Category Design For Marketers: How It Works, Why To Use It, And Frameworks To Get Started

Categories are about customers, their problems, their opportunities, and their future—which means category marketing is about educating customers on a new and different solution.

When was the last time you clicked on a company blog post, opened a company newsletter, or listened to a corporate podcast and said to yourself, “Wow, I sure am glad I clicked on that!”?

It’s likely been a while.

And that’s because not much content today is actually worth reading. Unfortunately, many marketers today have caught Gary Vee-D, a “content disease” that leads creators and companies alike to believe the whole purpose of content creation is to “do it”—and to do it as often as possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or valuable.

Just say it loud and say it often.

As a result, creators and enterprises deploy “more content, more often” strategies. This is what we like to call content-free marketing. It’s the art of saying nothing, everywhere.

The opposite of this spray-and-pray content technique is category design marketing.

What Is Category Design In Marketing?

Category marketing is based on a radically different Point-of-View and is designed to make a very big impact—with one strike. It’s engineered to get people talking about what makes you different, all in an effort to make your POV stick and become their different too.

Here’s what this means for a variety of roles in the marketing world:

  • If you are a CEO or founder, what is your differentiated insight? What problem are you solving? Why should others care? What difference are you trying to make for others?
  • If you are a CMO, this idea that you need to be proficient in as many different marketing platforms and disciplines as possible is nonsense. Instead, your job is to constantly scour your brain for breakthrough ideas hiding in plain sight and “thinking” that everyone else in your industry is missing, and then amplifying your new and different POV.
  • If you are a marketing manager, and you want to have a massive impact within your company, make the controversial decision to create less content, less often, with more resources dedicated to getting your hands on truly differentiated thinking. Volume is good—but only if it’s quality volume.
  • If you are a content writer, the single fastest way to increase your value (and earnings) is to provide differentiated thinking. If you start charging for your thinking and provide companies not just with words, but unique, unheard of, unidentified perspectives on the category, suddenly you are a luxury good.

But this strategy is radically different from the brand marketing most marketers rely on.

Brand Marketing vs Category Marketing

It’s shocking how many smart MBAs, entrepreneurs, and marketers prioritize the brand BEFORE the category. Our name. Our logo. Our team. Our “mission statement.”

Well, here’s a fact: Categories make brands—not the other way around.

  • Brand marketing is something we do to customers.
  • Category marketing is something we do for customers.

Let’s break down the difference.

Brand Marketing is about us, not customers.

Most marketers and branding experts believe the Big Brand Lie.

They say, “Let’s ignore the fact there is nothing unique about us, our product, or what we do for the world. Instead, let’s do some branding.” As if sprinkling some kind of magic dust on your “brand” (changing the colors, the font, the logo design, etc.) is going to drive a breakthrough in growth.

Branding, in reality, is about us.

Our name. Our logo. Our team. Our “mission statement.” Which means brand marketing is about screaming, “LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME!”

Whereas category marketing is about evangelizing a different outcome altogether.

Category Marketing creates meaning for customers.

In category marketing, the category and brand come together in some meaningful way for the customer, consumer, or user.

For example:

  • 5-Hour Energy: The category is energy shots. And the brand is “5-hour Energy.” The brand name reflects the differentiated category.
  • Under Armour: The category is clothes you wear under your clothes when you’re beingathletic. And the brand name reflects athletic undergarments.
  • DoorDash: The category is food delivery, and the brand “DoorDash,” highlights the new and different category—food delivered quickly, right to your door.

Categories are about customers, their problems, their opportunities, and their future—which means category marketing is about educating customers on a new and different solution that unlocks transformational outcomes by solving a specific problem.

So, if you are a marketer, we urge you to ask this very important question:

What are you DOING with your marketing?

  • Are you inviting a comparison? “We’re like everybody else, PLUS some more.”
  • Or are you forcing a choice? “We are a different thing altogether.”

Comparison marketing isn’t just bad marketing. It’s bad business strategy. (Remember: categories make brands, not the other way around).

If you’re ready to pursue a new and different path with category marketing, you’ll need a few fundamental category design frameworks.

Category Design Marketing Frameworks

Category design is an art and a science, and there are several in-depth frameworks category designers use to create and dominate a category. These include The Magic Triangle, the 8 Category Levers, and Category Science.

But as a marketer, these are the most important category design frameworks to know:

  • Languaging: This is the strategic use of language to change thinking. It’s about teaching others to think by the words you use. This helps you differentiate yourself from any and all competition through word choice, tone, and nuance. And it encourages you to speak to (and speak “like”) the customers you want to attract—especially the Superconsumers of the category. For example, Sara Blakely invented “Spanx,” not better shapewear.
  • Lighting Strike: This is a way to align and synchronize your marketing efforts through a singular event. It is not an effort to try to market to “everybody.” Your goal should be to create the Comic-Con for your category — physically, virtually, whatever that means to you and your Superconsumers. An example of a Lighting Strike is Tesla’s AI Day, an annual event to showcase the company’s latest technology. The event does not complement Tesla’s marketing efforts—it is Tesla’s only form of “marketing.”
  • Word-of-Mouth Marketing: This is, and always will be, the greatest form of marketing. Unfortunately, the way most marketers think about word of mouth is by “reaching as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible.” WOM is really about putting the right words (your unique POV) in the right mouths (Superconsumers) in the right places (Super-Geos). There’s a method to doing WOM right, so make sure you understand the Category Science behind effective WOM.

Start Applying Category Design To Your Marketing

Marketers have a legendary opportunity to use category design to position their companies as category leaders and excel in their careers.

If you’re a marketer, CMO, creator, or entrepreneur who is ready to break out of legacy brand marketing, the category design frameworks are a good place to begin. To dive into the details of each framework, check out the in-depth explanations in our Category Pirates mini-books. For category design inspiration, take a look at our roundup of category design examples to see how Category Kings and Queens use these frameworks. Or pick up the category design book we wrote specifically for marketers who are ready to jump in.

We can’t wait to see what you can do with category design.