To Send It, You Have to Commit to the Category

Dynamic organizations are not afraid to push the story forward, to ask “now what” and go where the answer leads. The key to success is trust in the integrity of the process and invest mentally, physically, and financially in the idea. Here's how.

Mike Geraci
April 20, 2021

For Father’s Day, my sons “treated” me to a day of downhilling at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort bike park. It took a couple of ugly laps before I remembered the secret to a clean, crash-free run: You have to commit. Fight the instinct to keep the wheels on the ground and embrace the air, because any hesitation reduces momentum and will end…ugly. 

Similarly, new category or positioning strategies most often fail because of indecision or lack of commitment. The hesitation is understandable given the time and budget a new strategy requires to gain traction, particularly in an environment focused on short-term demand generation activities, measured by the quarter’s MRR, with leadership constantly eyeing the next board meeting.

As well, few investors countenance brand building. As Ana Andjelic noted, “VCs see the companies they invested in as assets, not brands. Assets are easily commodified; brands are not. Here is the conundrum of startup growth.”

Category creation as a strategy to build a brand and accelerate adoption requires an organization to embrace and communicate a distinct and different point-of-view to the market. Usually/ideally, that point of view is more acute and opinionated than the messages the organization has used in the past. This is both uncomfortable and exciting.

Uncomfortable because the strategy is new, new is different, different is scary, and scary is bad. So, naturally, the organization’s instinct is to slow down and be cautious. It’s exciting because it’s new, new is different, different is interesting, and interesting sells. So, naturally, people are eager to get it in-market. 
Here is the conundrum of Category strategy.

“Difference is deviance. Difference is permutation. Difference is a commitment to the unprecedented, which is another way of saying it is a commitment to letting go.” - Youngme Moon, Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School Author Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

Like an organ transplant, a macro-level strategic shift introduced into an organization requires deft navigation to ensure its embrace and appropriate activation, lest it be rejected by the host body as a toxic interloper. 

Often, a team’s skills, structure, habits, management, and incentive model are so ingrained in industry best practices that change is almost impossible, stasis becomes comfortable, and risk paralysis is the result. 

Success requires an investment of money, time, and staff. Absent that commitment, the strategy will remain an appealing yet unrealized idea.  As a fellow strategist noted, “Today, I spend most of my time wondering, ‘Is this organization able to deliver on this idea?’”

As strategists and leadership, we need to appreciate the strategy is not a Phase 1-and-done, hit-and-run deliverable. Phase 2 requires longer term advocates and guidance. The strategy will evolve based on if/how it is introduced and activated across the organization, as well as the feedback the larger team provides as they integrate it with their responsibilities.

 The elements of Phase 2 activation can be classified as what digital consultant Tom Critchlow calls “Strategy Stewardship”, a clear and consistent presence helping to guide the idea through the organization to realization. What does that look like?

Internal Roll-Out - The new strategy is jet fuel for the business and everyone needs to be on board and strapped in. This is a major milestone and should be treated as such, with naming, activation, and incentives.

Strategy Mentoring - Team members’ reaction to new initiatives from Leadership can be summarized as, “Cool. What do you want me to do?” Teams require explicit accounting of the opportunity and the intent of the strategy, and then should work with strategists to develop plans for how they will apply the new strategy to their departments or jobs. 

Continuing Education - Workshops on specific elements of the new strategy provide guided, hands-on learning so the team can have full ownership of the strategy and supporting tactics. 

External Go to Market Planning and Execution - Category and positioning ownership requires brand-level marketing and advertising. Most existing marketing dollars are invested in more direct marketing tactics. Additional expertise guides staffing, resource allocation, and how and where to invest appropriately.

Category Leadership - Category and positioning strategies are based on insights from both quantitative and qualitative research. Those insights form the basis of a content strategy.

Absent hands-on guidance and stewardship, teams will revert back to doing the same approach everyone else is using, but trying to do it a little bit better. Following, not leading. That’s not a strategy.

Dynamic organizations are not afraid to push the story forward, to ask “now what” and go where the answer leads.  The key to success is trust in the integrity of the process and invest mentally, physically, and financially in the idea. 

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