Challenging a brand category

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Sectors have conventions. In fact, a brand category is really a set of vertically-held behaviours and attitudes. That’s what you’re really confronting when you set about challenging a brand category.

As Paige Lansing Valle of Emotive Brand identifies in a white paper on brand category creation, “People hold on tightly to their established understandings of what a category is and what it offers. Choosing the right category is about defining, or framing, what people are buying in such a way that your value shines through.”

If you think about it, fast-fashion clothing brands operate in particular ways, whether they recognise that commonality or not. So do airlines, insurance companies, banks, tech companies, professional services firms and more. Many of these behaviours and attitudes are so embedded, they are regarded as close to sacrosanct.

It’s completely understand why sectors do this. It forms common ways of working and thinking. It enables integration and synergy.

Four ways to frame brand categories

There are a range of ways to think about brand categories:

  • By type: usually identified as three types – corporate brand, FCMG/CPG brands, personal/celebrity brand
  • By industry: car brands, fitness brands, medical products …
  • By audience: within a supply chain, business to business/trade/government, direct to consumer
  • By country: Japanese brands, Scandinavian brands, Italian brands

Depending on your chosen method of categorisation, the range and volume of participants can be huge. For example, take a look at this list of all the sub-categories that sit within FCMG. Jason Vaught characterises the category as comprising everyday products with a short shelf life. A key component for success is a “well-functioning supply chain encompassing raw material procurement, manufacturing, distribution and retailing”. To make that happen, these brands not only need a seamless supply chain, they also rely on advertising to gain attention, build demand and grow market share.

That definition sets up a range of challenge opportunities. For example, if you were wanting to challenge this brand category, you might look for opportunities in how to get the brand to market, you might choose to advertise it differently or you might re-set the raw material basis for the product to make it more sustainable, affordable, desirable etc

So while there are a range of ways to think about brand categories, how you choose to group a category is important. That decision sets up the basis for how you intend your challenge.

When should you challenge a brand category?

Your reasons for choosing to challenge a category can also vary hugely. As Paige Lansing Valle has identified:

  • You may be looking to revitalise a category that has fallen out of favour by changing how it is labelled
  • You may be looking to build on a current understanding, but add new opportunities or ideas as competitive mandates. To do this, you may have to modify, redefine or redescribe a current category
  • You may be known in a category, but be looking to change your strategic direction or model. To do this, you may want to take ownership of a new category or rebuild what you’re associated with
  • You may have created a category-breaker
  • The category as it exists is simply too competitive, too commoditised or undifferentiated

Of course, the most important things to recognise are the conventions/expectations that exist within the category you have identified. Which of these will you keep, which will you look to modify and which are you looking to reject? Recognising these though is just the first step in a successful brand category challenge.

Known or unknown customer need?

In our pre-strategy framework The Brand Definition Funnel, we also draw a clear distinction between a brand category that caters to a known need and one that establishes a new (and unmet) customer need. In the case of the former, you are probably bringing a variation to the market that customers will at least recognise. The latter is more difficult, because you are asking people to buy into a new product in a new category to meet a need they may or may not even understand.

This won’t be easy

Some things are too big to fight. If you’re planning to redefine a whole category for example, then, unless you’re already a market leader, plan on a big outlay and a long runway. You’re literally battling the millions others have already invested to define what it is, what it means, who it’s for, where it’s found, who the key brands are, what the products generally cost and so much more.

If your competitive advantage is predicated on breaking one of those fundamentals, be very aware of the fight you’re buying:

  • You’re battling the pigeonhole that your supply chain will want to put you in;
  • You’re fighting the expectation that your customers automatically have of you;
  • You’re asking for the competition to diss you as unimportant or uninformed; and
  • If you somehow beat all that, and manage to get established, you just pressed the GO button for a whole bunch of imitators to copy your IP and innovation

Here’s the irony. If you’re going to enter/change a category, you must provide the market with enough for them to recognise, but at the same time, you must clearly differentiate your product.

*Why* is critical to a successful category challenge

The most important thing if you are looking to challenge a brand category is to really understand why. Why is this change needed? What difference will it make? How does it create unprecedented value? Will customers understand it? Where do they access it? When is the best time to introduce this category-breaker to market?

To get this right, make sure you develop a compelling Customer Value Proposition – or talk to someone like Audacity about doing that for you.

The innovation question is not what are you looking to be, what are you going to invent or even what are you looking to change? It’s – what will your prospects recognise as needing to change, will they welcome that change fast enough and in sufficient quantities, and how much change will you need to generate internally (in terms of systems, skills, offerings and mindsets) to make that happen?

Don’t just sell the brand category

The temptation to avoid is selling the category rather than selling your brand. As this Arcature post reminds us, Campbell Soup’s “Soup is good food” campaign was great for their competitor Progresso and Kellogg’s campaign about the benefits of breakfast worked wonders for Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Unless you can put your brand at the very heart of what makes your established or new category, you are throwing good money at generic messages that others may benefit from.

Arcature gives the example of Peloton, and their celebration of the importance of movement. It’s a good association, but what they haven’t done is link movement as a benefit to their specific brand of movement. “It is mystifying that Peloton does not appear to want us to know why we should move with Peloton rather than from the array of competitive offerings of in-home fitness,” Arcature observes.

Completely agree. Even when you are introducing a new idea to the market, you must link your brand with that category in ways that make the two inseparable.

Make a plan to challenge your brand category

Balancing what your customers are looking for and what they are expecting is critical to successfully challenging a brand category in order to define your future. We’ve worked in the full range of sectors over the years which means we are well acquainted with what is seen as business-as-usual for different brands operating across an economy. If you’re looking to break the model, build new ways of doing things or bring a whole new brand category to market, find out more about how we can help you develop a Plan to Thrive.

Photo by Raymond Francisco on Unsplash

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