It’s the category, stupid.

November 13, 2008

A leader brand should own a category not just a word.


The harsh reality is that consumers care more about categories than they do about brands. It is categories like rubber shoes, DVD rentals by mail, delivery pizza or hard-drive music players that get consumers excited. Not the brands Crocs, NetFlix, Domino’s or iPod.


The brand name is just short-hand for the category in the mind. Companies often believe that consumers fall in love with their brands when what they really fall in love with is their categories.


For just that reason, leaders many times become the generic for that category. The brand becomes a short-hand device for talking about and asking for a particular category.


Need an energy drink? You think and say Red Bull.

Thirsty for a cola? You think and say Coca-Cola.

Could use a facial tissue? You think and say Kleenex.

Want to go in-line skating? You think and say Rollerblading.


That is why leadership and new category creation are so important in branding. Getting your brand to be the first in the mind and the leader of a category that matters to consumers should always be your goal.


So what happens when consumers stop caring about your category? Your brand is in trouble. Big trouble.


Kodak is not in trouble because people don't love the Kodak brand anymore. Kodak is in trouble because people don't use conventional film cameras anymore. Moving Kodak to the digital category makes no sense at all.


A Kodak digital camera is like saying a film digital camera. It's an oxymoron.

When your brand owns a category in the mind and your category is in trouble, you need to launch a new brand. You can't save your brand by moving it to a new category.


Strong brands are bolted to the ship and if the ship is going down like the Titanic there is nothing you can do to stop it from going down. Better to spend your time and money on launching a new brand.


Sometimes your category is flat and you see potential new growth by moving your brand name into an adjacent but perhaps competitive category.


This is also very dangerous.


Why? Because if a brand stands for one category, then using that name on another category is confusing. It diminishes the significance of that brand in the mind.


It also undermines the brand in another way. Every brand needs an enemy. The leader in a category does not have an enemy in its own category; its enemy is usually competition from other categories.


McDonald's enemy is not Burger King; its enemy is eating at home. That is why "You deserve a break today" was such a powerful marketing message. It said don't eat at home; take the kids out to eat.


Introducing a line of frozen McDonald's hamburgers you could eat at home would be a terrible idea. Yet that is exactly the type of strategy many brands are using today.


Here are a few that I found particularly problematic.


V8 Soup


V8 owns "vegetable juice" in the mind. Over the last 75 years they have been telling us to have a V8 in order to meet our daily vegetable requirements.


But now V8 isn't just a juice; it is also a soup!


A vegetable juice has three main enemies: vegetable soup, vegetable supplements and eating no vegetables.


Juice is a whole food and much more convenient to consume than soup. They should play up that difference.


Introducing V8 soup is confusing. The idea of eating hot V8 juice is not very appealing. Soup is thick; juice is thin.



Mac & Cheese Crackers

Mac and cheese


Kraft owns "mac & cheese" in the mind. And while you can argue that line extensions like Kraft microwaveable mac & cheese might be a good idea. But expanding into cheese crackers is crazy!


It is crazy for two reasons. If kids are craving cheese, they can have cheese crackers or cheese pasta. Cracker brands need to promote crunch while pasta brands need to promote comfort. Two very different ideas.


Secondly, the cheese-cracker category is already dominated by a very strong brand: Cheez-Its.



TagHeuer cellphones

 Tag phone001 copy

One reason younger folks aren't wearing and buying as many watches is that they find them redundant. Since every self-respecting young adult has a cellphone attached to his/her pants or ear, he/she always has the time. Wearing a watch is no longer necessary.


TagHeuer owns the high-end sports watch category. But with sales flat and consumers using cellphones instead of watches to define status they are fighting back.


With a new watch marketing campaign? No. With a new $5,000 cellphone.


When under attack, you shouldn't let your brand fight on both sides of the battle. Instead of knocking out the enemy, you are more likely to just kill yourself.


TagHeuser is trying to fight two battles and they are losing both. They are losing the high-end watch battle to Rolex and they are also going to lose the high-end cellphone battle to Vertu.


The way to avoid these problems is to think category first, brand second.