MUZEABLE’s ESSENTIAL GUIDE to GROWTH No.375: Understanding the ‘Category Rhetoric’…

Muzeable Thinking No. 7 Posted by Tim Brooks 8th April 2013

Quick summary before you use some of your valuable time reading the article.                                                                                     

All categories have a ‘rhetoric’; an established short hand or set of rules, insight, messages, behaviours, buying processes etc. that manage how it works. This ‘language’ becomes established and then usually, over time, entrenched and then without truly breakthrough innovation it is tough not to end up relying on it [and being me too] and risky to ignore it in search of ‘differentiation’.

Growth is hard and usually requires change. We believe that most people make the mistake of starting their quest for this change by seeking a big idea [usually mythical] to drive it. What we should do is seek to first understand how ‘growth works’ in the category. We call this GROWTH MECHANICS™ – the CATEGORY RHETORIC fits within this.

Understanding the category rhetoric and how entrenched it is will define the nature of your growth and change journey. It’s more than situational analysis/research because it delivers a clear sense of how to grow – i.e. drives tangible actions/imperatives.

Using this approach has forced us to totally reassess the nature of change in categories we’ve worked in for many year and thought we knew. It shows you where you need to re-enforce and where you might be able to re-invent the category [despite alack of big innovation]. It is also a neat way to shape & improve your current innovation approach.

Along the way we talk briefly about Innocent Drinks and Blackberry/the Smartphone market by way of examples.



CATEGORY RHETORIC is how we describe the set of established rules, insights, messages, behaviours, buying processes, needs etc. and, very importantly, ‘language’ of a category. This ‘language’ is the basis of communication and understanding between brands, channels and customers/consumers and it is essential to the working of the category. The mistake most of make is thinking that it is in our market research, some of it is, but it requires a more multi-faceted commercial analysis to make it meaningful.

Over time – in the absence of step change innovation – in most categories this becomes established and then, sadly, entrenched. This is reasonably inevitable for commodity categories as we all have limited capacity for ‘new stuff’ and this process helps them work on autopilot. But even, high engagement categories have a RHETORIC that needs to be understood if you are to change your performance dynamics and win. Understanding this is a key step – and challenge – in building a GROWTH PLAN.

GROWTH is hard. To grow faster than you are at the moment, 99 times out of a 100, something has to change– a new need is discovered/created; a step change or strong innovation launched; some great marketing executed; a competitor’s misfortune exploited, a new channel leveraged etc. Sometimes it’s a ‘mover’ advantage – first & fast, or second & better – sometimes it’s just strong incremental input that gets traction. Whatever, GROWTH is still HARD to come by.

In order to understand how to GROW – especially in the absence of step change innovation – we believe you should always start with an attempt to understand how growth works – the GROWTH MECHANICS™. We don’t believe this is best done via a quantitative only mechanistic BUSINESS ENGINEERING process, but by blending creative & reflective thinking with the hard data to create a fresh, but robust input:

  • We deconstruct and reconstruct how growth currently works in a market or environment.
  • We examine the CATEGORY RHETORIC; how it works and how entrenched it is
  • We then consider how our client’s business works against this blueprint.
  • We then layer over that a sense of the key disruptions and change potentials that might matter in the short and longer term.

We would recommend you did all of these exercises at some point. The result should be a granular map of the key forces and futures that can accelerate our progress or run us aground on the rocks. It still surprises us how the clarity it brings forces strategic decisions. It should create a set of imperatives for GROWTH and provide a brutally realistic assessment of the task. Within this, whatever business you work in [B2B, B2C or B2B2C] we would recommend that you have a deep, considered and documented understanding of the CATEGORY RHETORIC before attempting change. Recently, I was consulting in a category I had worked in for 20 years as client and consultant – the CATEGORY RHETORIC exercise alone COMPLETELY CHANGED my preconceived view about the task and growth challenges. It clarified all the mistakes I’d been making for years and why I’d been naive in my attempts to create a killer idea that would deliver change in one fell swoop. This is a frog kissing exercise that usually ignores the context and reality – the place where the solution is hidden.

It’s not just more situational analysis

Oh it’s just a ‘situation analysis’ I hear you say. We can’t deny that’s kinda true, but everything in this world is about inputs and outputs. This is more of a ‘why’ and ‘how’ input than a ‘what’ and ‘where’ exercise. Not just USEFUL, but USEABLE and [hopefully] USED.

If you work in a mature category the likelihood is there is an ENTRENCHED RHETORIC. The products, claims and messages in the category are commoditised, there is parity of insight, the consumer/customer substitutes with ease, own label probably does well or is growing, and a set of well-resourced brands and businesses slug it out toe to toe with little step change emerging etc.

Too often it is imagined [particularly by comms agencies] that you can create a huge disruptive big communications idea or brand personality and everything changes. We wouldn’t say ‘never,’ but if you understand the CATEGORY RHETORIC first, we would argue that most of these attempts would be either stopped before they started or be of radically different construction. It is a strange arrogance [insecurity?] of us marketers that we always believe in the hegemony of our own ideas. Building a sparky personality or disruptive comms idea can work, but only if it plays with and appropriately against the rhetoric in a really precise way. This is rare.

