Designing a Category


John is the VP of Marketing at BlockSpaces, a B2B integration platform, and the Founder and Category Design Consultant for B2B Tech at Flag and Frontier. He also co-hosts the #CategoryCreation series on the B2B Growth Show podcast. In this guide, he explains how to use category design to capitalize on unclaimed market territory and to help prospects evaluate your product using advantageous criteria.

Table of Contents

What does it mean to design a category?

Category designers change the terms of competition businesses tend to operate in a kind of paradigm where they’re trying to convince people that they’re better than their competition and that’s very appropriate in a lot of situations. Category design is when you step outside of those bounds. The conversation isn’t about whether you’re better or worse than another product. Category designers are solving a different problem or have such a different approach that customers can’t compare what they’re doing to existing solutions in the marketplace. 

A category is centered around a common problem for example, every CRM is designed to solve the same problem (which is to make it easier to keep track of your contacts and your leads). Category design seeks out a problem that hasn’t yet been solved or it seeks out a problem where there’s such a different way of solving it that it demands an evaluation as a separate category.

What’s the difference between category design and category creation?

Category design is ongoing – sometimes when people talk about category creation, they mean Category with a capital “C”: a Category that someone like G2 or Gartner has designated. Category design isn’t just getting a new category designated in some official taxonomy; it’s really about what you do as a business and how you’re separating yourself from your competitors. 

What are the business reasons for investing in category design?

People like to think in categories if you’ve built something and taken it in such a different direction that you don’t have a great way to describe what you do to people, a new category may help. People are always going to take a mental shortcut and lump you into another category that they’re familiar with. If those other categories aren’t representative of what you do, then that’s going to hurt you because they’re going to be evaluating you on the wrong metrics and they won’t be clear on the problem you can help them solve. 

To find unclaimed territory – when you’re starting from scratch, either as a new startup or an existing company that has a new product in development, you might not have seen any fruitful opportunities to enter existing markets because they’re crowded or they’re commoditized. The question you can ask yourself is, “what opportunities do we see in the world where there are problems that aren’t being solved, or where people are solving a problem with the wrong approach?” The best way to think about it is, you can either try and invade another country, or you can explore and find some land that no one else has claimed yet. Both can work, but it depends on how well those territories are occupied, what your own strengths are, and how much unclaimed territory you can uncover. 

For what type of companies does investing in category design make sense?

You do need to have time and money for category design to play out – category design isn’t just for big name VC-backed companies, but if you’re a bootstrapped startup and you’re just trying to get your business off the ground, then you’re not necessarily going to have a lot of runway to evangelize a new market.

Culturally, you need to be patient and confident – sometimes it can take weeks, months, or even years to understand why this problem is worth solving and to understand why your solution adds value. You also need to have courage and confidence for what you’re about. There will always be people who tell you that it’s a bad idea, and you have to know what you’re pursuing is the right thing. Other people don’t have all the same information as you, or they’re possibly biased. Your investors and your board need to be a part of the process. If they have this expectation of a certain ramp in revenue time to profitability that isn’t aligned with category design, then that’s not going to work out well for you either. 

Who runs the process and who should be involved?

Marketing often coordinates, but it has to be a team effort – there’s no one person who’s only allowed to do category design. It affects every department in your company, so it usually requires the involvement of every department in your company. 

What are the steps in the process of designing a category?

Step 1: Decide to pursue category design – get your CEO and your leadership team on board with the process. You have to take the time to make everyone feel good about where you’re headed. 

Step 2: Define the problem you’re solving and the audience – this could be the most important step because the problem, and the way you define the problem, is the foundation for everything else that comes through your design process. Have discussions with your current customers on what they think you’re helping them do, and what problem they hired you to solve for them. Have discussions with your team about why you started the company, along with what problem you’ve been trying to solve then and since then.

Criteria for a strong category definition:

  • It should generate a “that’s right” response from the person hearing it.
  • It needs to identify the problem itself, not a symptom of the problem.
  • It must always be a villain. It cannot be a “good guy” in other contexts.
  • It can’t be so broad that it feels vague, abstract, or unsolvable.
  • It must not be so specific that the resulting addressable market is too small.
  • It should be described by the way your customers (not you) talk about it.
  • It must be a problem you can actually solve.
  • The problem must cause your customers significant pain.
  • Existing solutions must be incomplete or non-existent.

Step 3: Create a category story (point of view) – a narrative that shows the world why this category needs to exist, and where this new category is taking the world. The structure normally follows this format: in the past, your problem looked like X, and here’s what was happening as a result. With this new category, that’s no longer the case. Instead, this is what the future is going to look like. You’re showing that your category is bridging old ways of the past and is presenting a solution for the future. You might share this externally, but it’s really a broader message that will work its way into your sales and marketing collateral. 

Step 4: Name the category – people tend to get hung up on this, but it tends to be the least important piece of the process. You’re just using the category name to point people in the right direction and cause a question mark to go off in customers’ heads. 

Step 5: Get your team onboard, culminating in an internal launch – you have to do this before you present your category to the world because this will represent a big shift in the way your company looks at the world and how you’re going to do business. This step takes place in parallel with a lot of the other work. Have an internal launch where you share this vision for the category with your team in a high-profile way. 

