As I’ve said in past columns, the only way to achieve real growth is to create new categories or subcategories for which competitors are not considered. That means developing offerings that contain innovations that customers must have and that competitors cannot offer. The defining “must haves” could involve characteristics beyond attributes or benefits such as personality, organizational values, social programs or self-expressive benefits.

Winning the brand relevance competition requires finding the right “must have,” bringing it successfully to market and then growing the resulting business. The problem is that success breeds competitors, and the benefits of pioneering a new category or subcategory can be short-lived. A key step is to create barriers such as ongoing innovation, a large group of satisfied or even passionate customers, proprietary technology and preempted distribution. The ultimate barrier is to become the exemplar of the new category or subcategory, the brand that represents it in the minds of the customers. The exemplar brand is, by definition, relevant in that it will always be considered when an option from that category or subcategory is sought.

An exemplar will develop not only a connection to the new category or subcategory, but also credibility and authenticity for the brand. It will often be perceived to be an innovator and the brand that sets the quality standard. Others will usually be perceived to be imitators and inferior. Competitors will be in the awkward position of defining their relevance in a way that only reaffirms the authenticity of the exemplar. 

Having exemplar status also can help the brand define the category or subcategory by providing a defining anchor. Without an exemplar, the very existence of a category and its staying power can become problematic. How can a brand become an exemplar? Here are some guidelines. 

First, and most basic, advance the category or subcategory rather than the brand. Be an advocate. Focus on describing the category or subcategory characteristics, point out its advantages and promote loyalty not to the brand, but to the category or subcategory over others. The underlying idea is that the category or subcategory needs to win. If it does not, the effort will fail. And if it does win, the brand also will win. 

Asahi Super Dry was an advocate of dry beer, and when the subcategory won, Asahi Super Dry won. Betty Crocker showed how to buy gluten-free cake mixes and, being the only relevant brand, became a winner. Among the other brands that have focused on and succeeded inpromoting a category or subcategory and ended up as exemplars are Norton and Salesforce.com in software; Prius and Enterprise Rent-A-Car in automobiles; Swiffer and KitchenAid in appliances; Tide Coldwater and SoBe in packaged goods; the Geek Squad and Whole Foods in retailing; Schwab’s OneSource and iShares in financial services; CNN and ESPN in television channels; and the list could go on. They all made an effort to establish the category or subcategory, and “brand preference” simply was not a priority. 

Second, be a thought leader and innovator. Think about the definition of the category and subcategory, and its underlying motivation and logic. What is the “why?” behind hybrid cars or organic food, or whatever is the defining “must have”? What are the issues? Can the conceptualization of the category or subcategory be productively refined or enlarged? Also, continue to innovate. Don’t stand still. Improvement and change will make the category or subcategory dynamic, the brand more interesting and the role of the exemplar more valued.

Third, be willing to invest in capacity and marketing to be the early market leader in terms of sales and market share. It is hard to be an exemplar and to leverage that role without market share leadership and the large voice that goes with it. Investing in capacity in the face of uncertainty is risky but can be vital to long-term success.

Devoting much or all of the brand building away from the brand toward a category or subcategory can be hard to justify because it only indirectly creates top-line sales and goes against the conventional thinking. Further investment in building categories or subcategories has the potential to create sales for competitors that are able to achieve some level of relevance. However, the upside of winning the brand relevance challenge is so large that a disciplined focus on building a new category or subcategory is the route to strategic success.