Identify the categories your product is competing in – Dr. Muneer Muhamed

The practice of effective marketing as we know it requires a great deal of effort in this disruptive era of media proliferation and dwindling attention spans. And marketers of all hues have been beating their heads against the digital wall to perfect a formula that will grab mind space as well as eyeballs.

One of the interesting aspects of effective marketing is product category naming. It’s important to figure out a cohesive product category name and plan your marketing activities around it. And if you are competing in multiple product categories, things will be more complicated.

The big question is how you as a marketer can create and strengthen the categories you’re in to drive your brand. And the selection of categories, strategy and execution are critical in marketing planning.

So what is a product category?

It’s simply all those products that offer the same or similar functionality. This is where creative marketers play a major role… and tomes have been written about defining one’s product category. Remember the ‘Uncola’ campaign created by 7-Up? Category names such as ‘coffee,’ ‘mobile phones’ or ‘bikes’ are vital to the right marketing campaigns.

Without a general awareness of what a product is and why it’s important to a customer, how can you offer a value proposition? Therefore, even competing businesses will have to rally around a cohe-sive product category name.

Cola and Uncola are good examples of ‘twisting the category,’ though it is not something that one may be able to do all the time. Uber created a new category for taxis but it’s still something with which consumers can identify. Airbnb did the same in the hospitality business and creatively carved out a homestay category.

Let’s assume that your company is toying with a new product idea. Typically, the development unit comes up with a few initial concepts and the marketing team identifies brand names that can be researched. The product category is something the marketing folks have no control over.

In addition to which, you can’t patent or trademark a category name… so what is marketing going to do with it, right?

No way! If 7-Up had left that job to the product developers, it would have fizzled out in no time…

Through careful planning and collective thinking by marketing and product development teams, marketers can ensure that they not only help strengthen a product category but also use it to boost brand image and acceptability.

However, there’s a danger that brands could become category names.

Xerox is a classic example where photocopying as a category is all but forgotten. The same is true for shredded wheat and cornflakes, both of which started off as brand names. Their trademarks had lapsed for too long and because of the general nature of their names, they weren’t allowed to be trademarked again – since by that time, they’d become product category names.

In the case of Xerox, it was different. And for brands such as Kleenex, ChapStick and Highlighter, all of them managed to hold on to their brands and category names for a long time.

So which category are you competing in?

Here are a few pointers to make sure that category names aren’t usurped or denigrated by your products.

When launching a new product, you should identify a category name and differentiate it from your product brand. Start with a generally accepted category name for consumer acceptance especially if you have a limited marketing budget to position a new product. Creating something like Dove and its ‘cream and not soap’ category takes far too long and a lot of money.

In case you’re not sure about which bracket your new product belongs to, you can either use multiple category names in your advertising campaign or conduct more research before deciding on one.

If you believe that using the right category name will help improve your marketing success, how do you play around with the rival use of it?

Going by the practices of Unilever and others, there are a few things you can do. Become the registrar for ‘.categoryname’ domain names using a generic top-level domain. You could also register a collective or certification trademark. Some companies lobby the relevant authorities for an identity standard or may even file a case against misleading ads.

And there are issues relating to public policy that one must consider while playing around with product category names. If you’re an upstart or challenger to the established major brands, you’ll certainly be fought in the policy and lobbying areas if you were to create a new category name that attracts a large number of customers.

The primary justification for restricting category name use is the prevention of consumer deception as to product characteristics rather than brand name. However, the freer use of category names can boost competition and also increase consumer choice.