A new category is built around a problem no one knew they had, or a problem no one knew they could solve. A great category creates a great company and product.
Category Design is a way to identify a unique problem and show the market you have the solution. That’s how you stand out as different. Category Creation is an important part of a company’s overall strategy. It is a C-level process that can make an enormous difference in a company’s valuation, its position against competitors, the perception of analysts, and the mindset of customers.
1. What is category design?
As introduced in the book Play Bigger, category design is a way of thinking through and developing a strategy for creating and defining a new market segment – a new category – and dominating it over time. The company that defines and dominates a category typically takes an overwhelming majority of the economics of that category.
2. Why do category designers always lead with the problem?
The problem is a matter or situation that exists and needs to be dealt with and overcome, whether most people realize it or not. A new category opportunity can be found in a problem that people don’t yet know they have or don’t know they can solve in a new way. If described properly, the articulation of the problem hits a person in the gut and compels them to want a solution. They realize the solution is missing in the marketplace. Category design, then, is the act of finding that “missing,” and fulfilling it.
3. Why focus on the solution being different, and not just showing features and benefits?
If the problem is articulated properly, a category designer has created an itch that needs to be scratched – a universal truth that the category must exist. The solution is the category.
4. Why such a focus on a category being different and not just better?
Most companies just try to be better than competitors. In today’s winner-take-all digital economy, the company that defines and develops a new and different category dominates the category’s economics. Different forces a choice, not a comparison. If you describe yourself as better, you’re automatically placing yourself in someone else’s category, trying to scratch some market share from the category leader. That may become an OK business, but it’s not likely to become a category-defining superstar business.
5. Isn’t a category Point of View (POV) just messaging?
Not at all. The category POV is a way to capture the category-creating decisions in a simple, straightforward narrative that anyone can understand. Which is to say: these POVs should be very different from the usual set of business-school bullet points or some mangled-language mission statement. Humans latch onto stories. A story can generate emotion and excitement in a way no jargon-filled traditional marketing copy ever will. A POV is an emotional appeal to the people you most need to convince. The POV then becomes a North Star, guiding everything the company does, from product design to marketing, sales, financial strategy, hiring and so on.
6. When should we think about a category blueprint and ecosystem?
The process of creating a category blueprint or ecosystem is not always mandatory to a category designer. But both can be incredibly powerful tools when thinking through a category. If the category design process is stalled, these exercises will help move the process closer to consensus. It’s not the pretty diagram that brings the value, it’s the process of designing that diagram. It may just end up being scribbles on a whiteboard.
7. We target multiple personas, how can that be reflected in the point of view (POV)?
Many companies sell to different personas in the marketplace. However, a POV is most effective when it is targeted at the persona that most acutely feels or needs to address the problem you’re fixing. Once you’ve finished the point of view, then identify the individual personas and create mini-POVs aimed at them. A mini-POV is simply adjusted to each persona and informs your messaging platform so it is more relevant to each specific audience.
8. Can only companies with huge budgets succeed at mobilization and lightning strikes as presented in Play Bigger?
There are many ways to go to market. But there is no reason every company should spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on a lightning strike. The concept is that all energy and resources needed to communicate the category get focused on a condensed moment in time for maximum impact. Consider more targeted options such as a personal, account based strike. And don’t sit idle between major strikes – implement a rolling thunder strategy. Keep an ongoing cadence or heartbeat that consistently communicates the category and can be modest budgets for activities such as social, content marketing, online events, etc.
“Maybe a fresh perspective helped. The packaging, structure of the concept – we wouldn’t have gotten so far if not for an external force making us think longer term.”
CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot | TaskRabbit
Co-founder Brian Leonard | TaskRabbit
How category design mobilizes employees and helps the board - a case study
More than a decade ago, TaskRabbit identified and built a new category that might be called on-demand personal helpers. In fact, as the gig economy emerged in the late-2000s, TaskRabbit made itself into the king of its category. The company had a great run for nearly a decade, and in 2017 got acquired by IKEA. (The deal makes sense when you realize that a lot of TaskRabbit’s business was from people who needed help assembling IKEA furniture.)
By 2018, TaskRabbit was king of a category that was maturing, and had a new parent ready to invest in taking the company to a new stage.
“Time Intelligence caught on with us very quickly,” says Replicon CEO and co-founder Raj Narayanswamy. “We collect time and apply meaning to it.”
Raj Narayanswamy | Replicon
How category creation can win new attention for an old company – a case study
When we got involved with a twenty-year-old software company called Replicon, based in Silicon Valley and Calgary, they billed themselves as “Time management for your entire workforce.” It had about 200 employees and was doing well enough, but it was a second-tier player in a crowded category of time-tracking software.
Other companies, such as Kronos, were setting the agenda for the category. Replicon didn’t much excite the press or analysts. It was just a solid enterprise software company that mostly flew under the radar.
“The category design process helped us dramatically sharpen and improve our category and direction,” Resnick says. “It forced us to align the entire company behind that category. It helped us find our go-to-market strategy, and align marketing and sales.”
Assaf Resnick | BigPanda
How category design drives decisions and alignment – case study
Quite often, a well-funded, well-run technology company does a great job building and selling what it was founded to build and sell -- and then a few years later gets to a place where it goes, “What next? Where do we go now?”
BigPanda, based in Silicon Valley, was one of those companies. BigPanda was founded in 2012 by Assaf Resnick and Elik Eizenberg, and had raised more than $51 million in funding from top-tier investors including Sequoia Capital, Mayfield, and Battery Ventures. Its web site pitched the company as an “alert correlation platform.” Its products collected and sorted incoming alerts within data centers. The space had become crowded with competitors, and not all that exciting.