Everything We Learned from Our Category Design AMA with Jason Wellcome

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Aristotle is credited with saying, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Category design is a lot like that. Once you understand the basic concepts, a whole new set of questions open up for you. And so on.

That’s why I always like to learn from other category design practitioners – it helps me see where my blind spots are and gives me new perspectives.

Jason Wellcome, a partner at category design consultancy Play Bigger, is one of my favorite people to learn from. I asked him to join our category design community for an AMA (ask me anything) session, where he fielded some really thoughtful questions.

I’ve shared the recording here, but if you’re more of a reader, Jason and I put together a condensed and edited version of the session, which you can find below.

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Read the Highlights

What happens after you’ve designed a category? How do you ensure the execution of a cohesive cross-functional communications strategy once the category narrative is in place?

Early on, it’s really important to have buy-in from the executive team as well as the most senior comms and marketing people. This helps clarify the role they’re going to play when we activate. These leaders then have the job of driving execution down into their teams.

When it’s time to move into activation, we run an internal mobilization process. It starts with what we call the ‘burning of the boats.’ It’s a form of the category POV (point-of-view) that’s shared with the company by the CEO or founders and reinforces the new path that’s going to be charted. This can be an all-hands meeting or an extended leadership meeting.

Here are some of the steps that we follow as part of the mobilization process:

  • We define the core strike team, leaders from each priority department – marketing, sales, product, and even HR.
  • The strike team identifies the key players to include from their departments
  • We do a deep dive to define the objectives, timeline, and topline strategy for the first lightning strike.
  • Marketing and comms develop a strategy to grab attention and make the most of the moment.
  • Product owns finalizing the category blueprint and works through what they can deliver that syncs up with our narrative and goal for the first strike.
  • Sales works on how the POV needs to be adapted for their sales motion, plus the onboarding and training required as part.

What’s important is there’s a signal from the top that this is a full company exercise. On the day of the lightning strike, everyone has a role to play in making it a success.

But category design is a marathon so it’s important to look at this initial lightning strike as just the first in a series of ongoing strikes. Teams also need to build institutional muscle around something we call strike ops.

How do you balance a lightning strike against other priorities, like budgeting or product updates?

We found that with the first lightning strike, you don’t always need a product update. It’s certainly nice to have, but this can happen in the second lightning strike where it’s more important to deliver a product update that embodies the vision and starts to deliver on the category blueprint. Of course, resourcing and budgeting are always a challenge.

Some think “I have to do this [lightning strike] and I’m already overworked doing everything else.” But it’s about merging existing workstreams together. Leadership needs to show how we are just reframing some of the existing work in the context of the category work.

What is the importance of the category name? Do you have any quick tips for getting to the right name?

This is often a challenging part of the process. But the way we manage is by spending a lot of time on the problem definition. The problem is the fulcrum from which everything pivots. If you frame the problem right, it becomes a lot easier to step into the naming process. Then we can look at the concepts and domains that relate to the problem and start to frame the solution side. Certain terms start to show up.

Typically the name comes down to a core term plus a modifier. But the core term is the most important piece. Ultimately, the category name needs to be a vessel you can pack the meaning into. Mural is a great example. It became apparent that “collaboration” was at the core of what they were doing, but it’s this new form of collaboration. “Collaborative Intelligence” was the category they defined and launched. But the terms don’t mean anything today, so now it’s our job as category designers to build the meaning into them.

One rule to keep in mind: it can’t be more than three words. Also, be careful about just attaching a modifier to the existing category. Sometimes that works, but most of the time it’s a sign of not doing the hard work of defining something truly different.

What are some real memorable examples of lightning strikes that didn’t require a huge budget?

A great example is one of our portfolio companies. They were early stage, and essentially the budget was $24,000 to get a booth at a trade show. But the way that they activated their booth had people lining up to hear more. They brought the problem to life through the right materials and message, and that really got the buzz going.

Another example is Mural. They did a great job of taking over an Economist event called Innovation@Work. It wasn’t necessarily a big lift, but it allowed them to essentially hijack a conference that reached the target audience who had the problem and was highly relevant to the topic they were addressing.

Whatever you do, you want people to understand the problem and identify with it at this early stage. If you do that well, then people are going to look to you for the solution.

You also need to think about how to be in the places where your audience is gathered or can be gathered. For example, Celonis convened a virtual world tour where they went around and shared their category vision in all their key geographies. This was during the pandemic and they couldn’t do it in person. They got scrappy and it turned out to be really compelling.

How do you know how much to invest in a lightning strike? Is there set guidance based on company stage or size?

There’s no rule that says if you’re at this stage of a company, you should only spend this amount of money. Instead, we like to think about building a powder keg for [lightning strike] moments. Save up your budget for a quarter or two so you can concentrate efforts on the moment when you can capture the most attention.

