But first, I’ll step back a bit to share where we started in this context. Even before James Clark and I co-founded Room 214 in 2004, we were both collaborating and highly involved with companies who were outselling their competitors. To us, the goal of these companies being category leaders in their industries was an unspoken expectation.
We never had the language or intentional expression for work that squarely centered on category leadership as the key objective. Instead, we were content to focus on best practices in online PR and digital marketing. This was the means of helping businesses grow, in part, because we were doing something radically different.
At that time, The Cluetrain Manifesto (with its most popular thesis, “markets are conversations”) was the book inspiring our own, unique point of view. It was our north star for how we were helping companies win in their industries – especially when social media was emerging as a new form of organic, word of mouth marketing.
We weren’t the only early adopters bringing Cluetrain concepts into modern marketing practices, but most would-be competitors were either unequipped or unwilling to follow the lead. For us, that meant more opportunity.
So we built our business by working around the bleeding edge of social media and digital marketing platforms. It was a new breed of marketing agency, and we got busy. So busy, the original (Cluetrain) concepts that got us there became very back-of-mind.
Before we knew it, ten years had gone by. Our once-unique services lost all novelty. We found ourselves in a race to be better than others, all doing the same things. Oh, we loved to talk about how we were the first, but that mattered less and less.
Fast forward to 2016. Frankly, at this point, we were getting pretty sick of the digital marketing and social media echo chamber. Clients were building internal marketing and communications teams of people that had skills once difficult to find.
So many agencies came on the seen, that a new category of consultants emerged to help them grow. It had become a cottage industry. What we had built our business on suddenly felt commoditized. Regardless of our unique experience, we were looking and sounding like everyone else doing what we were doing. Then we came across Play Bigger.
This was our introduction to category design as a formal “discipline.” Wikipedia category design definition: a business strategy and discipline that helps companies create, develop, and dominate new categories of products and services.
Even twenty years ago, the authors (Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, Kevin Maney) were sharing experiences similar to ours – but with a different direction. As both an inspiration and partial blueprint for creating our own growth studio category, their book, in some ways, become our new Cluetrain.
As a result, Room 214 practically endorses this book as a mandatory read for its team members. Regardless of how you perceive the authors, some of what they share is simply remarkable. And some of it we disagree with too:
The Category King Economy (Part 1 of 3)
The book is divided into three parts, the first of which is focused on introducing the concepts of “category king” and category design. The authors’ study of companies that are “category kings” include insightful interviews with founders. The key concepts that stand out for us are:
- Category kings are everywhere, and it’s nothing new. These are the companies that play bigger than others (“create, develop, and dominate”).
- Companies that are category kings don’t just sell better things. They create different things that make more sense to the market than anything else (“disruption is a by-product, not a goal”).
- Category kings create value over time, and typically get more attention than others as a result. They enjoy a flywheel of benefits, often having greater access to (and more) data than their competitors.
- Category Design is a game of luck and skill. It’s not just about the product/service, but the experience. The domain of category design includes an all-at-once approach to creating a great product, company and category.
- Category Design is a cognitive strategy. Understanding cognitive biases is also understanding how the brain makes shortcuts in decision making. Category kings change the way people think, which changes the way they buy.
- The successful creation of a new category (and category king) is validated by customers who crown the king. Interestingly, the new category itself, can also crown the king. For example, imagine you develop new terminology to define something that gets picked up by the likes of Gartner. The category now takes on a momentum of its own, as others adopt, write or talk about it. They all point to you as the lead source.
- Category design is a discipline that includes conditioning the market to demand what you offer. It is also a journey of shifts (from_____, to _____, or as the authors call it, frotos)
Opinion: The defining concept inspired from this book for us is the pursuit of being different, not better. In fact, at Room 214, we’ve developed our entire point of view around this.
As a discipline, we believe the authors’ definition of category design is too broad – from being inclusive of company culture to the entire product/experience ecosystem. We agree and appreciate where they are coming from in principle, recognizing the necessity of coherence among category, company, and product.
However, not enough pages can be written to qualify a discipline that includes everything they state as category design. Yes, the inventor is at liberty to define his invention as he likes – but it’s almost like calling rocket science a discipline.
We’d rather say there are multiple, interconnected disciplines (branches of knowledge) in the field of category design – not a single discipline called category design. The distinction matters because a collection of processes for problem solving is more applicable to a narrow focus or practice than it is to a complex system (i.e. the interworking of category, company and product).
The Category King Playbook (Part 2)
We love how-to books, especially when they don’t relate to algorithms that are always changing. The key outstanding concepts in this section include:
- Category Discovery: there is a process for helping determine what the world is missing. Frequently, an important insight isn’t pursued to the extent it can be. Converting an insight into a plan worthy of a category is the objective.
