2 min read

The most important concept in marketing strategy

How I became a category designer. Oh, and some thoughts about Spikeball.
The most important concept in marketing strategy
Photo by Dan DeAlmeida / Unsplash

A few years ago, I read a Quora response that completely changed my perspective on marketing forever.

The topic of the post was how a Chief Marketing Officer should approach their first 90 days, but the real insight was around the topic of category design.

After addressing some tactical elements, Christopher Lochhead wrote this:

In the 1st 90 days strategically, partner with the CEO & exec team to create a category strategy by addressing:

- how we are taking control of the agenda in our space
- how we want the category to think about problems and solutions
- how to frame the problem
- create a provocative point of view that sets a new agenda and grab the attention of the space
- de-position all of our competition as the "from" and us as the "to"
- mobilize the whole company to become the category king & win

Legendary CMOs are category designers. They don't just do marketing within markets - they create the markets. Think Steve Jobs.

Christopher expands more on this idea (and brilliantly addresses the original question of a CMO's first-90-days priorities), in the original post: Marketing: As the newly hired Chief Marketing Officer, what should your agenda and goals be for the 1st 90 days? | Quora

This concept completely opened my eyes. As a self-taught marketer, I'd always been very focused on the tactical elements: Identifying the correct target audience, refining my messaging, figuring out the correct channels. I was starting to learn to build systems to improve everything—but the concept of category design really took things to the next level.

In talking with my clients, this is often the cause of the most essential breakthroughs. Even for a small company, the opportunity exists to position yourself as the leader by redefining the market.

One fun example of this is one of my favorite brands, Spikeball: They essentially invented their own game, but were actually limited in expanding it because their brand was the entire category. So, they invented the sport of “roundnet,” and helped to establish the International Roundnet Federation. This is opening up new distribution opportunities for them, including getting closer to one of their major goals: Spikeball / Roundnet played as an Olympic sport.

Admittedly, this is not the standard situation: In most cases, you aren’t the only product in your category. But in a more competitive industry, I'd say that this approach is even more important. By establishing (and ideally naming) the category, you create two particular opportunities.

  1. Instant monopoly — From a business strategy perspective, this is a natural extension of one of the most powerful concepts from Peter Thiel's book, Zero To One: The best businesses actually avoid competition and create their own space. If you shape the new category, you automatically give yourself a competitive advantage.
  2. Create a movement — Shaping the category is a natural opportunity for alignment around values. Good category definition is generally focused on a problem to be solved, which means that this approach is fundamentally inclusive, rather than exclusive. Partnerships become easier when you’re rallying around a cause, instead of just your particular business interests. Press coverage becomes more natural. Even customer acquisition will become easier, as you align your overall strategy around a broader 'why.'

In some ways, those two approaches are contrary to each other, so it really just depends on your organization's priorities and overall mission. But whatever you're doing, learning the power of category design will unlock an entirely new level of possibilities for your marketing and your entire organization.