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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Craft Topics – Category Marketing

Category Marketing

Witnessing the flurry of royal activity with the funeral of the Queen Mother got me pondering about the differences between brand and category marketing. When you got past the headline Everyone’s best friend since 1901 (?!) it became pretty obvious that the Royal Family were using the demise of one of the strongest cards in their hand to remind us that deep down we were all royals. In other words they were building up the category in order to ensure that their individual brands: Charles, Wills and all the rest of them had some currency.

Marketing people spend so much time building brands it is worth considering how category building fits into all this. Do categories build themselves? Or can they be ignored because the health of a category derives from what their resident brands happen to be doing at the time? It’s a key question because I suspect very few marketers DO think about the vitality about their category even if it is the category which largely determines the residual levels of spontaneous product awareness and a lot of the trust. Look at financial services!

Brands can’t exist without categories. Remember the heady days of the internet boom where the phone was ringing daily with bushytailed internet entrepreneurs flush with VC capital needing to advertise by the weekend to assure the next round of funding. And the product briefing was almost always the same. What’s your competition? To be met by the smiling “Oh we’re unique, we’re filing patents we think we have an 18 month lead on everyone”.  So off the agency would trot to develop advertising to establish a brand around a unique product. But without a category a product disappears. It is almost impossible to sell.

What they needed to do was to work together, to find competitors and create a market. It was the multiplication of websites and web products with no way of organising them in one’s head that proved fatal. First the category then the products with distinct benefits then a brand which provides reassurance and intangible reasons to buy and keep on buying. Super nova internet brands like Amazon and Yahoo proved to be quite simple. Amazon was a book seller without bookshops. Yahoo was the first place your browser went to when you logged on the web plus an online directory. Hardly mould breaking stuff was it?

The art of Category Marketing Japanese style

The Japanese are the masters of category marketing. The post war industrial strategy of Japan inc pointed several manufacturers at each major product category supported by the banks and financial houses. In fact Honda was told not to make cars since there were already enough manufacturers and the addition of another might create instability. Johanssen and Nonaka’s great book Relentless (now unfortunately out of print) introduces the concept of churn as competitors looked to each rather than the customer to provide a constant stream of new product features. The result as Relentless documents is standardisation, greatly reduced component costs, and an audience which doesn’t need masses of advertising because communications for any one brand communicate the features you can find on all the others.

There is a memorable but apocryphal story that in the 1980s a Japanese drinks company launched an orange juice brand on the proposition that the product only contained juice and was forced to withdraw the advertising after competitors complained that it was not fair to make unique claims!

It would be worth reviewing every piece of communications and asking the question What contribution does this make to the category and what contribution does it make to the brand? Ironically so much brand activity is rationalised as being differentiated and unique when most of it is generic. Which is a big issue when we’re all so over communicated to that we filter out everything. But category building communications is not per se a bad thing. In fact it is possible for the savvy brand manager to beat the system. I remember in 1999 when I was working on Going Place, they opted to not advertise in the key January advertising period when 80% of the TV spend in the category ran. Relying instead on their long running sponsorship of Blind Date. Holiday advertising on is so generic that Going Place secured highest branded recall without having spent a penny on television advertising! The following year however they were back advertising with a vengeance. Despite the proven success of letting their competitors advertise for them they couldn’t stand being out of it for another year. And by this time they had cancelled their sponsorship as well.  I now regret not having tried harder to submit a non advertising effectiveness casestudy  to win an IPA advertising effectiveness award!

So top tip to marketers – spend at least as much time on developing your category as developing your brand. You need both to be healthy.



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