Claiming a category is no simple task.
It takes the right combination of product, company, and category design, as well as an in-depth understanding of your Superconsumers. Your offering should make the customer STOP, tilt their head, and wonder, “This is something different—do I need this?” It should be clear “this thing is not like what came before it.”
To do this, it helps to study category design examples.
So we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite examples of Category Kings and Queens to share how they designed and dominated their category.
Let the learning begin.
In three steps and 30 minutes, HydraFacial promises you “the best skin of your life.”
Using a new kind of non-invasive technology, HydraFacial created a DIFFERENT facial experience leaving customers with freshly hydrated skin. This meant their “glow” would stick around for weeks, instead of hours. But Clint Carnell, the CEO of HydraFacial from 2017 through 2021, didn’t want to just create a product people loved.
He was also on a mission to help aestheticians double their earnings by giving them the ability to provide this new, transformational (more expensive) facial experience.
To do so, he fell in love with helping consumers and providers “glow.” As a result, he delivered billions for his investors, his team, and the category as a whole. In December 2020, HydraFacial did a SPAC deal valuing the company at $1.1 billion. And after going public, proceeded to trade up to $3 billion.
Now, many of the top aestheticians working for HydraFacial earn six figures per year.
DoorDash is an international Category King that operates in more than 7,000 cities across the world.
But it started as a local delivery service in Palo Alto, California when four Stanford students (Tony Xu, Stanley Tang, Andy Fang, and Evan Moore) went door-to-door interviewing local business owners. They realized most business owners had a similar problem—deliveries. Most restaurants in the Palo Alto area didn’t deliver, despite high customer demand.
They realized their order fulfillment and delivery business model was viable and possible.
So they set up a delivery service focused on delighting customers, merchants, and drivers. And when DoorDash went public in March 2021, it was valued at $72 billion. (That was more than the market cap of Domino’s Pizza and Chipotle combined.)
Today, DoorDash beats out Uber Eats and GrubHub, commanding over 60% of the U.S. food-delivery market share.
Tesla Superconsumers are some of the most active and engaged customers today.
Because Tesla is not just a car manufacturer—it’s a sustainable energy manufacturer on a mission to convert the world to clean energy. And this mission is apparent in every product Tesla designs. From zero-emission vehicles to solar panels, Tesla’s products fit a specific sustainable energy need.
Most importantly, Tesla is like nothing that came before.
Tesla makes sustainable energy look sexy—something no previous electric car accomplished (something people publicly admit on Prius bumper stickers!). It refuses to partner with car dealerships so it can keep costs low for consumers. And it carved out the category of sustainable energy in a different way than any other sustainable energy manufacturer.
Once you go Tesla, you don’t go back.
Keurig didn’t design the single-serve coffee category, but it dominates as a Category King.
That’s because Keurig listened to customers. Between 1997 and 2017, Keurig unlocked billions in value by providing consumers with an amazing bundle of consistency, speed, and variety. But behind that bundle was the observation that in a multi-coffee drinking household or workplace, someone was compromising the ideal type of coffee they really loved.
Keurig decided to be radically generous with customers and let them drink any brand of coffee (even “frenemies” like Starbucks and Dunkin’).
Guess what happened.
It crushed the competition that sprang up—and was acquired by JAB Holding Co for $13.9 billion in 2016.
In January 2022, one of the founders of Airbnb and now-CEO, Brian Chesky, made a bold announcement on Twitter.
“Starting today, I’m living on Airbnb.”
But in 2008, the idea of Airbnb made no sense when evaluated through old mental models.
As a result, nearly every venture capitalist said, “No way. You can’t rent out your extra bedroom. That’s insane. You really think people are going to want to share a toilet with someone they’ve never met before?”
Only a very small handful of investors (including the world-class firm, Sequoia Capital) realized that the idea of Airbnb did make sense through the lens of a new model. In fact, it was likely a decade away from being completely acceptable—and thus, “worth the risk” (which helped Sequoia turn roughly $280 million invested over multiple rounds into more than $12 billion).
To get there, Airbnb had to educate people on how to reorient their thinking and join them in the future (where you don’t have to “live somewhere,” you can live anywhere).
Southwest is the world’s largest low-cost carrier airline—a category it designed.
In 1967, Southwest started as an intrastate airline solely within the state of Texas. Planes would only fly between Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Airlines were luxury experiences at the time, offering everything from onboard dining to in-flight entertainment. So, few could afford to fly.
To keep costs low, Southwest did the opposite of its highfalutin competitors.
As a result, Southwest started turning a profit in 1973 and didn’t suffer a money-losing year until the COVID pandemic in 2021. This is noteworthy considering the airline category has historically been an unprofitable business. In hindsight, the idea of a low-cost airline category seems obvious.
But in 1967, it was far from conventional wisdom.
Kelly Slater, the greatest professional surfer of all time, is also the founder of Kelly Slater Wave Co.
