Category Creation: A label, by itself, isn’t worth much.

Andy Raskin by

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Medium here.

Every so often, a CEO asks me for help coming up with a new category name.

Usually it’s because they’ve read about the benefits of category dominance in books like Crossing the Chasm or, more recently, Play Bigger. They’ve gotten the idea that, by coining a new two- to four-word label for what their product does, they can define a new market niche over which they’ll reign supreme.

I almost always decline these requests.

The reason? A category name, by itself, is worth very little. (By the way, I believe the authors of the books I cited above would wholeheartedly agree.)

That’s not to say I’m against category names. In fact, my strategic messaging and positioning engagements typically yield one. It’s just that I’ve come to think about them the way legendary graphic designer Michael Beirut thinks about logos – not as fully-functional out of the gate, but as “empty vessels” that you fill with meaning:

“When we look at a well-known logo, what we perceive isn’t just a word or an image or an abstract form, but a world of associations that have accrued over time. As a result, people forget that a brand new logo seldom means a thing. It is an empty vessel awaiting the meaning that will be poured into it by history and experience.”

– from How To Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World, by Michael Beirut

The Nike logo conveyed little meaning until Nike associated it with a story about perseverance. Same with AirBnB’s logo, until AirBnB associated it with a story about “living there.”

Similarly, no compact phrase will instantly express the value you bring to customers’ lives – until you do the hard work of associating it with a story. “Cloud CRM” meant little until Marc Benioff associated it with Salesforce’s story about the end of “software.” “Conversational marketing” sounds perplexing until you hear Drift associate it with a story about how marketers put gates (forms) in front of customers, inhibiting engagement. The “smartphone” category already existed when Steve Jobs transformed its meaning by telling a new story about what it really meant for a phone to be smart.

Recently, I was a guest on the #FlipMyFunnel podcast, hosted by Sangram Vajre, the Terminus co-founder credited with turbo-charging the category known as account-based marketing (ABM). After our recording, I asked Sangram if he and his team had set out to build a category:

“No, we set out to tell a new story about our customer. Two years later, after bringing practitioners, influencers, competitors and media together in an enthusiastic way, we realized we had created a category. I don’t think we would have been as successful if we had set out, from the beginning, with category creation as the goal.”

– Sangram Vajre

When do I say yes to CEOs who contact me about creating a category name? When I get the feeling they’re less obsessed with the name, and more focused on bringing it to life. That is, when they‘re ready to do the real work of crafting, and then telling  –  through every action their company takes  –  a new story about their customer’s world.

About Andy Raskin

I help CEOs and leadership teams align around a strategic story — to power sales, marketing, fundraising, product, and recruiting. My clients include teams backed by Andreessen Horowitz, KPCB, GV, and other top venture firms. I’ve also led strategic storytelling training at Salesforce, Square, Uber, Yelp, VMware and General Assembly. To learn more or get in touch, visit andyraskin.com.

Strategic Messaging & Positioning Leader