Category Leadership & The Axe

Category design is a way of defining the category of business you're in so that your company becomes the obvious leader in your space. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years before someone gave it a name, through my focus on differentiation – read on to see how the axe can teach you everything you need to know about defining and becoming the leader in your category...

Splitting wood is such a satisfying experience.

Don't worry, the tree was cut down because it was already dead and there was a risk of it falling over.

Also don't worry. Safety first. Eye protection. Steel toed boots. My Petaluma T-Shirt.

Who needs a gym when there are so many useful and fun things you can do to prepare for the apocalypse.

Kidding. (I hope.)

But you know what this splitting is making me think about? Marketing and differentiation, of course.

I've been doing a lot of consulting in category design.

So what's category design?

Category design is a way of defining the category of business you're in, around your unique differentiation... so that your company becomes the obvious leader in your space.

Category design was more or less invented by 3 very sharp thinkers who wrote a book called Play Bigger.

They give example after example of companies that created their own category... from frozen foods to computer tablets to minivans ... and even after 50 years the company that created the new category is still the market leader.

I say, more or less’ because I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years before someone gave it a name, through my focus on differentiation – read on to see how.

So back to wood splitting. This axe has a specially designed wedge to split along the grain of the wood to break the fibers apart, not cut them. 

Bronze axes from the Zhou dynasty

I'm sure in the beginning of time, there was just one category of axe -- it was called, well, the ‘axe’. And then some clever people figured out that if you design it one way it works better for felling trees. If you design it another way, it's good for small jobs. If you design it another way, it's good for taking into battle. That would be the category of the ‘Battle Axe’.

Just like with shoes. In the beginning there was, well, the shoe. Today we have running shoes, dress shoes, hiking shoes, steel toed shoes, high heels, gardening clogs, galoshes, and well, you get the idea.

The oldest known leather shoe, about 5500 years old, found in Armenia

Each innovation has the potential for splitting off a new category.

In Roman times, there was just one kind of lawyer -- people skilled in the art of pleading the case of another. Today, there are real estate lawyers, commercial lawyers, family lawyers, tax lawyers, and well, again, you get the idea.

Same with consultant categories, and car categories and fishing tackle categories, and cybersecurity categories, and fintech categories and... same with your industry.

It's the natural evolution of new categories through differentiation.

You can either lead that evolution or you can follow behind one of your competitors that leads it.

So the question I have for you today is this...

Is there a unique difference in your product or service that allows you to define a new category?

If you're like most of my clients, you'll probably say ‘no’. You see, defining a new category is not easy or obvious. It usually takes an outside person to see the subtle difference that can become the framework for a new category, and then name it.

It's worth doing. That's one of the ways I've helped my corporate clients get sales increases of up to 60%, get acquired, get funded, and well, become market leaders in their category.

Think about that. And while you do... I'll get back to log splitting. And if you'd like to take a swing at category design, or get a handle on your differentiation, you know where to find me!

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Michel Neray


What really drives me is helping companies and individuals to drill down to the core of their unique value and differentiation, and then craft their Essential Message' that attracts and connects with audiences and stakeholders... including customers, investors, strategic partners, and top talent. As a professional speaker, trainer, and consultant for over 30 years, I've worked with leaders and sales teams in more than nine countries around the world, from Montreal to Moscow, and from Israel to Iran.

I love to lead workshops, speak at conferences, and work with clients one on one.... as much as I love to spend time with family, paddle whitewater, ride my motorcycle (hard), and write and perform my songs...

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