and claims the lead in the category.

"Business to Human (B2H)" and Disruption vs Category Creation

There's no point in thinking about B2B or B2C anymore. Everyone is human, so market to the human first and foremost.

In that vein, it also helps to understand the difference between "disruptors" and "category creators." Disruptors typically would focus on product marketing, content that specifically differentiates on how the product is better.

For category creation, the brand needs to be more human. You build a brand by helping the human. Rather than blogs focusing on use cases, write blogs about industry best practices. Rather than just paid ads, focus on building organic keywords. Rather than finding advocates, look for fanatics.

6 Challenges to Creating a Category

It pays to be "long term greedy" because companies—and their investors—outlast the rest and make more money in the long run. Short-termism is good in the now, but deadly longer term. To create a category you need to be long-term greedy. Here's 6 reasons why:

1. Not everyone is going to get it from the start

'This is the intellectual challenge marketing will wrestle with throughout the journey-balancing category marketing effort of defining (and naming) the problem, with product and demand marketing effort to position the company and product as the solution.' (Page 34)

First you have to position the category, then you get to position the product—your product—as the best solution in that category. But getting your category recognised is the easy part, the hard part comes next...

2. They want education first, not your product

You'll be spending a lot of time defining best practices, helping people with questions about the category first, before you have any time to spend helping them understand your product.

  • 'Is CATEGORY X relevant to me?
  • How can I convince my CEO that CATEGORY X is important?
  • Do I need to build a team to take on a CATEGORY X program?
  • What's a sample job description that I can use to recruit talent?
  • How do I prove the value of CATEGORY X on revenue?
  • Etc.' (Page 36)
'You'll feel like you're spending more time creating content about the category than your own products, a feeling you need to become very comfortable with' (Page 36)

This creates a 'two funnel effect':

  • Funnel 1: people who get the category
  • Funnel 2: people who want your product

3. You need a lot of capital

'The amount of capital required to create a broad level of awareness around a need that people don't know they have is non-trivial.' (Page 38)

There's no two ways about it, this is going to cost a lot of money.

4. Short-term planning is hard

Buyers haven't bought software for this problem before. The buyer that gets it may not even have the authority to make a decision. This means the timeline can be a mess: they're still wrapping their heads around there even being a problem to address in the first place, let alone you having the solution to it.

5. Execs and investors need to buy in to category creation, or you fail

Simple as that: if the money or leadership don't get it and aren't interested in doing it, you're likely to fail.

6. The competition is confusing

It's not always clear who the competition even are. And even if it is, should you ignore them or involve them? Having real competition is a sign the new category is actually there, and growing.

7 Principles of Category Creation

Principle 1: live your purpose, values, and culture out loud

Being purpose-driven engages and drives people around a cause, and it permeates out into the world. A strong purpose should be relevant 100 years from now, should help you think expansively about what you could be doing, but aren't, and it tells you what not to do.

Above all else, it must be inspiring to your community, too.

Purpose in practice:

  • Put your purpose and values on your company about page
  • Publish blog posts about your purpose and mission, at scale
  • Include standard slide(s) in sales decks or other presentations
  • Use it in, and leverage with, your PR activities
  • Talk about it at conferences

Principle 2: focus on the people in your market, not just your products

Adoption happens in stages, with the eponymous "crossing the chasm" being the most difficult part:

'But before the chasm can even come into view, you'll have to understand what drives early adopters, whose validation is a prerequisite for spreading new ideas into the mainstream.' (Page 76)

Early adopters are more likely to adopt if they are able to do enough of their own research first, so what is it that you're giving to them?

Content marketing funnels look something like this:

  • Top of funnel (TOFU): "awareness" stage, pre-purchase interest and thought leadership
  • Middle of funnel (MOFU): "consideration" stage, buying guides, RFP templates, ROI calculations, usually gated
  • Bottom of funnel (BOFU): "evaluation" stage, case studies, on-boarding, sales enablement
Content marketing strategy

1: Name your category: brand around people not your product or platform. Look for clues in job titles. Use google trends to gauge search volumes.