I’m not necessarily talking about your entire marketing budget. You have critical marketing spend that is driving pipeline [that needs to stay put]. But peppered in the budget might be brand marketing spend or top-of-the-funnel type work. That’s what you pull from and save for a concentrated moment in time.

While the category lightning strike is this giant awareness moment, it should also optimize for conversion down into sales. So there’s also the exercise of making sure that lightning strike does help convert into growth too. Make sure the opportunity is well aligned with moving leads into the sales team. That’s why cross-team alignment is really important. We want to figure out how to convert the strike event and awareness generated into deal flow.

How do you know if your category messaging is ready for your “burn the boats” moment?

We have a lockdown process at various stages of the strategy work, so for example, if we don’t have the alignment on the problem, we can’t move on to the solution. That’s why we end up spending a lot of time there.

If we’re not able to progress past a certain stage, we need to find what the hang-up is. For example, sometimes we can get stalled because leadership doesn’t want to go forward with the leap of faith that category design requires. We have to push on those conversations, bring the blocker to a head and address it.

Sometimes right before a lightning strike a CEO or founder gets cold feet and starts hedging. It does take intestinal fortitude to make the leap, to go from a known and safe space into charting a fundamentally different path.

The hard part of category design is that you need key leadership to contribute, feel like they’ve done the work, and take ownership of it. In particular, by the CEO. It’s as much about behavioral psychology as it is developing the right pure strategy.

Why do some leaders back down from category design?

Let’s be clear, I don’t think any less of the leaders that back down from category design. It is a really hard thing to wrap your head around.

Kylan Lundeen the CMO at Qualtrics has this great explanation that borrows from something Andy Rachliff the Co-founder of Benchmark shared. Think about this decision as falling into one of four outcomes in a consensus/non-consensus and right/wrong, a 2×2 matrix.

Most great founders and great category designers are non-consensus – [remember, category design is about  being different, not better]. If you’re on the non-consensus side of the matrix, and you’re right, then you’re a genius [no one said it was possible and you did it!]. If you’re on the non-consensus side and you’re wrong, then you’re seen as the biggest idiot because everyone told you that it wasn’t going to work.

If you’re on the consensus side, and you’re right, you’re awesome [although these types of wins are rarely if ever legendary]. And if you’re on the consensus side, but you’re wrong, there are a ton of excuses you can use for the outcome that no one would question. So there is great fear of being in that bottom quadrant of “non-consensus wrong” and facing the “we told you so” masses. With category design or anything that pursues different over better, there is a real chance a negative outcome could happen. Category design as a discipline is about improving the odds of non-consensus right.

So when we hear leaders having second thoughts about category design, we have to unpack whether it’s a legitimate concern or a fear of being non-consensus wrong.

How do we know if we should pursue category design?

One of the questions we always ask CEOs or founders is if they truly believe they’re doing something different. As well as if they feel the bucket they’re being relegated to or positioned in right now doesn’t fit them.

There’s plenty of positioning and differentiation you can do within an existing category, but if you don’t have the conviction that what you’re bringing to the world is fundamentally different, then you’re not in a position to do category design.

You need to be solving a fundamentally different problem or a higher-order problem in a unique way.

Is there a difference between category design for B2B and B2C?

In many ways B2C is a little bit harder given the source of volume can be challenging. You’re trying to get a highly dispersed, attention-deprived group of people to buy in.

I think the process [of category design] works equally well for both B2C and B2B, but what can change is the orientation of the point of view. In B2C, the point of view has to speak emotionally to the individual. But in B2B a point of view, while it still needs to capture this emotional response, it’s often oriented toward the existential crisis of the business if they don’t solve the problem at hand. Although this is not always true.

In B2C you need to find the people who are passionate about the problem and can help amplify your framing through word of mouth. Most of the consumer work that I’ve seen and done has been on problems that people didn’t even know they had, it’s about opening their eyes to a big issue. Again, if people identify with the problem, they’ll look to you for the solution.

What does category design look like with a multinational company in drastically different markets?

I’ve worked with a lot of multinational companies where the same positioning and messaging just doesn’t work across markets, it needs to be fundamentally different. I haven’t done this personally, but I do believe that you can find a higher-order problem that a global audience can identify with and create derivatives off of that.

Most global companies have identified a problem that all humanity has, whether it’s a medical device company or an oil and gas company. The derivatives of the POV would then speak to the differences in region or culture.

[There is a great chapter dedicated to this in the Play Bigger book called The Corporate Chapter: The Rate Art of Continuous Category Creation. You’ll find a great example of a company called Corning that has done this well throughout the years.]

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About the Author

John Rougeux

John Rougeux has helped multiple technology companies through the category design process. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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John Rougeux is VP Marketing Strategy at BombBomb. Connect with John on LinkedIn.

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