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June 30, 2023
What category is your business? Let’s forget about your brand and brand story for a moment, which is a departure coming from me, I know. Instead, let’s focus on the category of your business. Are you a managed services provider (MSP)? A solutions provider (SP)? A systems integrator (SI)? A software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider? Or are you something else?
Are there other companies that share your category?
The answer to that last question is probably, “Yes, of course.” And if you look at the science of category design, that’s a problem. When you share a business category and attempt to differentiate your business from other competitive businesses, you will always be playing a game of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger when what you should really be striving for is Different.
Let’s jump into the Wayback Machine for a quick trip to 1999. The internet was in its early days and “systems integrators” were just beginning to support organizations that were applying new disruptive e-business and e-commerce strategies in their industries. Among those supporting players was Scient, whose chief marketing officer at the time was Christopher Lochhead. When I interviewed Lochhead for a channel magazine in October 1999, he told me that Scient was a “systems innovator” and that they had a unique point of view from other providers that allowed them to market their services as a differentiated, “first mover” in a sea of “smart movers” and wannabes.
Jump forward to today and Lochhead is a co-founder of a consulting group that calls itself Category Pirates. They share a common belief in category design through a series of blogs, e-books, podcasts, books and a newsletter. They’re not kidding around and they make a strong point. Your customers make purchasing decisions based on category first, followed by brand second. And if you can become the “category of one” you also become the standout brand in your category.
Stated differently, your employees, partners, customers and other stakeholders (including you) all begin their buyer’s journey starting with a category in mind, and then narrowing their filters to select a brand. And finally, a product or service under that brand.
Here’s an example: You’re looking to buy a “vehicle” and want to see what’s on the market using Kelley Blue Book. The first thing that you need to do is select the body style – the category – of vehicle you want to purchase. If you want a car, you look at sedans (which is the basic category). If you want a truck, you look at trucks. You do this before you start to narrow your filters – by condition, drive type, mileage, price – or make, model and trim. Unless you absolutely know that you want a specific vehicle – a Ford F-150 – you begin with the category.
It’s the same for B2B services and solutions. If a customer knows the name of the brand that provides a specific service they want, they will just go there directly. However, if they are searching for a new service, or a competitive change of service, then what they are looking for is a category. And it’s likely that the customer will search, review, consume and discuss content that focuses on them and their problems, rather than the big, shared category that contains and constrains you and your competitors.
How do you break the mold and define a new category? Begin with a little soul searching to find your right fit and right niche. Ask yourself and your team the following questions — and be brutally honest with your answers:
Who are we serving — by industry and titles?
What specific challenges are they facing (that you are 100% able to help them solve)?
What differentiated and valuable service, expertise or experience are you able to provide the customer beyond the actual service or technology that you are delivering?
How will customers’ businesses be different after working with your organization?
And now, what category will customers understand that you are providing these services under?
The team over at Category Pirates calls this “Framing, Naming and Claiming” your category to position it in the minds of your customers. For example, if you have answered these questions and clearly see that you are providing consultative expertise around security services for the nonprofit industry, then you can develop a category and begin to develop a marketing language that speaks to the needs and challenges of that community. Your customers are likely to search for a nonprofit security consultant rather than an MSP.
Only after you have developed this differentiated category can you begin the next phase of hard work developing your brand and brand story.
More articles from this author:
Arthur Germain is the principal and chief brandteller at Brandtelling. He has recently authored a book called "The Art of Brandtelling: Brand Storytelling for Business Success," available in paperback, Kindle and e-book formats. Visit TheArtofBrandtelling.com for information.
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