Challenge Category Conventions in 7 Steps (+ Examples)
Aug 13, 2021
In a way, challenging category conventions is something I’ve been doing since I was a kid.
My high-school history/geography teacher was this big beefy guy.
16-year-old me was this nerdy kid obsessed with contradicting people and finding holes in everyone's thinking — teachers, friends, family, EVERYONE! — because he CRAVED the attention.
(It started with my mom from a very young age, and it became part of everyday life.)
I don't remember much from my teenage years, but I remember this moment well enough to tell the tale.
You can guess what happened, can't you?
We were learning about European history when I made yet another remark out loud. (I wish I could remember what I said or what it was about, but I can't, so I'm not going to make it up.)
I heard a few chuckles from my classmates.
That was a good sign. I wanted my teacher to pay attention to me, too. He stared at me for a few seconds and YELLED something to this effect:
"Louis! Why can't you stay quiet?! I can't run any of my classes without you interrupting us every five minutes.
You are an INTELLECTUAL TERRORIST!"
So, yeah, I got his attention…
But, I tell you what…
Something about those two words put together shook me. It was five years after 9/11. Terrorism was very much on everybody's mind, even in France.
I realized there and then that I crossed a pretty big fucking line.
How my "intellectual terrorism" mindset helps me challenge category conventions
I’ve just learned to channel it to come up with endless unconventional ideas that people will notice.
Take my podcast, Everyone Hates Marketers, as an example.
I chose to challenge some of the marketing podcast category conventions:
Boring, over-the-top guest introductions followed by a “Tell us about yourself” question which eats up a third of the episode
Scripted questions that the guest prepared in advance leads to a bland discussion
None of the topics mentioned are covered in-depth; you’re left with nothing tangible or actionable
Intrusive ads from companies with questionable business practices
I wanted to create a podcast I would actually listen to and learn from.
I saw my job as a host to make sure each listener would learn something. I didn’t see it as a way to make my guest look good.
A marketing podcast you can actually learn from, with no ads or scripted questions, which crossed 1M+ downloads in less than four years.
All you need is one question to challenge category conventions
How can you come up with similar ideas for your business or your next content project to challenge category conventions?
Channel your intellectual terrorist mindset with this question:
"What's the one thing you hate the most about this category?"
(The category is the “box” your customers put you in when they think of your product or service. Salesforce’s category is “CRM Software.” You’re reading a “marketing newsletter.” The more specific, the better.)
Allie Lefevere, CEO and co-founder of Obedient, a humorous branding agency, uses a similar approach with her clients:
"What are they sick of hearing about what is a tired cliché? What has been overdone? What is the way that everyone else is approaching us, that they are no longer resonating with?"
This single question kicks ass, but use it with caution because it may help you challenge category conventions a little too well...
It will unlock so many ideas that you won’t know which one to start with.
Here’s what recent subscribers of this newsletter said about the marketing industry in general:
Becoming a challenger brand
Adam Morgan, author of Eating The Big Fish, calls businesses that tend to challenge category conventions, “challenger brands:”
"You may certainly have to challenge something about yourself. You may certainly have to challenge practices and behaviors and ways of thinking and self-limiting beliefs. You may need to do all of that culturally, but you're certainly going to need to challenge something in the world around you.
You're going to need to upset the status quo to do it. Now, it's very rare these days that being a challenger is about challenging someone. It's not really about challenging another brand. Very often these days, it's much more about challenging something, something that you see in the category as a driver that doesn't belong there anymore.
Something about the user experience you'd like to put right. Possibly something about how society works or how the society talks that you think is just wrong or unnecessary or belongs to a past time.”
Ulli Appelbaum, a brand positioning expert who analyzed more than 1,600 brand case studies to uncover learnings, also identified that challenging category conventions was a very effective way for brands to be noticed:
“Simply disrupt the category convention. You literally look at your category, the packaging convention, the messaging conventions, the distribution conventions, the consumer segment conventions. You list them all. And then you say, ‘How can I tap into a different category? How could I do things differently to stand out and differentiate myself?'
Or you can resolve a category paradox. Electric vehicles look like shit. The fundamental paradox would be: to be environmentally conscious; you’ll have to drive a car that looks like shit.
And then Tesla came in. Suddenly, the electric car can compete with the biggest sports cars out there in terms of performance and look sexy as hell.
Are there specific barriers? People may not be using your category for very simple, obvious reasons, but if you don't ask the questions, you're not going to find it out.”
6 steps to come up with ideas to challenge category conventions
1) Pick the correct category.
If you’re not sure which one you’re in, ask your customers, “How would you describe this product to a friend?”
2) What do you hate most about your category? Ask yourself this question over and over again.
Obsess with it. You might find more success when thinking about entering a new category, when you’re launching a new product, for example. That’s because the curse of knowledge is real. You might find it challenging to step away from what you know and see things from your customers’ perspective. Chances are, you can challenge much more than you think.
3) Ask your customers.
Add it to your evergreen customer survey, your customer interview script, your welcome email sequence. Mention it as often as you can. You'll start seeing patterns appearing quite fast.
4) Spend time in “watering holes.”
This is where your prospects gather for pleasure or work: Facebook Groups, Slack, Private Communities, at the pub, trade shows, Amazon product reviews... Pay attention to what they say. What are they sick of? What are they particularly fired up about?
5) Make a list.
Compile those pet peeves. Use those answers to look for patterns. Chances are, a few will make you/your team particularly fired up. That’s a good sign. Follow that energy.
6) Pick one and go all-in.
Think about all the ways you could resolve that paradox or challenge that convention. What would it look like across the journey? Across the traditional 4 Ps?
6 examples to challenge category conventions
1) Coffee gives you energy for a while, but then you get a big crash
Four Sigmatic challenges this convention by offering crash-free coffee. How did they manage this? By replacing coffee beans with mushrooms. Genius.
2) Bottled water is sold in plastic bottles that pollute and kill wildlife
Liquid Death took inspiration from another category (beer sold in cans) to offer water in 100% recyclable packaging. Death to plastic.
3) Climate change is the single biggest threat humanity is facing, and most businesses don't seem to care
Patagonia believes you can build a sustainable business AND make the world a better place. Everything they do, “from supporting youth fighting against oil drilling to suing the president,” is centered around their greater mission.
4) Brand agencies are too afraid to offend; their work doesn’t get noticed
Offended believes, "If you take a stand, say something different, back an underdog, and go balls to the wall with your marketing, there’s always a chance you’ll offend someone. And not only is that OK... It's why you'll win."
5) Football (or soccer for the non-Europeans) teams play either possession or counter-attack, which leads to boring games
Marcelo Bielsa, probably the most influential football coach of all time, believes that the best teams should play both to score as many goals as possible. This style of play requires players to be in excellent physical shape and 110% dedicated to that philosophy.
6) Most virtual events are sale speeches in disguise
You take an hour out of your schedule to learn something new, and you’re lucky if you get 5-10 minutes of actionable ideas and juicy insight. While I was at Hotjar, we challenged this convention by asking speakers to share one insight for five minutes only. We took it one step further by running it for five days, with five speakers each day.
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