Why Does Category Matter?

How you choose to position yourself within your category can make all the difference.

We can’t afford to make all our decisions for ourselves.

We don’t have the time to spend evaluating every decision we make in detail. If we had to make every choice we face each day based on all the available, empirical evidence and a thorough analysis then life as we know it would quickly grind to a creaking halt.

So instead we make most of our decisions instinctively. We use mental reference points to help us shortcut the process, based on our experiences and our emotions.

Category context enables us to focus in.

That’s where the concept of category comes into play. We all put products and services into particular categories – most obvious in a supermarket aisle where, for example, all the cleaning products are shelved together. But the same mental models exist in every industry.

Categories are great for customers, because they help them zone in quickly on a potential range of solutions. And they can be great for organisations too, as they provide a ready-made context in which to position a product or service.

It’s critical to get the relationship with the category right.

At opposite ends of the spectrum there are two different traps to fall into.

The first is to tell nothing more than the category story. When you don’t have a distinctive point of view within your category – whatever it is – all that happens is you blend into the background and get lost in the noise. You’re just saying the things that anyone could say and most probably are saying. You have to understand the category story to know how you’re going to claim your own space within it.

The second trap is to go completely off-category in a bid to be way more distinctive than all your competitors. In this scenario, well-established category reference points, the very things that help customers, are either ignored or actively rejected. It’s rare that a product or service comes along that redefines a category and, even rarer still, creates a new category. Trying to be different just for the sake of it can be counter-productive and damaging.

You need to be familiar and different to varying degrees.

The challenge is to make sure you understand your category and find the right ways to tell a familiar enough story that people can quickly get what you’re offering them, while making sure your story is compelling and meaningful enough to convince them that of all the choices they have, yours offers the best value. And value more often than not does not always come down to cost alone. Some businesses choose to position themselves more closely with their category, some choose to stretch out of it as much as they can.

The bottom line is that businesses can’t afford to think about their products and services in isolation of the category in which they operate, because their customers don’t.