Main content

Is it time to think like a category designer? Categorically yes!

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher October 23, 2023
A guide to category design from Pablo Gonzalez, co-founder of the Category Thinkers Community.

What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the term ‘category design?’ If you’re in the tech space, you think Gartner Magic Quadrants and Forrester Waves. You think big companies that sit at the top of big-name categories, built with huge budgets and lots of marketing and PR. 

But category design is more than‌ that. Pablo Gonzalez, co-founder of the Category Thinkers Community, joined me on the Content Matters podcast to talk about category design and how it is a different way of thinking for businesses and marketers.

Let’s start with a definition of category design. Gonzalez describes category design as seeking to radically differentiate yourself:

It is the idea of creating a space inside somebody's brain instead of competing for space inside someone's brain that already existed.

From a business perspective, it's the idea that you don't want to be "better, faster, cheaper" because then you are just competing with the other brands in an existing category. And according to Christopher Lochhead (considered the godfather of category design), whoever owns the category captures, on average, 70% of the market. So, that means you are competing for a small fraction of a market when you play the comparison game. Surprisingly, this is a game many tech companies continue to play. 

The idea is to be different. Not just a little different, but what Lochhead calls “radically different.” 

Gonzalez didn't study marketing, so he wasn't brought up in the Gartner and Forrester world of categories. Instead, he was obsessed with behavior and influence. When he read the book Play Bigger (the first guide to category design) and learned the framework around category design, he wondered how companies could use behavioral economics and the levers of influence and psychology to affect decision-making:

For me, it came from my interpersonal relationships and understanding that when I speak to someone, when I'm speaking to you, if I can think about the world from your perspective, instead of my own perspective, and frame the things that I am trying to accomplish, or the things I believe in, in a way that relates to something that you're trying to solve for, I've always gotten better results, right? So that is on a personal level. If you extrapolate that to how you do that as a company, now you are a category-designing company. But I think that it can be done at any scale.

Who owns the work of category design?

Category design is business strategy, which means the CEO or business owner has to believe in it and evangelize it within the company. Gonzalez argues that you'll always be stuck in the comparison track if they don't. He says there are three key pieces you need to execute on category design:

  1. Chief evangelist
  2. In-house head of category design
  3. Community person

Gonzales provides the example of the video messaging platform BombBomb, which defined the idea of human-centered communication, identified a villain, digital pollution, and talked about how you could communicate more efficiently. They even wrote a book and had what Gonzalez calls a "lightning strike category design moment." But then, instead of pushing forward with those ideas, they went back to selling a video messaging platform, he adds: 

If they would have taken a true category design approach, then they would have thought less of what can we do with video, and more, 'How can we reduce digital pollution? How do we go from being a video platform to being a platform that also helps sort through spam emails or cold outreach? How do we become a gatekeeper in cold outreach? How do we facilitate more one-to-one engagements that are authentic? How do we validate people?'

They could have become a validation source of who's real and who isn't, like the blue checkmark of email or something like that, if that's what they're really trying to do. But instead, they went for a big marketing play of category design, worked really well because it definitely pinged on my radar and a bunch of other people. They published a Wall Street Journal bestselling book, but then they retreated to selling their product, as opposed to really going far at 'this is the problem that we really, really want to solve, and based on that, the solutions we develop come from that, not from what already exists.

A marketer’s role in category design

Gonzalez also believes that if you are a marketer and think like a category designer, you'll do better than other marketers. But for marketers to think like a category designer requires them to unlearn a lot of what they have learned about how to do marketing. Much of what we learn as marketers is product marketing - it's all about the product. Even content marketing winds up leading us back to the product. 

But instead of focusing on the product, category design requires you to focus on what problem the product or service solves and what your point of view about that problem is compelling enough to convince someone you are the answer to their problems.

I think the best marketers are shifting to this mindset. The idea is that we need to understand our customers intimately and speak to their challenges and opportunities. To find ways to help them and share content that supports them but doesn't always point to the product is happening today. And companies are creating the role of chief evangelist to help them do this kind of work. But there's still a lot of product marketing happening as well. 

Gonzalez suggests that we need to rethink marketing. From the outside, it can look the same, but if you look at the top of the fold of a website, you can see the difference. For a category designer, you see the problem highlighted, which speaks to the person, their context, and the problem. That's very different from a "me-to" website that is all about the product and the story that they are "bigger, better, faster, cheaper, different."

That's just the website. You need to have a different focus across all marketing. Communities and a chief evangelist are two things you can incorporate into your marketing to ensure you have that perspective.

How to think like a category designer

According to Gonzalez, a category designer is always looking for new contexts. The Category Design Advisors, including Kevin Maney (co-author of Play Bigger), Mike Damphousse, and John Rougeux, say that a category is "context + missing + innovation." Gonzalez explains this as:

When there's a next context out there, there will always be something missing that will allow for an innovation (solving a problem in a new way).

Successful category design is all about having a point of view - how you see the category. It starts with naming a problem that people see and feel, identifying the solution, and explaining why your company is uniquely qualified to be that solution. Gonzalez concludes that people have to see themselves as suffering from that problem. If you nail it and people agree with you, they are open to the big idea and you as the solution. 

My take

Gonzalez and I talked a lot more about category design (you can listen to the full episode here), but I've tried to hit some key ideas around category design. Some people believe you can only create a category with massive reach and a lot of money, but it's not true. Category design doesn't have to be complex or expensive, but it does require that you have a clear point of view and that you find the people who truly identify with the problem (these are your super-consumers) and the solution you offer. 

That's not easy. And although it's not a marketing problem, marketing will play an important role because they are the team that spends the most time sharing that POV and trying to reach the right people. But everyone in the company needs to be on board and understand that POV and how to share it. Otherwise, you'll have Sales reps playing the comparison game and media and analysts wanting to bucket you with known categories. 

Category design fascinates me because it makes us think differently. It gets us out of our little boxes and requires us to pay more attention to the people we want to create solutions for. We're moving in the right direction; the key is to keep moving and thinking differently.

A grey colored placeholder image