The company uses technology and a human-made wave pool to create “the perfect wave.” This is an extremely meta example of how a Non-Obvious champion in surfing took his Non-Obvious creativity and applied it to Oceanic Entrepreneurship.
As the ultimate Superconsumer of surfing, Slater woke up one day and said, “I have a problem. And that problem is, “How do I surf the perfect wave, forever?”
For every surfing Superconsumer, this problem is fairly Obvious. There isn’t a surfer on planet earth who isn’t sitting on a surfboard somewhere in search of “the perfect wave.” But the Obvious solution to that problem has always been to go out and find the perfect wave.
The Non-Obvious solution was to use technology and a giant wave pool to create the perfect wave, forever.
In Pirate speak, we call this type of problem-solving the Art of Fresh Thinking.
Dr. John Pham, the inventor and founder of InBrace, is a Category Designer who loves orthodontia.
But he hates the compromises and contradictions of orthodontia today. So he founded InBrace to expose four unfortunate truths about orthodontia:
Pirate John wanted to break all these unnecessary compromises. But it meant ruffling the feathers of his highly accomplished peers and sacrificing his lucrative orthodontic practice. He sacrificed a ton to create a new category that has since gone on to create abundance for patients, providers, and investors.
And investors just gave him $100+ million dollars in his latest Series D to go do it.
Royal Canin, a prescription pet food started in France, was designed by veterinarians. Yet, it’s owned by Mars, the makers of Snickers and M&Ms—who also owns large pet food brands like Pedigree. It’s a massive company ($35 billion large), but Royal Canin is the single largest brand in the entire company.
Why? Because Royal Canin is a category creator.
Royal Canin re-imagined prescription pet food as breed specific pet food. It had the same efficacy as Hill’s Science Diet (the O.G pet food brand) but offered specific variations for Chihuahuas, Golden Retrievers, and so on. Initially, Vets were skeptical as the only real difference was the kibble size. But in the end, Vets decided if it made the consumer happy, then why not?
Boom, new category!
And that difference has paid off.
In many markets around the world where Royal Canin and Hill’s go head to head, Royal Canin has consistently grown the category AND taken market share at the same time. There is nothing Hill’s can really do in response at this point. No amount of marketing can overcome a fundamental difference like breed-specific food.
By choosing to be different, Royal Canin achieved checkmate.
5-Hour Energy owns the “energy shot” category—even Red Bull couldn’t compete with it.
The company’s early marketing is a great example of legendary category marketing with a legendary POV. In a single sentence, 5-Hour Energy shows how its “solution” bridges the gap from the problem/opportunity to the different future. All in 30 seconds.
“Take one 5-Hour Energy and it won’t feel like 2:30 anymore.”
The energy shot category got its start in 2003 when Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5-Hour Energy, developed the formula after attending a natural products trade show. In an interview with Forbes, Bhargava shared that he had a drink that boosted his energy and kickstarted the idea for 5-Hour Energy. But he decided to condense the formula into a shot, instead of a 16-oz drink.
He placed the energy shot at gas station counters—not next to other energy drinks in the fridge. 5-Hour Energy quickly skyrocketed to $1 billion in retail sales. Truckers, students, and even Wall Street investors swore by the little red bottle of caffeine-infused B vitamins.
Today, 5-Hour Energy commands the majority of market share in the “energy shot” category, leading with approximately $980 million in sales in 2022.
(Stacker ranks a lowly second with $27 million in sales.)
Anyone with a Roomba will tell you it’s not a vacuum cleaner with more horsepower, bells, suction tubes, or whistles.
It’s a “robot vacuum cleaner” that doesn’t require you to vacuum on a daily basis.
That’s because iRobot revolutionized the home-cleaning category in 2002 with the first-of-its-kind self-moving robot vacuum cleaner. In doing so, it gave its Superconsumers infinite power and resources. With a robot vacuum cleaner, they could clean their homes every day (or several times a day if they want) without lifting a finger.
But a robot vacuum cleaner is far more expensive than a regular vacuum, ranging in price from $200 to ~$1,000.
What convinced consumers to try a robot vacuum?
Roomba also protected its IP, making it tough for US competitors to gain traction. A 2010 article in the Robotics Business Review shared that iRobot “holds 50 patents, about half of which are for the Roomba.” At the time, iRobot’s CEO Colin Angle estimated that “a potential competitor would need to spend at least five years and $50 million” to develop a product that could compete with the Roomba.
In 2022, Amazon announced plans to acquire iRobot in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately $1.7 billion.
Now that you know what category design examples look like, you’ll start to see Category Kings and Queens everywhere.
Pay attention. This is how you begin to think like a category designer.
But learning from others is just the beginning of your category design journey. It’s also crucial you learn the fundamentals of category design and how to apply each framework to your specific category. This starts with rejecting the premise to create a unique POV that resonates with your Superconsumers.
Keep in mind, these category design examples can lose their place as Category Kings over time. But they all offer timeless lessons, frameworks, and strategies you can use when designing your own company or category.