Positioning Strategy: Don’t create a category

Now and then, I see some marketing firm, writer, or consultant advocating for or celebrating creating a category for positioning strategy

Creating a category is not always a bad thing. It can be a victory, a once in a lifetime achievement. But more often, it is a mistake, a misunderstanding that negatively impacts your business. When it is an aspiration, things go wrong. 

Categories are a useful marketing construct because that is how people buy. Vendors sell products in categories. Someone who is looking for a product in a category will do their research and come up with an initial list of vendors or products.

That is why, if at all possible, you should attach your product to an existing category that comes with a set of active buyers. 

There are a few reasons people might avoid attaching to an existing category, including boredom, pride, and a misunderstanding of differentiation. 

Marketers get bored with their marketing before their target customers have even seen it. I have come across a lot of companies that abandoned their category. One was a vendor of financial consolidation software. The most robust financial consolidation software in the world, developed by a company created explicitly because no available software was able to consolidate the financials of one of the most financially complex organizations in the world. But did they mention that they sold financial consolidation software? No. Their justification was pride “we do so much more.” While the pride was justified, the marketing approach was not. 

If you do more than other players in your category, this is your differentiation, your uniqueness within the category, the reason the buyers should select you. 

Categories are a useful marketing construct because that is how people buy. 

Don’t create a category. – Crispin Read, PMM Hive

By denying membership of the category, you make your product unnecessarily hard to find. You make your potential buyers work too hard; you make them do your job for you – by reading everything you publish, they could probably work out that you were in the category, but that is not their job, it is yours. 

Positioning Strategy

If you can’t fit into an existing category, don’t celebrate. Work harder. Feel regret and shame. You are making your product harder to sell when your job is to make sales easier. If you manage to squeeze your product into a category with a bit of pushing and shoving, celebrate. You have a highly differentiated product with a pool of active buyers. 

Not every product can fit into an existing category. If, after trying hard, you can’t fit, then don’t despair. Life will be hard but not impossible. Try to associate yourself with a category that you can replace. Slack gives an excellent example of this. Slack isn’t email. But it is pretty clear from their marketing that their goal is to replace email. 

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