Remember, the rhetoric is in part ‘entrenched’ because consumers are content with it that way. It works, they understand it, they draw comfort from the clichés and they are cynical about your ability to change things! Categories like painkillers [most OTC medicines actually], detergents, basic foods, beer – half the supermarket – are there or drifting that way. Watch the ads and they all use the same constructs and clichés, with a different logo appearing at the end [often unremembered!].

Can you ‘change’ the rhetoric?

So, a key task is to assess how you might and if it is possible to change the rhetoric. As said, in the absence of big innovation you need to find an insight of behavioural disruption and this usually has to be a medium term strategy i.e. no quick fixes. This is partly because we are genetically predisposed to avoid change! We would argue that the few comms led disruptions that have worked were actually changing the rhetoric – even if they didn’t know it! Further, if changing the rhetoric is really hard you should consider another route to growth than relying on the agency to ‘communicate’ your way to growth.

Innocent Drinks won in a category with some established rhetoric by changing it over time. They de-commoditised/established some core messaging on CSR/naturalness/quality/taste etc. [these are now established parts of the evolved rhetoric], they innovated, but it was their challenger[1] mind-set and the engaging, disruptive personality they created that found a space in the vacuum. We would argue that consciously or unconsciously their approach to the CATEORY RHETORIC was a key factor in making the brand/comms approach work.  It’s an overused example, because good examples are rare.

Blackberry Z10, smartphones and category rhetoric…

Where categories are emerging the rhetoric is probably more like setting jelly than an established structure. Here there might be opportunities to change and segment it further to create opportunities. But even then, never underestimate the way the GROWTH MECHANICS and RHETORIC might be working to keep things the same.

We saw a little piece on Blackberry Z10 recently.

Whether the Z10 is the answer to Blackberry’s malaise, who knows? The launch gets some good press [1m sold] and, as in this article, lots more cynical/negative coverage. Our view is that it is hard to see this innovation enabling Blackberry to win in any meaningful sense. Why? It’s not challenging the established CATEGORY RHETORIC.

The IPhone changed the mobile phone category and wrote a new smartphone CATEGORY RHETORIC [inc. new channel and business model rules]. The Android/Samsung competition has aligned with this, added little bits of value, but primarily ‘joined the party’ – re-enforcing the RHETORIC. Whilst it is not impossible for Windows/Nokia or Blackberry to do ‘ok’, it’s hard to see step change and victory. The rhetoric and business models are not yet entrenched, but they are established. The Z10 is a good product, but it works entirely within the category rhetoric – it changes nothing really. If the competition was standing still and not attached to strong established brands, maybe a ‘good’ product might make a difference and re-enforce the rhetoric to their advantage, but they are not. The short term sales boost is better than before, but it is based on another piece of the rhetoric/MECHANICS… magpie like attraction of some consumers to new things and some early adopters wanting to be ‘different’… so if Z10 suddenly becomes the fashion accessory of the decade it might work, if not…

In this situation we have a head to head between 2 powerhouses who built and ‘own’ the rhetoric. We have 2 other players trying to get to the table and whilst both have new things to talk about; currently none of them seem to have the potential to change the CATEGORY RHETORIC. It’s a hi-tech, fast moving category, so clearly something new could arrive to entirely REPLACE the current rhetoric, but as time moves on and we build our lives around the tech, this becomes harder to do. So, until someone rewrites the CATEGORY RHETORIC and unless the current rhetoric owners/leaders really fail to deliver even incremental progress, then, what we’re seeing isn’t enough to win. What’s sad is the lack of evidence that either challengers tried this. They are trying to win by doing good ‘innovation’ and great product launches. Good luck.

A new input to innovation?

Finally, when you innovate, don’t just think about the ideas and concepts – think about consciously innovating [or re-enforcing] within the rhetoric to position your NPD. This is potentially a powerful new approach to innovation, or a key step to ensuring your existing innovations work better. It enables consumers to know what to do with your new idea and where to position it – incremental or step change etc. and it enables you to maximise differentiation for even the smallest ideas.

Muzeable and our thinking is founded on the belief that GROWTH is more often delivered via an approach that provides deeper reflection versus one that searches for [usually] mythical, home run, big ideas snatched almost out of thin air. So as you set out to change your current situation and GROW faster and more sustainably think about the CATEGORY RHETORIC you are trying to shift, re-enforce or re-invent. Think about how you build a picture of that RHETORIC and the GROWTH MECHANICS™ in a different and more actionable way… then, and only then – when you have worked  out HOW TO GROW – should you think about strategy and executional ideas.

[1]Acknowledgement to the work of Adam Morgan of Eat Big Fish fame. If you haven’t read the book ‘Eating the Big Fish’… do so.

CATEGORY RHETORIC© and GROWTH MECHANICS© are the IP of Muzeable. Please acknowledge us if you use them.

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