Three Lies About Your Product Category

I’ve previously written that category exists to help customers find you. This fundamental reality explains why creating a brand new category is so hard.

But if discoverability is the fundamental purpose of placing your product in a category, why do so many businesses hurt their sales by placing themselves in categories that actually make being discovered by customers harder?

Some of the reasons for category struggles are high class problems: things like company growth and an expanding product line. But at least some of the struggles I see around category have a different source – a set of common fallacies about what a product category is and isn’t supposed to do.

It may be a bit extreme to call these category fallacies lies, but they are certainly things a lot of businesspeople believe that IMHO are not true. Perhaps they’re lies we tell ourselves. These fallacies are insidious because it never even occurs to most of us to state them out loud or bring them up for examination. In this article, I want to put these lies on the table and hopefully smash them into tiny bits.

Lie 1: Your category should express everything you are

If you believe this lie, you’ll try to distort your category to encompass every aspect of your brand. Mistake! Anyone who has ever had to enter an SIC code for their business knows that there’s rarely a category bucket that feels exactly right. Does the category of “human being” encompass everything that makes you unique? Of course not. But it is a useful initial grouping that clearly distinguishes you from a dog or cat.

Lie 2: Your category should set you apart

Quite the opposite. Category isn’t the expression of your differentiation. Rather, it’s the kind of thing you are, from the perspective of a potential customer. A category should place you in a group of competitors that you want to be considered alongside. It is your chance to be the same first, so you can be different further along the buyer’s journey. For example, the category of “automobile” or even “pickup truck” does not encompass everything that makes a Rivian pickup different from a Chevy. Instead, it sets the stage for those distinctions by placing you in the bucket that customers are already shopping for. To win the list, you must first be on the list. Category is to get you there.

Lie 3: Your category must encompass 100% of your offering

As your company grows, you’ll likely “break” your category with additional products and services that go beyond it. That’s fine, but don’t change your stated category too quickly. If 95% of your revenue comes from cars and 5% from tractors, don’t suddenly define yourself as a “things with motors” company. You’ll confuse 95% of prospects without providing much help to the other 5%. Aim at the center mass of your customer base by keeping your category dead obvious for as long as you possibly can.

These fallacies all have a common root. We ask too much of category. We ask it to sell our product, when its purpose is actually just to help customers find our product so that the selling can begin.

Have questions about your category, or any aspect of your brand message? Get in touch.