Step 6: Make it real – in your product roadmap, messaging, visual identity etc. Ask yourself if your product roadmap and messaging support the vision you’ve set out to build with the category and do they fit with your visual identity? Be sure to put together a messaging framework that gives your team guidance on how to talk about this category. 

Step 7: Define the segments or markets you’ll focus on – you need to decide who you’re going to hone in on before you start taking your message to market. You don’t want to waste your efforts evangelizing this category with people that you don’t really want to focus on selling to. 

Step 8: Evangelizing the category externally – there are two main ways to do this (do both):

  • “Lightning strikes”- high profile marketing campaigns designed to break through all the other noise and get people to sit up and pay attention and think differently about the topic that your category already addresses. This could be an ad campaign, product launch, book launch, or a rebrand. The point is to do something worth paying attention to or writing about in the press so people will start to think differently about this problem.
  • Ongoing evangelization – assuming you have a blog and a social media presence, what kind of content do you need to create to start talking about this category? Consider how your website is going to reflect your new category and how you’re going to introduce this category language into your ad campaigns.

How does community-building factor in?

It’s important that people are aware of your category and understand why it matters – this is a prerequisite to them doing business with you. A community helps provide validation and awareness. If you can get a group of people bought in on this line of thinking, it’s not just your company that’s beating the drum. That helps to accelerate the market’s awareness of the category, and from there, there’s more interest and buying. 

What are the master documents?

A messaging framework guide – this should include some reference of why you designed the category you did and why it matters. If you’re leading the project, you want to be able to step out and allow people to pick this up on their own. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but a Google Slides doc is one of the best ways to store that.

Reference documentation for all of the foundational pieces of the category design

  • Point of view on the category – at BombBomb we build out “pillars”, which are an expansion of what the category means
  • Clear description of problem
  • Clear description of target markets and the personas who experience this problem
  • How your company is positioned, given this category

How do you measure success?

Does the team have clarity on the vision? – it’s a qualitative assessment, but a good sign that you’re adding value regardless of what happens later. Giving your company clarity is highly valuable.

Is it easier for you to win now than it was in the past? this is really what you’re after. If you’ve created the right messaging around your category, then you should have an easier time winning deals and keeping people’s attention because you have the right framework laid out now. You’ll never have the perfect counter-factual, but ask yourself, “do we feel like our pace is picking up? Are we performing better as a team because of the messaging and the vision we have for this category?”

Is there market awareness and acceptance of the category? – this one can be measured quantitatively. Is there search volume for the category and are other people starting to use the category name? It could be in blogs or it could be a competitor trying to pick the category name up and use it themselves. Looking for people who are using the term who are not you is the best way to gauge the interest in it. 

How does a category design strategy shape your marketing and advertising?

In an existing category, a lot of middle to bottom funnel content is comparative – you talk about how you’ve built something that your competitors don’t do, how you’ve exceeded against your competitors, or why you’re less expensive than your competitors. You can also focus on how you fit into a very narrow niche. Under that paradigm, 80-100% of your efforts focus on the solution your company provides.  

In category design, you’ll be teaching people about a problem you need to educate them about a problem they didn’t know they had or they didn’t know they could solve. Your biggest efforts are on describing the category and the underlying problem. Then 20% of your efforts are on offering the solution. If you do a good job of describing the problem, people assume you have the right solution. 

How does a category design strategy shape your sales enablement?

Frame the conversation with the prospect differently you can still use tools like battle cards, but center them on why you exist, how you’re different, and where you’re headed. 

Share the vision and philosophy of how to solve the problem if the prospect is excited about what the future looks like and your philosophy for how you solve a problem, then you’re going to be able to help them in ways that competitors can’t going forward. This is especially important if you’re selling to a mid-sized or enterprise customer that’s going to be working with you for a while.  

What are the most important pieces to get right?

Make sure that category design is a business strategy, not a marketing strategy – if your CEO isn’t a part of category design, then it isn’t going to get very far.

Get buy-in from department heads and investors or board members – product has to be involved because you can’t do category design absent of a product roadmap and the roadmap has to fulfill the vision of the category. Your CFO has to be in love with it and make sure that you’re setting enough money aside for marketing the category and developing a brand awareness for it. Sales also has to be brought on board. 

Get the problem right – don’t shortcut the problem definition part of the process. You want to make sure that you’re getting to the root of the problem that people are facing.

What are the common pitfalls?

Addressing a problem that’s too big or too small – if you try to take on a problem that’s so big and hairy that people don’t believe you can solve it, then that’s not going to help you. The other one is that there has to be a real problem. This sounds obvious, but your customers must have a problem, and you aren’t just projecting your own problems onto other people by assuming that they’re having the same problem you’re having. You need to make sure you’re solving a real pain point for people, not just a nuisance or an annoyance.

Don’t let gravity set in – don’t have a big splashy launch for the category, then fall back into your old ways of doing things.

Don’t think of category design as a veneer – category design is a foundational approach that requires changes to your product and underlying business; it’s not a surface-level gloss that goes on top.

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