Issue4 cover image

Every year startups waste billions of dollars executing strategies that are doomed to fail. So how do you know if you’re wasting money or investing in growth? By following the lead of my beloved 2004 Detroit Pistons.

That was the year the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers were absolutely steamrolled in the Finals by the workaday Pistons.

If you’d told basketball fans at the start of the season this future fact, they would have laughed in your face. That was the year the Lakers brought first-ballot Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton in to play alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. At the time, commentators called it perhaps the greatest superteam ever assembled.

My Pistons, on the other hand, had one all-star, Ben Wallace, a defensive stopper who averaged 9.7 points per game. The rest of their lineup—Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace—were talented players who never approached superstardom.

So how did the Pistons come to dominate the Lakers in the Finals? By following a simple motto given to them by Coach Larry Brown: “Do things the right way.” Meaning, they set their goals, knew their opponents, followed the strategy, played as a team, and executed on offense and defense with near-perfect technique. They took no shortcuts and they didn’t care who got the credit. Winning a title was all that mattered.

Now back to you. Here’s how category creators do things the right way:

• Set goals
• Know the customer
• Define the category
• Tell the world

Of course, this is incredibly easy to write in a newsletter but very hard to actually do. It takes organized thinking, long-term planning, and discipline in this, The Age of Slack. And with all the doubters of category creation out there, you may also be facing headwinds inside your organization that make it challenging to agree on and commit to a single strategy over the long term.

Fortunately for category designers, there’s an important difference between professional basketball and category design. Category design contains a kind of cheat code. A powerful, single point of leverage.

We call it a strategic narrative. Also known as a Category POV, it is a single story, about a thousand words in length. It sits at the center of your strategy. If you can get it right, if you get the right words in the right order, it unlocks everything. A great strategic narrative opens up closed minds, helps align executives around the work of category creation, and speeds time to market.

Your strategic narrative is often the result of months of work. But it’s also powerful to write a draft of one at any point in the process. If for no other reason than to get ideas out of your head and onto the page.

So what is it? A strategic narrative is like a brand manifesto with more substance. It’s an argument for why the world needs the category you’re creating.

I can’t give you the recipe for how to get there—it’s a creative undertaking, as much art as it is science—but I can tell you the laws you must follow to give yourself the best shot at success.

I call them the Five Immutable Laws of Strategic Narrative:

The Law of Story
Story is how the mind makes sense of the stuff that matters. Do you want your category to matter? You must put it in the form of a story. There are a few age-old principles you can follow to find your way to a great story:

A great story has a single theme. The theme of your category story is this: Your customers face a problem. Only the category you’ve created kills the problem. If there are words in your Category POV that don’t directly serve the theme, cut them.

A great story has reversals. It goes from “life is good,” to “oh shit.” And so on. Minds can’t help but pay attention to reversals. It makes us want to know what happens next.

A great story is clear and economical. Cut what you don’t need. And leave out the marketing lingo that only people drawing a salary from you understand.

A great story makes the audience feel something. Read your Category POV to a coworker. See if their eyes light up. Or maybe they say “wow” or “I love it.” If that doesn’t happen, it’s time for a rewrite.

To learn more about story dynamics, I highly recommend the book Story, by Robert McKee.

Those that fail to respect the Law of Story, fail.

2. The Law of the New Way
You must articulate the ethos behind the category.

New categories aren’t just functional. For better and worse, they represent a desire on the part of creators to change the world. Consciously or not, everyone knows this, creators and customers alike. We call the ethos behind the category the New Way.

In 2009, Uber launched ride-sharing. Riders pressed a button and a car showed up. What made the category so successful wasn’t the technology, but the ethos behind it. Uber didn’t just make it possible to call a car, they added star ratings and kicked untrustworthy people off the system. Ride-sharing was the category, but trust was the New Way that drove its success. Yes, trust was new. For anyone attempting to call a taxi in 2009, trust was a revolution.

