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Jennifer Johnson discusses her next step as a Category Designer.

Whether you are a high-growth startup or an established brand, the need to change the game in a crowded and noisy market is rapidly becoming the modern challenge of the modern company. And the CMO is right in the middle of this storm.

I have spent nearly two decades in enterprise software marketing and have seen category design done right, as well as the challenges operationalizing it. I believe category design is the missing link in the CMO’s arsenal - articulating a problem that didn’t exist before and conditioning an entire market to adopt a new and different way of working or living. And those who embrace it will win in this new era. That’s why I’m so thrilled to be working with the Play Bigger team, legendary CMOs turned coaches and advisors who literally wrote the book on this emerging discipline, as its first category designer in residence.

My roots as a CMO started in product marketing where I saw the impact of category design first-hand. While at Mercury and then HP, I was fortunate to work with and learn from one of the best in the industry, Michel Feaster, a brilliant product leader turned founder/CEO. Mercury had launched Business Technology Optimization (BTO) as the category and anchor for the company strategy and vision, and Michel taught me how to apply these same principles at the product level and how a well-crafted point of view serves as the anchor for positioning and product strategy: framing the problem, outlining the capabilities required to solve the problem (which only your product has), and in the process de-positioning or boxing out the competition.

We launched Business Service Automation, a product category within the BTO category umbrella, which evangelized the need to automate change and compliance in a coordinated manner across the entire business service - servers, network, storage devices, and end-user clients. It was a great example of product category design done right. We conditioned the market to buy into the notion of automating processes across the business service vs. in siloes, and in the process boxed out any competitor who didn’t have a comprehensive solution.

It enabled the field to sell higher in the organization with a business vs. tool focused message. It even drove product strategy in the form of partnerships and an acquisition to fill in the product gaps required to fulfill the vision. On the last point, we didn’t have every capability to fulfill the product vision on day 1. Michel taught me that you need to lead the market, because IT executives purchase technology based on vision, not just what you can do today. The product category and point of view enabled us to articulate this vision.

My product marketing foundation served me well as I moved up into the CMO seat, first at Coverity and then at Tanium. Both companies had a strong technical DNA so it was necessary to translate the technology innovation into a narrative which frames the problem, why the old way of solving the problem is no longer sufficient, and how the company uniquely solves it with a new approach.

For Coverity, it was articulating the business impact of testing for software defects in QA - or worse, in the field - and the benefit of testing the code as it is written in development (Development Testing). For Tanium, it was framing the problem around the latency of legacy tools, and because cyber attacks now happen within minutes or hours, IT needs to know what’s happening across the enterprise and act on it within seconds. Not to mention all of the new things that are now possible with access to instantaneous data (15-Second Endpoint Visibility and Control).

Both were successful in articulating a problem that was deemed unsolvable with current tools and processes, conditioning the market to accept this new approach with a defensible position against the competition, and in the process defining a new category or reviving a stagnant category. In retrospect, what I now realize is that a well-crafted point of view and narrative is only one part of the category design equation. It has to be aligned with the company - embraced from the top down and ingrained into the culture - as well as in lockstep with the product strategy.

These may not be areas that the CMO has control or influence over within the organization. For example, if the category vision is widely disconnected from the product reality and there isn’t a clear path to fill the product gaps, then the sales team will revert back to what they can sell today and the category falls flat. If the category and company are misaligned, it may be because the CMO isn’t in a position to drive the change required internally. In many cases this means moving an entire executive team and founders from what they think is the right answer to a new place. The ability to drive the category design process isn’t a function of a lack of experience or expertise. It’s a function of the CMO’s role within the team.

Category design also creates a framework for the CEO and the CMO to align around. The CMO can better capture and synthesize the founder/CEO’s vision and insight into the problem and the market, and the CEO can more clearly see the direct translation of this vision and insight into marketing strategy and execution. Between Coverity and Tanium, I spent a year as a partner in the market development team at Andreessen Horowitz. As part of my role, I worked with the enterprise portfolio company founder/CEOs and CMOs on go-to-market strategy and I spoke with dozens of company founder/CEOs to help them crystallize the profile of their first marketing executive hire.

Through this process I saw a common pattern emerge. CMOs with product marketing backgrounds were the best fit in earlier stage, high-growth startups, especially those with technical founders. This is for many of the reasons I’ve already discussed, but what I now realize these founders were really asking for was a person who could translate their vision and insight into a differentiated yet consumable message and condition the market to accept this vision as the new way forward. Or in other words, they wanted a person who could define a category that matters and put their company in a position to dominate it over time, disrupting the incumbents and the status quo in the process.

After looking at this problem both from the inside-out in an operating role and from the outside-in in an advisory role, I clearly see how a category design framework helps to create a common language that the CEO, CMO, and the rest of the executive team can align around, bridging the gaps that naturally exist when you bring together individuals from different backgrounds and functional expertise.

Whatever the next step in my CMO journey entails, I’m mastering the skills to become a category design jedi master. I believe category design will transcend the role of the CMO and in the process create two camps of marketing executives: strategic business leaders who can drive the category design process through an organization and re-shape the market - and tactical functional leaders. I’m increasing my odds of success in the first camp. Which camp do you want to be in?

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