Category creation is not an act of true creation but rather an exercise in positioning.
Successful categories result from identifying a nascent change, a great cresting wave moments before crashing onto the shore, and positioning your company at the water’s edge. You are not the inventor—you are the soothsayer, the harbinger, the vanguard.
The Kernel of Truth
Many attempts at category creation are short-lived, largely because they feel like a cynical marketing ploy.
Often, they are: “owning a category” is seen as a defensible moat. Growing companies are encouraged to emulate the success of others, to build their own category-of-one and conjure a pithy new concept from the ether.
True category creation feels different. It plucks a string that resonates to the fiber of your being. It provides the words to describe a truism of your industry that previously lay just out of your reach, too nebulous to articulate. It grants the gift of hindsight: you hear the mantra and think, “Of course! How could I have seen things any different?”
In category creation, the greatest determinant of success is your ability to connect your category to an underlying shift, some prime mover. This is the difference between a category that withers into obsolescence and one that stands the test of time. In short:
Successful category creation has a kernel of truth at its heart.
This prime mover is sometimes a radical leap in technology, like the invention of video streaming or smartphones, that redefined the modus operandi of its entire industry. This could be dubbed category emergence, where categories develop naturally and inevitably, but this is rare. Few companies exist in the realm of zero-to-one innovation: most products offer marginal improvements over their competitors.
For the rest of us, category creation is an ongoing exercise in tenacity, perception and positioning. Our task is to identify a burgeoning trend and position ourselves at the front of the movement. This trend could be a latent frustration with the status quo (“I’m so sick of cold emails”) or a changing social pattern (“I don’t think I’ll ever want to work in an office again”).
In either case, to create a category, you need to attune yourself to the next great development in your industry and hitch your wagon to it.
Lessons from the Subscription Economy
The biggest success stories in category creation prove this point.
Whether it was Zuora’s “subscription economy,” HubSpot’s “inbound marketing” or Gainsight’s “customer success,” in each instance, bigger industry shifts were already underway. What each company did right was identify this nascent trend and use thought-leadership content to establish themselves as the trend’s greatest proponents.
They identified each shift while it was still invisible to the rest of their industry, and through articulating its shape, accelerated it on its path towards apparent inevitability.
Zuora’s “subscription economy” is one of the best-known examples of category creation, but the first SaaS company went public in 1998, a full decade before CEO Tien Tzuo’s declaration that subscriptions were “the future of our entire economy.” Tien himself founded Zuora on the back of his time working at Salesforce, a company that had been selling software in a way “similar to a utility” since 1999.
HubSpot’s launch in 2006 followed on the back of a decade of content marketing. HubSpot didn’t create the concept—their success lay in CEO Brian Halligan’s coining of the term-of-art “inbound marketing,” a novel framing for an already well-established but diffuse concept. It served to villainize an enemy (“outbound marketing”) and mobilize a community of evangelists.
Gainsight’s adoption of “customer success” was borne from CEO Nick Mehta’s exposure to Salesforce’s internal customer success team. Nick’s function was to take a niche industry term, already firmly in use, and connect it to a narrative bigger and broader than any single company.
Zuora didn’t invent the SaaS model, HubSpot didn’t invent content marketing, and Gainsight didn’t invent customer success. In each industry, the kernel of truth already existed—these companies managed simply to surface, polish and promote it.
History Is Written by the Writers
Content is necessary but not sufficient for category creation—whitepapers and articles alone can’t brute-force social change.
Instead, content marketing’s crucial function is to shape, translate and advocate for the shift. It turns a formless cloud of ideas and observations into something concrete and tangible. It provides the shared language required to unite people around a common belief.
In service of that goal, successful companies follow a similar set of principles to stake their claim over an emergent category:
Develop internal consistency. It’s necessary to live and breathe concepts internally before broadcasting them to the wider world—as RingCentral VP of Marketing Morgan Norman says, adoption has to come from the bottom-up. This is true of all forms of content marketing but especially true of category creation: consistency and sincerity are key, and any glimmer of dissent or confusion (“Is it event lead capture or event lead management?”) weakens the impact of the message.
Coin pithy monikers to describe existing concepts.Movement-first content allows companies to draw discrete lines around familiar but undefined concepts. These clear, memorable terms serve as a streamlined focal point: “mounting frustration with outbound marketing,” “growing adoption of content marketing” and “longer customer relationships” are reduced simply to “inbound marketing.”
Paint a picture of inevitability. HubSpot’s history of marketing and Copper’s rise of the relationship era read like historical treatments: the emergence of the new category is painted as inevitable, with a strong narrative thread woven between the disparate events that led to the term’s coining.
Villainize the competition. Creating a hero of your own product category is important but so too is the villainizing of some malevolent “other”—normally the incumbent legacy solution, be it a spreadsheet, a competing product or an older methodology.
There is no playbook for identifying the next “big trend"; but as Zuora et al. prove, there is a playbook for codifying and popularizing it.
Perception and Tenacity
The idea that category creators are uniquely farsighted is itself a product of their art. There’s nothing mystical about their success: category creators are innately in-tune with their industry, capable of spotting a cresting trend before it breaks and doggedly tenacious in their pursuit of it.
Above all, they realize that category creation is an act of sincere belief, coupled with support from marketing—and not the other way around. Lasting categories don’t come from marketing exercises, but great marketing is necessary to cement a category.