Brand Relevance vs. Category Innovation

The only way to grow is to create new subcategories, which allow you to become the dominant player.

I am off to Japan to introduce the Japanese translation of my book Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant. The Japanese version has a different title — Category Innovation. It’s actually a far better title because it highlights the message of the book.

The only way to grow, with rare exceptions, is to engage in category innovation, to create a new category (or subcategory) and then manage the perceptions toward, the purchases of and loyalty toward that category. To that end, the brand should become the exemplar or representative of the category, but the focus should be on the category not on the brand. It should be “my category is better than your category” rather than “my brand is better than your brand.”

“The brand should become the exemplar or representative of the category.”

Winning is when the category is defined by “must-haves” that the competitor lacks. As a result, competitors will not have the visibility and credibility to even be considered and will thus be irrelevant or weak at best. The goal is no longer to increase market share but rather to create a context in which the brand is dominant and there is no need for brand preference competition.


Category innovation will only be worthwhile if barriers can be created to keep competitors at bay or discourage them from entering at all. These barriers can include brand, scale, loyal customer base, technology, ongoing innovation or superior operations and execution. But they need to be resourced and managed over time.

Category innovation has such an upside. The Chrysler minivan had 16 years with no viable competition and sold over 12 million units. Enterprise Rent-A-Car went 35 years with little competition. Prius dominated its new category for over 10 years. Virtually every category has a similar story.