Category design might be a difficult to pull off, but learning about it doesn’t have to be such a challenge. While there are only a few books written about category design directly, there are plenty of resources that will help you develop the right mindset. Here are a few of my favorite resources that I leaned on as a category designer. If you have anything to add to the list, send me a note and let me know what else I should include!
Here are 11 books that every category designer needs to read.
Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets
by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, Kevin Maney. Harper Business, 2016.
There’s a reason we ordered 150+ copies of this book for our team at BombBomb. This is the first book to provide a real, in-depth discussion of what category design is, what it matters, and how to think differently about your business. It even outlines a high-level overview of how to pull off category design yourself. While Play Bigger is a bit short on tactics, it will help you make the case for category design with your team. If you like what you read, check out Christopher Lochhead’s podcasts Follow Your Different and Lochhead on Marketing, both of which cover category design from time to time. Get it here.
Get to Aha!: Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition
by Andy Cunningham. McGraw-Hill Education, 2017.
Being a category king is all about creating a position that plays to your strengths. That’s exactly what Andy’s book will help you uncover. You’ll find out if your company is wired to be a mother (a customer-experience driven company), a mechanic (a product-driven company), or a missionary (a concept-driven company). At BombBomb, we found out we’re a Mother, and we are using that to help us define a category that plays to that ability. Get it here.
Niche Down: How To Become Legendary By Being Different
by Christopher Lochhead and Heather Clancy. 2018.
Category design isn’t for everyone. Before you decide to head down that path, you need to know what the other road will look like. Niche Down will help you do that. While it’s not about about category design itself, it will help you understand if the opposite path (finding a market niche and owning it) is a better fit for you instead. Whatever strategy you pursue, Niche Down will leave you better informed about your choice. Get it here.
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!
by Al Ries and Jack Trout. HarperBusiness, 1993.
This book will tell you very little about how to design a category. After all, you could read the whole thing in one sitting. But what it will help you understand is how buyers use categories to make sense of the world, and why understanding your position in your category is so important. Are all 22 of this book’s laws truly immutable? Maybe, maybe not. But unlike a lot of business books, this one pulls out all the fluff and will challenge the way you think about marketing. Get it here.
The 33 Strategies of War
by Robert Greene. Viking, 2006.
Unlike the Al Reis and Jack Trout, getting through one of Robert Greene’s book is an ordeal. That’s because he’s almost thorough to a fault. The Art of War is on my bookshelf because it provides specific, real-world examples of how people, businesses, and countries have dealt with their enemies in creative ways. It’s almost like a recipe book for fighting. Whether you’re a behemoth or a tiny startup that no-one’s heard of, The Art of War will equip you with actionable knowledge. Just make sure you take notes, as some of the historical real-world examples are a bit tough to follow. Get it here.
Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind
by Al Ries and Jack Trout. McGraw-Hill Education, 1980.
Another one by Al Ries and Jack Trout, Positioning introduced the world to the idea that the job of a brand is to occupy a specific “position” in the mind of the buyer. Companies should have a definite idea of what position they want to occupy, and execute a plan of action to make that happen. An example? Automaker Saab used to be an undifferentiated manufacturer of European sedans. Sales were lagging. But when Saab repositioned themselves as “the ideal car for harsh European winters”, sales took off. Get it here.
Category Creation: How to Build a Brand that Customers, Employees, and Investors Will Love
by Anthony Kennada. Wiley, 2019.
Author Anthony Kennada was CMO at Gainsight at the time when the company developed and led the “customer success software” category. This book is largely based on his experience. While this book isn’t the first on category design, it provides some tactical, real-world examples of how to execute the process. Get it here.
Behind the Cloud: The Untold Story of How Salesforce.com Went from Idea to Billion-Dollar Company-and Revolutionized an Industry
by Marc Benioff. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
This is another one written by a category creator. OK, not just any category creator. Salesforce might be the most-cited example of category design, which is why it’s so helpful to read how its founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, looks at the business. While Behind the Cloud isn’t about category design per se (the term hadn’t even been coined yet), I found it inspiring to read about Salesforce’s legendary PR stunts. If you haven’t heard how Benioff took town CRM incumbent Siebel Systems with his “No Software” campaign, this book is worth reading for that alone. Get it here.
The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail
by Clayton M. Christensen. Harvard Business Review Press, 1997.
What do hydraulic excavators and 8-inch disk drives have to do category design? At the time of their introduction, they weren’t better ways of solving the problems the their predecessors addressed. Instead, these new technologies were applied to different applications. And that idea of being different is what category design is all about. The Innovator’s Dilemma will give you a fresh perspective on how to look at new technology and where it can be applied. Get it here.
Good Leaders Ask Great Questions
by John C. Maxwell. Center Street, 2014.
What is category design if not leading others to a new way of thinking? The best category designers aren’t just great marketers or product people, they are those who can rally a team around a new approach to business strategy. And a big part of that is asking the right questions to help you team see things differently. While there are plenty of leadership books out there, this one will help you learn to be thought-provoking in a way that engages and empowers your team. I’ve read it twice. Get it here.
The Newcomer’s Guide to Category Design
by John Rougeux, 2020.
I couldn’t respect myself as a marketer if I didn’t promote my own book at least a little! I wrote The Newcomers Guide to Category Design because the most difficult thing about the process is knowing how to get started. This guide draws on my experience with category design at BombBomb, as well as insights I’ve captured from interviewing dozens of other category designers. There’s even a foreword by Christopher Lochhead, the godfather of category design himself! Get it here.