What do you do when your brand and its offerings do not line up with any existing category?
That’s when you define a NEW category through brand positioning.
It’s not just making up a new word or phrase to describe what you do – it’s thinking critically about what you can offer, what people expect, how you can uniquely give that to them with this brand, and how you can describe that using familiar frames of reference.
Let’s look at when and how to define a new category. We’ll use Dawn House – a brand Northbound recently positioned in a new category – as an example.
Defining a new category using brand positioning concepts
The goal of positioning a brand is to define the brand and its purpose or to meet the market with a unique perspective or difference that creates a defensible, sustainable territory to stake as a frame for decision-making by the end customer(s). Successfully building this differentiation at an emotional level, backed by product and experience truths, builds equity over time and lowers the brand’s risk of being outperformed by a competitor or new entry coming in with a “better” or even parity offering.
Defining a new category is crucial when:
- You are not the leader in that category (or when the category is crowded with many similar competitors); or
- Your offering’s value would be diminished or lost in comparison to a more familiar category (i.e. it can be “so much more” than a known category).
But successfully defining a new category depends on more than just explaining what you are most similar to – it requires a cohesive brand strategy that communicates how you’re creating a different market and why that matters or is needed for the customer.
So, how do we do this? Well, it takes 6 steps:
Step 1: Become an expert in the brand and its offerings
This may be a bit of a no-brainer, but you must become intimately familiar with the business, its goals, and its products and offerings. Where does it fit into the market? What are the alternatives being used by customers today?
Let’s look at our example Dawn House. Its parent company, Ergomotion, is the world’s largest producer of adjustable beds. However, with a revolutionary new product poised to make a real difference for millions of people, they needed to reach the aging population and their children in a way that could be easily understood and demonstrative of benefits beyond what a bed is traditionally known for.
Based on stakeholder interviews and background research, we knew we needed to create a brand under Ergomotion with a positioning that communicates sleep, health, aging, safety, technology, and connection.
While “bed” was the obvious initial physical description of the offering, the product wasn’t really about sleep or bedtime at all. Its ultimate role is to help the aging population maintain independence and plan for the vitality they want throughout their life. For instance, it automatically adjusts to sleep patterns, it changes height for safety, and it tracks and shares crucial health information with care providers and loved ones. Even the nearby “Adjustable Bed” or “Smart Bed” categories would hinder its ability to communicate the benefits beyond those traditionally associated with beds. So, we must transcend the obvious frame of reference.
Step 2: Become an expert in all adjacent categories
To identify relevant areas to look at when redefining a category, aim to answer these questions: What categories are we most similar to? What categories do we share benefits with, despite offering radically different products? What might people assume we are if they saw us today? Answering these questions will show you the right places to look and allow you to begin comparing how you are both similar and/or different from adjacent categories.
When it came to Dawn House, we knew we were competing directly and indirectly across the sleep, health, aging, safety, technology, and connection categories. By executing an in-depth competitive analysis of various brands in these categories we were able to document the expectations, benefits, and shortcomings of each. Comparing the similarities and differences between our offering and these categories, we were able to understand opportunities to differentiate. When we combined the voice and tone of tech companies targeting aging populations with the positive framing of health, wellness, and sleep categories, we had a chance to stand out from the crowd while benefiting from positive associations.
Step 3: Become an expert in the audience
To learn the most effective way to define your category – you must understand what your audience wants and expects – both in general and across the various categories you’ve identified. This is where we begin to develop the WHO: our first of the key positioning concepts
The WHO is not a demographic, but a way of expressing the ideals and values shared across your core customer sets that overlap with what you can deliver. It’s a value-based aspirational handle that summarizes the attitude of your customer and a summation or composite of ALL your target audiences – in other words, it’s their highest shared values and common aspiration. Ensuring you meet these criteria creates a WHO that strongly suggests a product development roadmap and service experience in addition to a marketing target – crucial for a brand finding its way defining a new category
When positioning Dawn House, there were two audiences to consider: potential users, and their adult children. Understanding both audiences would be key to discovering what benefits are most important to highlight, and what the purchase journey might be.
We used a quantitative survey to build insight on how aging consumers and their children feel and behave across these categories. By uniting the wants, needs, and expectations in this space, we were able to uncover the unexpected and overwhelmingly positive foundation for positioning: aging well means living vibrantly, building independence requires confidence, and good sleep is really about how you feel when you wake.
