3 Ways to Re-frame Your Category

A strong frame will dominate perceptions and information flow, changing the way consumers make decisions.

There is way too much emphasis on “my brand is better than your brand” competition.

The real payoff comes as a result of shifting positioning the brand to frame the subcategory (or category) and thereby changing the way people perceive, discuss and feel. It changes which brands are relevant.

Your goal should be to define what people are buying in such a way that competitor brands are at a disadvantage or are not even considered at all. This route to winning is often the only path to real growth and is a way toward a marketplace niche that will result in enduring leadership, energy and success. Winning by framing the subcategory can take several forms:

Elevate Your Offering By Defining What the Customer is Buying.

Ideally, it will become a “must-have,” which means that if a brand is deficient in that characteristic it will be less relevant and unlikely to be considered. It may even become completely irrelevant. Consider: -Whole Foods Markets making “organic” a primary choice factor for food. -Dove creating a case for moisturizing as a must-have shampoo characteristic -Patagonia arguing that clothing brands should have sustainable programs and values -ASUS creating a subcategory that makes motherboards for the big name computer brands. When a subcategory can be defined using multiple dimensions it becomes exclusionary. Fewer brands will be able to qualify. For example, Prius defined a subcategory that included car styling, the self-expressive benefit of appearing as a sustainable person, low operating costs and Toyota quality. This set of “must-haves” in combination allowed the Prius brand to define and dominate a subcategory for well over a decade.

Reframe Competing Subcategories.

The publicity around the recent Tesla fires potentially brought the important issue of safety to the forefront of consumers’ minds. Tesla needs to reframe the discussion away from the safety of Tesla alone and shift the conversation to a comparison between the safety of gasoline-powered cars and the subcategory of high-powered electric cars for which Tesla is the exemplar brand — and, in fact, the only brand. Fire incidents are over four times as great in gasoline-powered cars. And for some, a more visible fire risk might create a reason for a car buyer to say yes to the electric-powered subcategory.

Expand the Perceived Category Decision.

UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business reframed the MBA category by launching an “Evening & Weekend MBA Program.” DiGiorno introduced their signature “rising crust” pizza, the first frozen pizza without a precooked crust, and reframed the frozen pizza subcategory and even the delivery pizza category. “It’s not delivery, it’s DiGiorno.” In the reframed subcategory, DiGiorno, instead of being a premium-priced frozen pizza, now has a decided price advantage by being half the price of a delivered pizza. And its quality is perceived as comparable to boot.

“Your goal should be to define what people are buying in such a way that competitor brands are at a disadvantage or are not even considered at all.”

This notion that the real branding challenge is to create and win subcategory competition instead of brand competition by framing a subcategory is a big one. Framing is powerful because a strong frame will dominate perceptions and information flow. UC-Berkeley Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff, who wrote the delightful book Don’t Think of an Elephant said, “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. If a strongly held frame doesn’t fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept.”

In order to successfully frame or reframe a subcategory and actively manage its perceptions over time, it is necessary to become the subcategory exemplar, the brand that represents the subcategory. Brands such as Prius, Jell-O, Gatorade, V8, Google, Apple, Whole Foods Market, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Geek Squad are examples. A brand with a strong exemplar position can actually become the label for the subcategory and will thus be its most visible and credible brand. Any competitors are in the awkward position of defining their relevance in a way that only reaffirms the authenticity and leadership of the exemplar.


Framing matters because it influences thinking, perceptions, attitudes and behavior. The same information will be processed or not processed, distorted or not distorted, affect attitudes and behavior or not affect attitudes and behavior, depending on the frame.

It matters whether you are buying an energy bar for athletes, an energy bar for office workers, an energy bar for women, an energy bar for men, a nutrition bar, a breakfast bar, a protein bar or a diet bar. In each case, the choice criteria and the perceptions of brands will be different.