Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why brands must seize the opportunity to redefine category management

By Andrew Hovells, Strategy Director, Live and Breathe

Throughout history, there have been significant shifts in the economy, culture, science, or society that have caused dramatic changes in consumer behaviour.

The “Credit Crunch” caused individuals to no longer feel compelled to be status-conscious shoppers, making highly affordable options more attractive. This saw value retail brands such as Primark and H&M and discount airlines like Ryanair thriving, altering their respective categories for good.

The most recent upheaval – the pandemic and the ensuing cost-of-living crisis -has caused consumers to think in ‘occasion mode’. How have mealtimes changed? What do they need to work from home? Brands are asking themselves questions too, like how can they help with lifestyle choices for a more health-conscious society?

The key to brands capitalising on commercial opportunities in times like these lies in recognising the evolving needs of consumers and creating unique spaces within these shifting landscapes, potentially even new categories. Unfortunately, many brands miss the mark by failing to seize this opportunity.

Pivotal moments

In his captivating memoir On Writing, renowned horror writer Stephen King recounts the pivotal moment that sparked the creation of his groundbreaking novel Carrie.

If you’ve been living under a rock, imagine a gory version of Matilda on steroids, with the provoking story depicting the toils of a girl hitting puberty who develops telekinesis while being bullied. 

King’s autobiography reveals that the birth of his revolutionary book relied on a creative leap fueled by insight and imagination. As he puts it: “POW! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty, and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea…”

That’s how I feel about brands and agencies doing category management.

While the transition from discussing literary achievements to consumer targeting might be lost on a few, hear me out. Just as King harnessed his imagination to redefine horror, brands and business in other sectors have an immense opportunity to revolutionise their respective categories.

The convergence of enjoyment and practicality 

In today’s data-driven market, the challenge lies in going beyond surface-level insights. Merely understanding what consumers are doing is insufficient. Brands need to delve deeper, grasp how consumers behave in-store and uncover their unmet desires, the problems they face in their daily lives and the solutions they seek.

It’s almost as if the original purpose of brands – to simplify tasks related to cleanliness, transportation, nourishment etc. – have been forgotten.

Today, categories are too complex, with shoppers often being overwhelmed by a multitude of options. Instead, they cry out for products that satisfy their unmet needs, as opposed to merely offering slight variations or lower prices.

The issue extends beyond product proliferation. There’s a tendency for creativity within categories to push the boundaries in a bid to be different.

But not all consumers seek flamboyant marketing. Consider the success story of Dove, who injected honesty and transparency into an infamously “fake” category by highlighting the issue of self-care within their campaigns. Not just a new product that will solve all their customers’ issues, not just more of the same.

Seizing the opportunity to redefine categories

Agencies don’t help. To many creative teams, category management simply means focusing on growth drivers and outshining the competition.

But the starting point should always be consumer insights. This means dedicating time to comprehend the range of needs that shoppers have. As a parent, part of me just wants to buy a cereal that will fill up the kids before they’re packed off to school. But another side of me also wants it to energise them, fueling them to always do their best.

By understanding the diverse range of consumer needs, agencies can ignite the creative spark necessary to reimagine categories, create new spaces for themselves and better support and satisfy the consumer. The Dollar Shave Club achieved this – by offering a wide range of products and services to meet their consumer’s needs, depending on their desired price and quality, and reshaping the male hygiene category altogether as a result.

The benefits of thinking differently about category management and learning how consumers use products, instead of just how they feel about them – are clear for both brands and shoppers. 

Sadly, many agencies overlook its importance, focusing solely on creating demand for a product or brand, missing the opportunity to redefine the category itself.  To put it bluntly, this is like trying to sell horses to individuals that desire cars.

By shifting their mindset and recognising the potential for innovative reinvention, agencies can help brands avoid launching minor product variations that fall foul of the law of diminishing returns. In a similarly beneficial way, consumers can cut to the chase, choosing the brands that understand exactly what they need, and when.

Category managers must be willing to take risks! By merging functional and emotional insights they can create something that consumers never even imagined could solve their problems, simultaneously boosting sales and making new space for the brand.