How to redefine a product category

Ryan Singer has written a really thoughtful post on product categories: The Category Moat.

His thesis is that product categories, those artificial groups that products get put in (for better or worse), are troublesome for innovators. He says:

“It’s natural to identify with a product category. You think “we make product management software” or “we make candy bars” because you have to explain yourself over and over. It’s always easier to use available categories than to invent new ones. It’s just like language. We speak the lexicon instead of inventing words.

But for people who want to innovate, this is a problem. Identifying with a product category is outsourcing your strategy to the past.

Should your product be in an existing category?

The reason, Singer says, is that the world really isn’t carved up into nice durable categories. He shares a story from Bob Moesta, one of the proponents of JTBD.

“Bob tells the story of a clock maker. They sell an alarm clock for small kids who started sleeping in their own room. It’s not a normal alarm clock. It has an arrow that points to whether the kid is supposed to be in bed or whether he is allowed to get up. That way he doesn’t go running into his parents’ room until after a reasonable hour.

If you think this product is a clock then it’s in the clock category in the clock aisle with a clock price. But parents who bought the clock said they would pay $100 or more for it because it keeps the kid out of their room. It’s a sleep protector.

This is a common response to product categories…try not to get pigeon-holed by them. When designing your product you want to stand out from the crowd and align with the job to be done, not the accepted category, so don’t accept the walls created by the category. And one way to do this would be to create a new product category…in this case something called a “sleep protector”.

New product categories are hard

Here is the rub. Trying to create a new product category is insanely hard. Not only do you have to build an amazing product and figure out how to deliver it, you have to come up with an entire new way to position it in the marketplace. And the reason why this is so hard is because you want your product to be seen as an amazing thing the world has never seen before, but in doing so you make it really hard to compare with an existing product. Your instincts tell you to be completely different from everything that came before…but when you do that you burden the market with figuring out what the heck you actually are.

Instead, one should attempt to redefine an existing category by changing what value the best products in the category provide (and people’s perceptions of that value). Let’s go back to the clock example. Imagine trying to explain what that new device is without using the term “alarm clock”…without using the accepted lexicon that makes the category. It would be really hard, right? Even Singer uses the term several times when he explains it.

How to position your product

That’s the key to positioning your product within a category. It’s a two step process:

  1. Place the product in an existing category.
  2. Immediately tell how your product is different.

In this case, you start by saying “this is a new alarm clock”. This uses the existing category as a frame of reference people use to immediately grok the general nature of your product. Then, and you have to do this immediately, state exactly how your product is different from others in the category. “This isn’t a normal alarm clock, it has an arm that points to when a child can leave their room”. That’s how you first create understanding and then differentiation. It’s a two step process done in consecutive, immediate steps. And it’s the best way to get people to understand your product.

Note that this isn’t redefining a product category…yet. That happens when your product becomes successful and other products are redesigned or marketed to follow suit. When there is actual change and people start thinking about the category differently (not just your product) then you can say to have redefined the category. If you position your product powerfully and this happens as a result of your new product then you will likely grow to be the leader of the redefined category.

Comparison is key

People learn by comparison. They learn by comparing new things to the things they already know. That’s why redefining a category is much easier than creating a new one. When you position your product in an existing category you’re essentially saying “it’s like something you already know but better”. When you try to create a new product category you’re essentially saying “it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before”. That’s a provocative statement, but hard to learn by.

I think it’s risky to say “this isn’t a clock so it should be in a different part of the store”. That would only be a good idea if there was an actual separate category for sleep protectors, but there isn’t…yet. So for now you actually want the product in/near the alarm clock section because the people shopping there have the same job to be done! Of course you still want to position your product as a much better solution than all the other products nearby. (and a great way to do that is how Singer did it: “This is not a normal alarm clock”. Anybody who reads that line will now give you their full attention…especially desperate parents)

The most successful products redefine a category

Also, an aside about JTBD examples. There are some interesting examples out there but think about the really killer products of the last few years. How about the Nest thermostat? Uber? The iPod/iPhone? WhatsApp? None of these products were in new categories…they debuted as amazing improvements in existing categories. And for each of them it is much easier to explain what they are using the two step process I mentioned above. Uber is a taxi service with an awesome mobile experience. Nest is a thermostat with a brain. The iPhone is probably the most sophisticated example but was described by Apple as three products in one: a phone, a web communicator (Safari), and the best iPod yet. Talk about leveraging existing categories!

Product categories are restrictive if you use them for inclusion or exclusion only. If you instead use them as starting point to orient customers and to show differentiation you can quickly teach people why your product is different. That way you’re taking advantage of the power of existing categories and also siphoning off the existing audience who is already thinking in that way. So don’t start from scratch and try to create a new category…instead try to redefine a product category to take advantage of what people already know.

Published: March 5th, 2014

Hi there. So...I'm trying an experiment. I'm experimenting with product design and growth hacking strategies on a new project called What to Wear. It's a super simple service that sends you a daily email containing clothing recommendations based on the weather. My focus is to make it really useful, and it's free to sign up. Let me know what you think!