Creating Products That Defy Conventional Categories

Michael SolomonMarch 18, 20223 min

Market disruptions happen when a brand refuses to play by the category rules. Netflix destroyed the video rental business. Uber threatens to do the same to the taxi industry. Books that are available in online form redefine how we acquire knowledge.

Sometimes this insubordination works against a product: An epilator for men failed because males couldn’t accept the idea of hair removal that didn’t involve the testosterone-laden act of shaving. The new solution was more efficient. It just didn’t fit conveniently into the customer’s expectations about male versus female products.

Carefully identify the categories your industry uses to define offerings. Then demolish them.

Under the right circumstances going against the grain actually creates wonderful opportunities. What if a marketer creates a new category, possibly by merging two existing ones? Chrysler fused a station wagon with a sedan to invent the minivan. This new category then spawned yet another, with the advent of the modern SUV in the 1990s.

Wearable technology fuses fashion accessories with computers, so a stylish woman can wear a piece of Swarovski jewelry that also happens to monitor her heart rate. The global market for wearable electronics is projected to reach US$61.4 billion by 2025, driven by the availability of inexpensive sensors, miniaturized yet powerful microchips and processors, low-power lighter electronic components, evolving app ecosystem and the resulting expansion of applications addressed by wearable products and services.

Today, we see a great example of this fusion strategy in the apparel business. Even before the pandemic, the industry was showing anemic growth with one exception: Athleisure. This stepchild of leisure clothing and athletic clothing (formerly two distinct categories) has created an entirely new market, and a cultural phenomenon as well. The term athleisure recently entered the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Analysts expect this market to be worth $257 billion globally by 2026.

Or, maybe you can fuse a fashion product with a functional one. We saw this during the pandemic when designers like Gucci and Fendi started to produce high-end facemasks for trendy social distancers.

When I worked as a consultant for a very large textile company I discovered that when some pioneers in the emerging “smart garment” domain look at a pair of panty hose, they see something other than silky legs: A “delivery system” that can literally apply vitamins, medications and caffeine (that reduces the appearance of cellulite) to the body. Just add some microencapsulation to the fibers to release the substance when the customer moves, and you’re playing in a whole new space.

Become The Rule Maker

Hybrid products and services that combine features of two or more existing verticals get to define the rules for a brand-new category – at least until someone else destroys the category. As we see in the case of the athleisure hybrid, today’s consumers no longer yearn for conventional categories. They’re climbing out of the boxes we put them in. Like leisurewear versus athletic wear, the basic assumptions we use to make sense of the market have collapsed.

What’s also “interesting” is that these dichotomies are embedded so deeply that brand owners don’t even think about them – until they disappear. Fundamental categories that form the bedrock of marketing strategy and customer insights no longer exist. Brand owners love to invoke the cliché “think outside the box,” but when it comes to customer insights, perhaps it’s not enough to do this. Don’t just think outside the box – destroy the box.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of The New Chameleons: Connecting with Consumers Who Defy Categorization 

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