'Deciding on the name isn't necessarily easy, as analysts won't recognize it (more on that in Chapter Ten), competition will call it something else, tangential categories already exist and are causing confusion, search volume is extremely low for most of your ideas, and all the good domains are already taken. Sound familiar?' (Page 80)

2. Identify spokespeople and influencers: internal leadership, perhaps supported by internal writers, as well as industry early adopters.

3. Articulate the why: there's got to be a good "why" to justify change and CapEx in a customer organisation, so give them an argument for doing so. Arm them with what they need.

4. Educate on the how: how do you put category learnings into place? Educate people! What is it that customers tell you? What is it that the data says? What is it that you want to lead the market with?

Principle 3: create a lifestyle brand for your category

B2B and B2C worlds collapsing ever closer because consumer expectations converge between home and work. Red Bull is probably one of the best examples of a lifestyle brand in this respect.

It's not about the product, it's about the ideals and building affinity with a group.

Principle 4: build a community

Community is grown mostly by live events and experiences: there's no substitute for a live event over a digital one.

  • Field events: dinners, small events, roadshow programs. Connects like-minded customers but also allows sales to prospect.
  • Community groups: autonomous to the company, city-based for professionals in that area. You don't have control over them, but you have an interest in keeping them happy.
  • Executive forums: invite-only, high touch events. More interest in meeting the other attendees than anything else.
  • Industry conferences: powerful displays of category leadership and high value for your potential customers too, just make sure it's about the category and not your brand.
4a: running a conference

Planning a conference is marketing-led, but a whole-company effort to make it into a reality. The movement is more important than the product: worst thing you can do is to pitch your product to a captive audience, they won't forgive you for that. Only when the category matures and becomes synonymous with your product should you consider showing product or product announcements.

Source speakers who add credibility and validate the category:

  • VIP keynote speakers: eye-catching speakers who will create a real "draw' to your conference, usually paid and usually need to be booked well in advance
  • Executives: C-level speakers from the great-and-good of the industry, should
  • Practitioners: the majority of speakers should be users and target buyers, the bread and butter of your customer base should reflect the people talking at the event

Make sure your agenda is inspiring and interesting to the audience attending, and create a memorable experience for the folks going: don't just do another boring conference. Push the boat out with an interesting venue, better food than usual (think food trucks), convenient features like phone booths, great wifi and meeting rooms.

Customer brand ambassadors

Companies on't create categories, and neither do analysts. Customers do.

'Consider a company that yells new category positioning into a void themselves with no external validation. Eventually, the company will realize that something isn't working with that approach and move on to try something new. But what if that same company created a platform for other voices to position the category, with trusted voices from reputable companies?' (Page 131)

How customers create categories:

  1. They validate the reality of the pain: makes others pay attention
  2. They co-author industry best practices: you can't do it all yourself. Much more credible letting others do it for you.
  3. They make your product better: real feedback goes back to product teams, instead of product thinking about this in a vacuum
  4. They crown the king: something only they can do, regardless of what other analysts might say, the king is crowned in the minds of customers

Customers > analysts

Analysts need to see a lot of dots before they're willing to draw a line.

Buy-side signal is more important to the big industry analysts (e.g. Gartner) than anything else. Sell-side can tell them about a new category until they're blue in the face but it won't help unless they hear from customers.

Analysts aren't just the people working at Gartner. Kennada provides an expanded definition:

  • SME's and thought leaders: influencers in the industry
  • Super consultants: like SMEs, but paid a pretty penny to consult
  • The majors: the gorillas (Gartner and co)

Executive communication

The four Cs of exec comms that marketing can help with:

  1. Comfort: helping execs be comfortable with speaking in public and talking to journalists. Some amount of media training is always a good idea here.
  2. Context: prepared and understand the situation that they are speaking in, not just in a vacuum.
  3. Content: provide them ahead of time with concise content and talking points that are on-message. Give them resources, and help tease out anecdotes that will be helpful in this.
  4. Connection: what's the story, the narrative? How does it engage with people? How does it draw them in? Has to be more than just the facts.
More of this, but in your inbox.

I send updates to a few hundred people anytime I've got something worth sharing. New articles, new book notes, new commentary.

Let me read it first