Categories Are About Customers

A historian, alone in his museum dedicated to the Burr-Hamilton duel (in a pre-Broadway Hamilton era), is eating a peanut butter sandwich when the phone rings. It’s a local radio show with a trivia question. The correct answer is worth $10,000. All the historian has to do is tell them, “Who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?” He was born for this. His whole life seemingly has led up to this moment of good fortune. But, he’s got a mouthful of peanut butter sandwich. He tries to answer but it’s an unintelligible mess. The DJ hangs upon him. We leave him in shock, still trying to get the words to come out of his mouth clearly, and the commercial asks us, “got milk?”

A category is a set of problems or opportunities our customers need to solve for. A brand represents the story we tell about our own businesses and potentially our answers to the problems of the category. The difference matters because it can help us reach new customers. The “got milk?” campaign was created for the (big) milk industry to get more people drinking milk. Instead of approaching new potential milk drinkers with a plea for what a great brand of cow farmers they were, they approached the category of things-you-drink-after-eating-something-dry-to-wash-it-down. If the goal is to reach a new customer, the problem comes first, the solution comes after.

Marketer Christopher Lochhead says it best (paraphrasing), “the brand is about the company, the category is about the customer.” A category is like a container that exists in a customer’s or potential customer’s mind. The brand doesn’t have a place until/unless the category exists first. The “got milk?” example is one of many where the category of why you would need milk is etched into our brain by the historian desperately trying to call out “Aaron Burr!”

When we lead with the customer connection, once they are aware of something they need solved, then and only then can we offer a solution. Brands matter. But only after the category has been defined. If we want to reach new customers, we should start with our category and how to make it crystal clear. They have to know how and why they need us. Listen for the problems. Get creative. “Got _____?” Great question.