In 2016, a series of New York Times articles exposed bad behavior at Uber. The world started to form a new idea of Uber’s underlying ethos. It was said Uber tried to win no matter what the cost—a decidedly uncool Old Way. The company lost 10% of its market share to Lyft in the following year. Uber’s technology and product were still far superior. What had changed was customers’ perception of the ethos behind the product.

Uber wisely went back to its roots. They brought in CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who reviewed and updated every business practice through the lens of trust. The following year their market share stabilized. They still lead the category today.

The customer yearns to know the ethos behind the category because it’s an essential ingredient to story structure—and story is how our brains are built to process information. So tell them. If you don’t, customers will make something up—usually something along the lines of, “this company cares about money, but not much else.”

3. The Law of Jobs
When you ask for feedback on your strategic narrative the reader will immediately imagine how the words play out in the real world. Their mind races to imagine a specific context—for example, website copy, a press release, or a homepage video. It’s human nature.

You can’t let this happen. When the reader determines this context, bad feedback happens. Bad feedback is the road to bad categories. If your reader considers the POV with website copy in mind, for example, they’ll tell you to dial back the drama and talk about features more. If they’re imagining an elevator pitch, they’ll want it shorter.

But a category POV must be a kind of perfect seed for all communications to come. It must be whole. It must include the customer, a new way that those customers succeed in today’s world, the problem your company uniquely solves, your vision for the future, the category name and idea, and how it works. And because future communications derived from this document will sometimes be dramatic (like a TV spot), and sometimes informative (like website copy), your strategic narrative must be both dramatic and informative.

It’s a lot to pack into a thousand words. There’s only one real-world context that fits this description. The visionary CEO presentation. Go back and watch Steve Jobs's iPad category launch. It has all the ingredients mentioned above. No website copy, sales deck, or press release can do all that.

So when sharing a POV for feedback you’ll say something like, “Keep in mind that this is an internal document, but if you had to imagine these words being used somewhere, imagine them as a visionary CEO presentation—on the day we launch the new category.”

Imagine your POV as the script for your CEO’s Steve Jobs moment and you’re on the path.

The Law of Proof
We’re on guard for BS everywhere because BS is everywhere. So no proof, no category. It’s the difference between McDonald's and McDonald's 99 Billion Served. Your strategic narrative must clearly state the product features and quantifiable outcomes that act as proof of your claims. So do your research.

The Law of the CEO
A company is a network of human minds. The behavior of that company is determined by how its minds work and interrelate. This is, of course, not a network of equals. The CEO’s beliefs and psychology have an outsized effect on the network. That makes their mind the greatest point of leverage in any category creation project.

You must either be the CEO or align yourself closely with the CEO to maximize your impact as a category creator. If the CEO is not passionate about category creation, there is no point in convincing them. Better to go down the street to the company whose leader dreams of making a dent in the world.

Ignore the Law of the CEO and you are sure to waste a lot of time.

Keep in mind that these laws run counter to the prevailing wisdom inside companies. Be careful who you share them with. Most companies do not commit to a single strategy. Instead, they have a menagerie of strategic thoughts and documents. Most companies seek to be better in an existing category, not create their own. Most companies make bold claims with little proof, or sell on features but never tell the customer what it all means.

And like the laws of physics, it’s impossible to learn and apply these laws all at once. It takes time and hard work. Take the Law of Story and the Law of Proof. It’s no small feat to follow both in the same Category POV. Nor should it be.

But doing the work has a way of winning out in the end. Ben Wallace fought his way into the NBA after going undrafted in 1996. After years of dedicated work, he became the hero of the 2004 Finals’ most famous moment, a not-in-my-house block against the (almost) unstoppable Shaquille O’Neal.

That’s the power of doing things the right way.

Cf 8 hero 1 Previous

A No-BS Approach to Category Design

Bloghero Next

The Fundamentals of Category Design