By exploring the deeply held attitudes of our audiences, we were able to articulate their highest aspirations, and identify them as “optimists planning for independence.”
Step 4: Get to the root of what your audience wants
Next, determine what frame of reference would maximize the benefits and minimize the baggage in your audience’s minds. This is where we begin to develop the WHAT: our second of the key positioning concepts
Remember, if you’re a leader in a category – or a category creator like our Dawn House example – your differentiation lies in the WHAT; how you want to be thought of categorically by your customers and prospects
Your WHAT is meant to be conceptual and inspiring. It is NOT your PR boiler plate category. It is NOT the name of the aisle you’re in or the name of the category you’re listed under in a directory.
If you are the leader in your category, this might simply be an expression of that category. If you are not the leader in your category, but are seeking to be, this will either be a sub-set of the overarching category or will be a redefinition of the category that positions you at the lead.
Dawn House was not a leader in the “bed” category or even its sub-set “adjustable bed.” We learned through our research that these categories added unexpected baggage to the brand: “bed” was too narrow a category, and its only associated benefits were sleep and reduced pain; the “adjustable bed” and “aging care” categories conjured negative images of hospitals, clinical settings with a high degree of dependency, and sickness. So, to successfully communicate sleep, health, aging, tech, and connection, as well as the aspiration of living an independent life, we needed to create a redefinition of the category that positions Dawn House at the lead.
We did so by following the benefits. A good night’s sleep leads to feeling better, leads to health, leads to the larger discussion of “wellness”. And to transcend the “bed” category, we learned that “comfort” allowed the brand to own the positive attributes of a bed while being able to exist beyond the limiting form factor. Our differentiating category became “long-term wellness through comfort.”
Step 5: Determine the common needs between audiences
Now, we must develop what benefit is ultimately at the root of our audience’s desires. Why do they want these things, what’s at the emotional core of their needs? This step is where develop the WHY: the third key positioning concept.
This is the brand’s highest, overarching benefit that it can still credibly deliver. The WHY is the benefit that will get customers to pay attention. It ladders up from where your unique differentiators overlap with your customer’s deepest needs and desires. Remember: it always is of an emotional flavor. Save foundational and functional benefits for messaging.
A category leader may have a very big, high-altitude benefit that matters overall for the category (For example, AT&T stands for connection). Since we are trying to redefine a category, it is important to attach this benefit most closely to your audience’s needs and wishes, rather than the benefits most often associated with known categories.
Going as high as possible is key, especially when defining a new category. Dawn House is not about better sleep, or health, or even wellness. It’s the audiences’ emotional outcome of successfully achieving these things. Quantitative research suggested an even higher emotional benefit than “feeling well”, and follow-up focus groups confirmed it: combining all these things Dawn House offers gives our target audience a vibrant, autonomous life. Focusing the WHY on vibrancy allows the brand to exist higher and in a more unique position than inadvertently anchoring the brand in an adjacent or sub-category.
Step 6: Solve a unique dilemma – or an existing dilemma in a unique way
A Brand Purpose is crucial to express your highest possible solution. It builds meaning and shows your audience why the brand matters.
For all brands – not just those defining a new category – its purpose is a crucial expression of its highest possible solution. The creation and operationalization of a Brand Purpose that serves your stakeholders (employees and customers) is necessary for resonance today.Larry Fink, the CEO of Black rock put it best: “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.” When positioning a brand to define a new category, the Purpose must tackle a new tension audiences feel, or solve a familiar problem with a new perspective.
The tension that Dawn House solves is not a new one for our aging audiences. In fact, it’s a tension central to the human condition – wow can I be safe, secure, and connected while maintaining the independence necessary for a vibrant life?
Dawn House solves this tension by providing confident independence for both the aging population and their children – and it does so in a new way. The brand transcends the discussions around beds, sleep, and technology by creating a new age of wellness that fixing our society’s dysfunctional relationship with aging.
Dawn House’s Purpose – and full positioning – is best summed up by its manifesto:
Whether defining a new space or positioning a category leader, Brand Purpose helps elevate a brand to a higher role in culture and ensures affinity in a way that essential, meaningful, and trust-building.
If you’re looking to build a brand with purpose, reach out to us.
206 257 5084