- The five steps to “category discovery and expression” include documenting the work – which among other items, addresses where the category fits, and a draft plan of how the company can create and lead the category
- Interviews: as part of the fact finding, interviews of internal business leaders and outside advisors include a wide range of questions – from initial insight and vision to who will buy, business model and more
- Creating a Point of View (POV): this includes a 5-step process that culminates in the crafting of a story that is “distributed, evangelized, and mobilized”
- Implementation (“lightning strike”): implementation is carried out by what the authors’ refer to as a lightning strike (a 6-step process outlined in the book). In their words, it is ”an all-consuming event” that is “meant to explode onto the market, grab the attention of customers, investors, analysts, and media…” It is the antithesis of what they refer to as “traditional, peanut butter marketing,” or “pointless vanilla.” It’s a long-term plan for a major company (not marketing) event.
- Mobilization, Gravity and Zeds: The authors offer 7 steps for mobilizing around the lightning strike. They caution about “gravity,” which is the day-to-day work that pulls people away from focusing and implementing on what’s most important. They also refer to “Zeds” as the people who inevitably misalign with the vision, undermine leadership, and sabotage plans.
Opinion: The greatest action item we took from this book was the creation of our own POV. When developed as a story, some might conclude it’s simply another name for a “brand narrative.” It’s actually much more than that.
A company’s documented POV is the essence from which all strategy is articulated, rallied around, and ultimately carried out. Transparently, we used an example POV in the book as a starting template. It’s short, concise, easily understood… and took months to create.
Where we see things differently than the authors relates to the lightning strike concept. This is a tough one because we agree with so much of the reasoning around why you’d build this into a plan. As our roots are in digital marketing, we don’t like the idea of constant “peanut butter marketing” either.
Clearly, a giant event to shake the world around your category can be achieved, but expectations should always be in check with this. I’ll share some of our experience to elaborate further.
My co-founding partner, James, used to be President of a high-tech PR firm. He worked with large companies you’ve definitely heard of, and was often expected to help coordinate lightning strike-like events that included leveraging other events like the annual, Consumer Electronics Show.
We totally get the context of the promotional activity in the book is different when considering the full focus of a company for months vs. an internal PR team working with an external firm for weeks. Still, his experience was with well funded organizations who were emerging category leaders ready and willing to wake up the world.
The by-product of his success was often a combination of popular TV show coverage, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, NY Times, the list goes on. Web traffic would dramatically spike, often causing problems with the hosting servers or network. Sales went up. Celebrations were had, with no shortage of high fives and pats on the back.
Then it would end. Sometimes in as little as 48 hours, it was as if nothing happened. Victories were often short lived, and no matter how much coordination was taking place in anticipation of this – it became clear that most companies were either not up to, or capable of, the work it takes to sustain at least some of the ground gained after the landing.
James eventually coined the term, “the placement crash.” Like a lightning strike, it would come with great power, then quickly vanish. For some, it played a game-changing roll. For most, it didn’t.
In summary, we love the idea of a lightning strike – but would highly caution any organization that believes they can plan and execute one in a way that will effectively elevate their position as a category leader.
We believe a lightning strike is one way to break away from the noise, but there are others. Your pursuit of being different, and not just better, is synonymous with assuming higher levels of risk. So if you are going to push all the chips in for your lightning strike(s), just be sure you still have the resources to “buy back in” or, get back in the game if you lose (pick your favorite gambling analogy).
The Enduring Category King (Part 3)
The final section of the book provides a vision for the future, positioning category design as a never-ending journey. Key outstanding concepts include:
- Category kings enjoy a virtuous cycle of momentum, a flywheel effect that reinforces their position and opportunity to expand their category. At the heart of this is their unique POV, and an ongoing flow of lightning strikes.
- “Category harvesting” is about getting the most out of the category king, without necessarily expanding the category. This is the kind of activity that’s more about maintenance and slow, iterative growth.
- Nielsen’s analysis of 20,000 products from 2008 to 2014 showed that larger/older corporations produced less than half a percent (only 74) of products considered to have a sustained level of success. Play Bigger contends that category design is a solution for improving the odds these companies face.
- In the context of “continuous category creation,” the authors give credit to other thought leaders and management thinkers, including Jim Collins, Clay Christensen, Peter Drucker, and Geoffrey Moore.
Opinion: This book had some seriously great, deep thought and collaboration. I’ve heard some people comment that the attitude coming through is a little crass – maybe due to the casual dropping of f-bombs. I chalk it up as inspiration, experience and the passion behind what they’ve come up with together.
It was also interesting to read about category design as a personal endeavor, not just for one’s business. As I personally reflect on Room 214’s last 15 years in business, I have to admit I’m excited to be back on the side of different again. How does different, not just better make sense for you? Are you being positioned or are you the one doing more of the positioning? Are you ready to play bigger?